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|Old Masters in New York
by Paul Jeromack
|The dismal results of the spring Old Master sales in New York gave the impression that everyone was saving up for the higher-quality London sales in July. Only a handful of pictures in both mixed-owner sales at Sotheby's and Christie's sold well, though everyone agreed that most of the works on offer were tedious beyond belief.
The week began promisingly with the dispersal of the Karl Lagerfeld collection of primarily 18th-century French pictures at Christie's on May 26. Like the furniture and decorative arts sold (with uneven results) in Monaco a few weeks before, the pictures were mainly decorative canvases bought to look impressive when expensively framed and hung high on the wall of a plush salon, but when examined up close were of relatively modest artistic quality.
I thought it was odd for Christie's to sell the Lagerfeld pictures in New York, as the American taste for what a curator friend refers to as "Louie-Shmooie" style has been on the decline here for the past 50 years. In the end, while the sale was quite unexpectedly successful, most of the buyers were private French collectors.
What was most impressive about the Lagerfeld sale was how well pictures of "difficult" subject matter (religious or historical subjects and male portraits) performed. Though the French government pre-empted two large canvases of scenes from the life of Christ by Phillipe de Champaigne, the French bureaucrats left the artists' St. Jerome in the Wilderness (est. $120,000-$140,000). This cost Lagerfeld $137,323 at Christie's London in 1992, and now made $160,000, while an atypical and rather dry An Apostle by Nicholas de Largillière (est. $20,000-$30,000) brought $50,000.
Charles Coypel's Andromache and Pyrrhus (est. $140,000-$160,000), a typically histrionic machine (more Charles Ludlum than Racine), also sold well to a phone bidder at $160,000, while two nifty overdoors by Hughes Taraval depicting The Feast of Tantalus and The Wedding Banquet of Perseus and Andromeda (est. $130,000-$160,000) were, despite some condition problems, nice buys for Paris dealer Emanuel Moatti at $80,000.
Moatti underbid one of the Lagerfeld Fragonards, The Visitation (est. $150,000-$250,000), which sold to a phone bidder for $260,000 (The couturier had spent $168,612 for it at Sotheby's Monaco in 1992). The other Fragonard, the 'Chrysler' Rest on the Flight into Egypt (formerly in the collection of museum-founder Walter P. Chrysler), continued its downward spiral from $320,000 in 1989 to $299,876 in London in 1982 (where Lagerfeld acquired it) to being bought in here at $190,000. Though slightly dull, it isn't a bad picture, but its awkward size (a huge horizontal oval) instantly put off people whose initial consideration on buying a picture usually is "But where would we hang it?"
Examples of more mainstream taste were the splashy Clearing of the Colonnade du Louvre by Pierre-Antoine DeMachy (est. $130,000-$160,000) sold to a phone bidder for $380,000, a rare subject-picture by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun of La Vertu Irrésolue (though everyone referred to it as a Girl with a Hangover), which made $180,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000), a flabby Boucher of An Allegory of Marriage (est. $250,000-$350,000) sold for $250,000 and an unusually strong and dashing canvas by Jean-Francois de Troy of Pan and Syrinx (est. $200,000-$250,000), which sold to London dealer Johnny van Haeften for a cheap $160,000.
Sotheby's mixed-owner sale on May 25 was much less successful over all, with over-estimated works of medium quality or mediocre condition failing to find buyers. Among the many disappointments were the Bartholomeus Spranger of The Dead Christ Supported by Angels (est. $100,000-$150,000), a newly discovered work, felled at $80,000 thanks to its severely worn condition and the Seated St. John the Baptist attributed to Tanzio da Varallo (est.$100,000-$150,000) unsold at $85,000 -- many people thought the Baptist looked too sane for it to be a real Tanzio.
Biggest disappointment was the overpainted Crucifixion "attributed to" Peter Paul Rubens (est. $180,000-$220,000) which, despite much hopeful prodding by Sotheby's experts ("There are parts with wonderful quality!"), no one was willing to take a chance on (fearing that after cleaning one might be left with an excellent but unsaleable Abraham van Diepebeeck) and it failed without a bid at $150,000.
Among the successes were the newly discovered Fragonard, Young Woman and Herdsmen (est.$120,000-$160,000). Not a typical rococo pastel confection, this was an exercise in the golden Italianate manner of the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Both, and was not what most people want in a Fragonard, but it soared to $620,000, paid by dealers Konrad Bernheimer and Johnny van Haeften and underbid by an anonymous phone bidder.
Equally atypical was a very late Emmanuel Greuze portrait of a Little Girl, not the artist's usual pre-orgasmic Mena Suarvi type, but a rather sullen child with wide brown eyes and a ribbon in her chestnut hair. Estimated at $50,000-$70,000, it sold to a phone bidder for $160,000.
Of the Dutch pictures, The Child's Lesson, a rather rough and unlovely early cabinet painting by Frans van Mieris the Elder (est. $300,000-$400,000) sold to Johnny van Haeften (against Adam Williams) for $575,000, who also won the very dry large copper panel of bugs, butterflies and amphibians on a white ground by Jan Van Kessel (against one phone bidder) for $1.5 million (est. $1.5 million-$2 million).
Most attractive were a number of oil sketches: A fine Sebastian Conca of St. Andrew (est. $10,000-$15,000) had been bought by the consignor for $4,750 at Sotheby's in 1987. This time on the block it made $19,000. Though 19th-century landscape oil sketches are by now an expensive cliché, The Study of a Tree Trunk by the Swiss Alexandre Calame (est. $20,000-$30,000) was an unusually strong and well-painted example, and sold to a phone bidder for $84,125, an auction record for the artist.
The Cooper Hewitt Museum hit paydirt by deacessioning a small 18th-century sketch of Putti frolicking among garden ornaments "attributed to" Johann Paul Schor (est. $8,000-$12,000). Identified by several bidders as a Mauro Gandolfi, it sold to one of them (bidding by phone) for $120,000 -- a high price many believed it would not have made had it been correctly identified!
Christie's finished the week the following day, May 26. Although a thinner sale than Sotheby's, the house did rather well -- in some cases, better than it should have. A few dealers picked up some nice bargains -- the loosely painted and very yellowed Village Kermesse, a very late work by David Teniers the Younger, was bought by Swiss dealer David Koetser (who seemed very surprised at that) for its low estimate of $150,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000), and Simon Dickinson & Co, paid $120,000 for a beautiful Joseph Wright of Derby of a Bearded Philosopher in Contemplation (est. $60,000-$80,000).
But the lure of a big name and nothing else must be blamed for the absurd $550,000 paid by a phone bidder for the severely scrubbed Raphael St. Mary of Egypt (est. $400,000-$600,000). Similarly, the worn Chardin of Leeks and a Casserole on a Ledge (est. $300,000-$500,000) is a picture that (with its pendant, Still-life with Beets, Pot, Dishcloth and Meat) had been knocking around the market for nearly a decade, last appearing at Christie's in 1997, when the pair was broken up, the Still-life with Beets selling for $600,000, while Leeks and Casserole remained unsold at $480,000. The patient owner waited three years till interest in the artist was rekindled by the upcoming Chardin retrospective at the Met, and lucked out with the less good of his pair finally selling to a phone bidder for $800,000.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.