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|Old Master Extravaganza
by Paul Jeromack
|For the Old Master market, the summer sales in London began at Phillips on July 4 with the sale of Jean-François de Troy's Retour du Bal (est. £400,000-£600,000), a luxurious Rococo picture of partygoers in a candle-lit interior. As reported earlier by this writer [see Return from the Ball], the Getty Museum was panting to acquire this canvas and reunite it with its pendant (bought from Wildenstein's for a not inconsiderable $750,000 in 1984).
By the time of the auction, everybody knew that New York dealer Guy Sainty was the Getty's agent -- Sainty having called Getty paintings curator Scott Schaefer immediately after Phillips announced the sale -- and nearly everybody believed it would cost the Getty about £3 million-£3.5 million.
The room was stunned as Sainty meekly dropped out at just £2 million and the triumvirate of Konrad Bernheimer, Otto Naumann and Johnny van Haeften outbid the not-so-mighty Getty for £2,421,500. The chorus of dealers greeted the Getty's parsimony with universal derision. "Why didn't they just buy it and be done with it? What the hell is all that money for, anyway?" Everyone would find out within a few days.
The rest of the Phillips sale was far less exciting. A pair of lovely Boucher ovals of Venus disarming Cupid and Cupid caressing Venus -- commissioned by Louis XV for the Chateau de Choisy -- were hampered both by their slightly over-cleaned state and the fact that they were being sold together, which strictly limited the clients who might have wanted one or another but not both (most people preferred another Boucher, the elegant Diana, in any case). Estimated at £600,000-£800,000, the pair just sold at £661,500.
Less fortunate was the big Osias Beert A Still Life of Flowers, which failed to sell, burdened with an unrealistically high estimate of £1 million-£5 million.
But Dutch pictures -- within reason -- remain strong sellers. The previously unknown Still Life by Balthasar van der Ast (est. £200,000-£300,000) brought £342,500 and the pleasant but unspectacular winter landscape by Adam van Breen (est. £60,000-£80,000) skyrocketed to a record £265,000.
By contrast, some good Italian pictures seemed cheap -- the six gold-ground pilaster panels of saints by the Sienese Andrea di Bartolo (est. £80,000-£120,000) -- donated to a Scottish church in the late 19th century and unknown to scholars -- were a nice buy for the Italian trade at £122,500 -- just over £20,000 each -- as did an excellent oil sketch on paper laid down on canvas (called Circle of the Brothers Le Nain, est. £6,000-£8,000) close to Giovanni Serodine, which sold for a not-bad £18,000.
On July 6, it was Sotheby's turn. For months, the auction house had been beating the drums for its two biggest discoveries -- the small Cimabue Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels --"The most important early Italian painting to come up for auction in a generation," blared the press release -- and the Orazio Gentileschi The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist (est. £1.5 million-£2 million), both discovered by Sotheby's experts during estate evaluations.
For the Cimabue especially, Sotheby's did its consignor proud -- sending the work around the world on tour (potential buyers in New York had to make do with a laminated reproduction to whet their appetites), producing a CD-ROM of it and fielding offers from Neil MacGregor of London's National Gallery, who was desperate to add the rare panel to his museum's encyclopedic collection.
Every few weeks before the auction, I'd hear reports that the National Gallery was offering £5 million, then £8 million -- that Sotheby's had raised the estimate from £1 million to £10 million -- and that MacGregor had called curators at the Kimbell, the Met and Getty telling them not to bid on it. Only one thing was certain. No matter if it came to auction or not, no matter what it sold for, MacGregor would see to it that the picture would never leave England.
A few days before the sale, the inevitable happened -- a private £5 million deal was reached with the National Gallery, and auction attendees everywhere were denied the chance to see if the much-touted panel would sell for the heights so extravagantly predicted. "We gave it to them too cheaply," groused one Sotheby's executive. This did remove much of the excitement from Sotheby's sale, and while a number of pictures sold for spectacular sums, there was little energy in the room.
It didn't help that the sale began with a group of unusually dull, early 16th-century German and Netherlandish portraits, of which only one sold well, the cheerful, pudgy-faced Portrait of a Young Lady by Lucas Cranach the Elder. When deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum -- it had so many Cranachs already, the curators felt this was expendable -- in 1988, the work made $748,000, up again in 1992 it made £460,000 ($805,460), and it now made £1,268,500 ($1,912,120), paid by Richard Green.
Interest perked up with the Gentileschi, which sold to a European Private collector for £2,423,500 ($3,653,150), underbid by dealers Richard Knight and Nicholas Hall, though a large and grimy Tobias and the Angel by the 17th-century Florentine Cesare Dandini (est. £80,000-£120,000) attracted considerably more frenzied bidding, selling to an anonymous buyer (underbid by Luca Baroni of Colnaghi) for £450,000 ($678,330).
Though a number of highly estimated Northern pictures failed to sell -- notably a Salomon van Ruysdael seascape at £1.3 million and a wispy and brown Rubens of The Five Wise Virgins -- two highly finished paintings on copper greatly exceeded expectations. An atypically exciting Jan Breughel the Elder of a boat tossed about in a sapphire-hued stormy sea (est. £200,000-£300,000) sold to Johnny van Haeften for £685,500 ($1,033,310). Van Haeften also paid a record amount, £1,928,500 ($2,906,990; underbid by Otto Naumann) for a previously unknown Still Life of a Bouquet of Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder in near-perfect condition (est. £400,000-£600,000).
But the really unexpected picture -- both in price and buyer -- was the El Greco Christ on a Cross. Consigned from a Spanish collection where it was previously believed to be merely a workshop canvas, cleaning revealed more of the master's hand than originally supposed. And though I believe there was still a fair amount of workshop participation in it, the head of Christ was very beautiful and certainly autograph. Sotheby's catalogued it as wholly autograph, and the best of numerous versions of this composition cranked out by El Greco and his workshop.
Estimated at a reasonable £600,000-£800,000, the price quickly soared, and the painting was finally knocked down at £3,853,500 ($5,808,710) -- a new auction record -- to the Getty. Observers were divided. Some thought the picture compared favorably with the artist's masterpieces in the Prado, while others believed that far finer works by El Greco were still to be had and the Getty would have been wiser to wait. As one dealer told me "The Getty overpaid for the wrong picture this week!"
A report on the Old Maste sales at Christie's London on July 7 will be posted soon.
PAUL JEROMACK writes on art from New York.