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|Christie's Old Masters
by Paul Jeromack
|Christie's sale on July 7 finished Old Master week in London. While the auction boasted no major discoveries, it was filled with rather more interesting pictures with (relatively) modest estimates, and most prices were buoyant -- though it did have a sobering reminder or two: Johann Kemmer's Christ and the Adultress, which brought $242,000 at Sotheby's Chrysler sale in 1989, now made just £80,000 ($120,320), and the beautiful The Supper at Emmaus by Charles de la Fosse, over-estimated at £300,000-£500,000 and bought in at £260,000 (though sold later to dealers Didier-Aaron).
More typical were such successes as the huge Italianate Evening Landscape with Goatherds by Jan Both (est. £300,000-£500,000) Both, like Karel du Jardin and Adam Pynacker was a 17th-century Dutch landscape painter who sought inspiration in the "picturesque" sunny south (very much like his French contemporary Claude Lorrain). Their works were avidly collected by 18th-century European nobility, but later generations dismissed them as being insufficiently "Dutch" (i.e., they didn't paint frozen canals, windmills and wheat fields), with the result that very few of their works are in American collections.
So it was a great opportunity for an American museum to fill a gap. At times like this, most American curators sit on their hands, but Arthur Wheelock, curator of Dutch paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., grabbed the chance, winning the Both for his museum (via dealer Roman Herzig) for a record £1,433,750 ($2,156,360) against Richard Green.
Other, more typical, Dutch and Flemish pictures included Emanuel De Witte's Church Interior (est. £60,000-£80,000), which brought £5,500 in 1978 and now made £210,000 ($315,840) to Johnny van Haeften. A previously unknown, large St. Sebastian by Van Dyck was easy to overlook, poorly displayed by Christie's high on a wall. It provided a wonderful opportunity to dealer Nicholas Hall and Richard Knight, who paid just £333,750 ($505,146) for it (est. £300,000-£500,000) -- one of the day's smarter buys.
More commercial was Bob Haboldt's Head Studies of Two African Men (est. £25,000-£35,000) by Jacob Jordaens, for which he paid £190,000 ($285,760). Said a dejected Danny Katz (one of the underbidders), "That's not that much for it! That's the sort of thing that will fly out of his stand in the first ten minutes when he does Maastricht next year!"
Prices for Italian pictures were equally strong. Eighteenth-century vedute retained its strong popularity, as evidenced by the £1,323,750 ($1,990,920) paid by a phone bidder for The Castelvecchio and the Ponte Scaligero, Verona by Bernardo Bellotto (est. £500,000-£700,000). This price was especially notable, as the work was no sun-dappled decorative canvas of obvious charm but rather a large, dramatic (if not forbidding) vista of a medieval bridge above brackish waters by the most interesting of all the Venetian "view painters."
Another 18th-century surprise was the record £333,750 ($501,960) paid by London furniture dealers Partridge for Giuseppe Maria Crespi's tender The Madonna and Child (est. £40,000-£60,000). Good works by this artist are seldom encountered on the market -- most of the ones that do turn up are generally pretty scrappy and worn.
The sale concluded with one of the most beautiful pictures offered that week -- A Pagan Sacrifice by the 17th-century Genoese master Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Like his contemporary Salvador Rosa, Castiglione delighted in "picturesque" fantasy subjects as this, with dark-skinned pagan priests offering a statue of Jupiter enough incense and dead game to give a vegetarian nightmares. He can be a rather sloppy, sloshy painter, but in this case he produced an atypically intimate "cabinet" picture finished with special care, which thankfully survived in splendid condition.
Many people squeaked at the £200,000-£300,000 estimate (unusually high for this artist) but inevitably, the painting skyrocketed to £971,750 ($1,990,920), paid by the London trade (rumored to be Colnaghi). "Sure, it seems like a lot of money," said an American curator to me a few days later, "But when you look over the week's results, it doesn't seem like such a high price after all. It's almost cheap."
PAUL JEROMACK writes on art from New York.