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Johannes Vermeer
Young Woman at the Virginals
Sothebys London
July 7, 2004

Jan Lievens
Head of an Old Man

Peter de Hooch
Card Players

Peter Paul Rubens
A Night Scene with an Old Lady Holding a Candle and a Young Boy Taking Light from It

Lucas Cranach
Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns
ca. 1509

Francesco dAntonio
Madonna and Child with Music-Making Angels

Art Market Watch
by Paul Jeromack

"If this picture brought $30 million, can you imagine what a good Vermeer might bring?" Such was the reaction to the sale of Young Woman at the Virginals, the "new" painting by Jan Vermeer, sold by Sotheby's London on July 7, 2004, for 16,245,600 ($30,006,650), with the auction-house premium.

The first painting by the artist to appear at auction since 1921 (when the incomparable Little Street was bought in -- !!! -- at the Six sale in Amsterdam, only to be presented a few years later to the Rijksmuseum), Young Woman at the Virginals had been considered an authentic (if not universally admired) work by the artist since it was first cited in the collection of Sir Otto Beit in Ireland in 1906. Its authenticity was questioned in the late 1940s wake of the sensational Van Meegeren forgeries scandal and it lay in the limbo of doubtfully "attributed" works, possibly thought to be the product of an 18th-century imitator of Vermeer.

Bought in 1960 by the Belgian Baron Frédérick Rolin, Young Woman at the Virginals was casually offered around as a Vermeer to potential buyers, including Armand Hammer, in the late 1970s. Hammers advisor reportedly dissuaded him from making the purchase, arguing "Do you want to be known as the collector with the worst Vermeer in the world?" The fact that the picture suffered the effects of repainting and dirty varnish made it even more off-putting.

Rolin was determined to prove that his picture was a Vermeer, and contacted Sotheby's to assist in its rehabilitation. After ten years of observation, research and several careful cleanings (and its inclusion as an addenda to the Vermeer and the Delft School exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Gallery, London, in 2001), the paintings authenticity was re-established as a very late work by the artist, possibly finished by a later hand. Though it possesses Vermeer's unmistakable touch in its rendering of fabrics and a cold, lunar light, it must be stated that the womans face utterly lacks the haunting beauty one sees in the artists greatest genre pictures.

Sotheby's gingerly kept the estimate at a low 3 million, and it was knocked down to a phone bidder (inevitably identified as Las Vegas casino king Steve Wynn, though the usual confirmation of a Wynn purchase has not been forthcoming) against Dutch dealer Robert Noortman. Alas, Rolin was not around to enjoy the triumph (and profits) of his picture -- he died in 2002, and the painting was sold by his estate.

The Vermeer set the tone for most of the other Dutch pictures in the sale. An exceptionally strong and early Head of an Old Man by Jan Lievens (est. 200,000-300,000) sold to London dealer Johnny van Haeften for a record 1,853,600, and an unusually lively late genre scene by Pieter de Hooch of Card Players (est. 1 million-1.5 million) also went to Van Haeften at 1,237,600.

By contrast, a little-seen and unusual masterwork by Peter Paul Rubens rather slipped though the cracks: A Night Scene with an Old Lady Holding a Candle and a Young Boy Taking Light from It (est. 2 million-3 million) elicited surprisingly little enthusiasm, selling for just 2,469,600 to American dealer Alfred Bader.

But for many, the picture of the sale was a small 12 x 8.5 in. panel of the Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns brought into Sotheby's as an anonymous Venetian work and identified as a well preserved early work (ca. 1509) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Though later, more obviously commercial works by Cranach and his workshop are not uncommon, this picture was of an exceptionally high quality (comparable to Dürer) that is only seen in Cranach works painted in the first two decades of the 16th century. Estimated low at 150,000-200,000, it soared to 677,600, selling to an anonymous phone bidder (underbid by Agnews).

As usual, good Italian pictures were far fewer in number. A very beautiful trecento panel by Florentine master Bernardo Daddi of The Coronation of the Virgin (est. 1.4 million-1.8 million) sold for 1,573,600, despite being severely cut down from its original shape, and two large and attractive panels of The Annunciation by the exceedingly minor Florentine painter Arcangelo di Jacopo del Sellaio (est. 80,000-120,000) sold for a very strong 218,400 -- its fortunate Japanese consignor had paid $250,000 for the work at the Walter Chrysler sale at Sotheby's New York in 1989.

Other consignors were not as fortunate. A large 15th century gold-ground panel of The Madonna and Child with Music-Making Angels by Francesco d'Antonio (est. 60,000-80,000) sold for 72,000, yet its consignor had paid 95,000 for it at Sotheby's in 1989. Similarly, a large Holy Family with St. John the Baptist by the 18th-century neo-classical master Anton Raphael Mengs had sold in 1989 for 82,000, and now brought only 48,000.

PAUL JEROMACK writes on art from New York.