The Rothschild Sale
Auction reporters often succumb to the euphoria that accompanies a record-breaking sale. Any big price for a work of art is automatically wonderful, while more skeptical analysis is dismissed as wet-blanket journalism. At the risk of seeming a spoilsport, I looked at several of the record-breaking lots at the Rothschild extravaganza at Christie's London last July 8 and came away thinking, "Were they nuts?"
As everyone in the business must know by now, the 250 works of art originally owned by the Barons Nathaniel and Albert von Rothschild of Austria -- 31 Old Master paintings, medieval manuscripts, furniture, suits of armor and 16th- and 17th-century musical instruments -- sold for a total of £57 million, almost three times as much as expected. (£1 =$1.56.)
Take a jaundiced look at the £2,311,500 paid for the Wooded Evening Landscape by Jan Wynants with the staffage (the figures in a landscape) added by Adriaen van de Velde. It sold for 10 times its presale estimate of £220,000-£300,000, and set an auction record for the artists. Wynants is not a bad painter, prolific and readily available today, but his work is a little dull, perhaps, and not exactly on the level of great 17th-century Dutch landscape painters like Jacovan and Solomon van Ruisdael or Hercules Seghers. The Rothschild canvas was a good but strictly typical example of the artist's work, down to the bare tree in the left foreground.
On May 25, a considerably smaller and less grand picture by Wynants sold for a staggering $266,500 (est. $30,000-$50,000) at Christie's New York Old Masters sale. No Old Master market is hotter than that for 17th-century Dutch works, and the price of the Rothschild Wynants seems to have resulted from a combination of a hugely wealthy buyer base with the rapid depletion of available important pictures by the grandest names, all sprinkled with the pixie dust known as "celebrity provenance" -- something that holds magic at the time of sale but often dissipates soon after. Clearly, I think it's a dumb purchase.
Another striking price, and the record for the artist at auction, was the £8,251,500 (est. £2.5 million-£3.5 million) paid by the Cleveland Museum of Art for Frans Hals' Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman. (The underbidder was the Toledo Museum of Art.) I must say that had it been up to me, I might have chosen another picture. The Hals is a fine, big, splashy, important work, but try as I might, I can't bring myself to love it. It actually leaves me somewhat cold. It's Hals on his best behavior, portraying one of Haarlem's richest merchants with determined swagger.
Far preferable are Hals' two presumed pendant portraits of an anonymous thick-lipped man (Portrait of a Gentleman) and a gentle, intelligent woman (Portrait of a Lady) painted with warmth and empathy. Of the latter, the great French critic Thore-Burger noted that "fashionable society would not find her very elegant, but that is to her favor, for she is as open-hearted as she is ingenuous." (The man sold for £2,201,500, while the woman was a bargain indeed at £903,500.)
Still, kudos to Cleveland for going all out on an Old Master picture that will add significantly to its holdings, which is more than can be said of the Met's European Paintings department these days (but that's for another column).
In addition to the Hals and the Wynants, the Rothschild auction saw record prices for a work by David Teniers II ( £2.9 million), an illuminated manuscript (£8.9 million), French furniture (a £7 million commode), a clock (£1.9 million) and a carpet (£1.6 million).
Scam Artist Alert
A group of slick professional thieves has been hitting the art trade with some regularity this year. The team consists of a male Italian with short black hair, around 25 years old, an older man, supposedly the father, using the title "Dottore Cenni," and a woman, posing as the secretary, using the name "Maria."
One of their most recent victims was the Frankfurt print dealer Helmut H. Rumbler, who filed the following report on the incident. "On June 21, 1999, we received a phone call in our gallery in Frankfurt from a 'Mr. Cenni' (he spoke Italian and French, but hardly any English) who told us that he is living in Toronto, but two times during the year comes to Venice to see his son for about a week. He asked us for a large colored woodcut by Christoffel Jegher after Rubens, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Hollstein 4), which he said he had seen at our booth at the 1998 Maastricht Old Master art fair. 'Maria' was also involved in the phone conversation.
"We agreed on a price of $140,000. He asked us to deliver the print at his palazzo in Venice and said that he would pay for our hotel during our two-day stay. He asked us to bring some other prints on approval and assured us he would buy some of them as well.
"We arrived on June 26 at the Hotel Des Bains in Venice, where we were already announced. When we tried to telephone Dr. Cenni, we were told that they would send a water taxi to bring us to the palazzo at 8 pm. His so-called son, 'Massimo Cenni' did welcome us but told us that his father was not able to come since he was in the hospital looking after his dying mother. After two hours of conversation, the 'father' phoned again, saying that the poor health of his mother would detain him even longer. Instead he suggested that we should deposit the prints at the palazzo.
"We agreed and received a receipt for the 14 prints valued at a total of approximately $280,000. We agreed that we would see Cenni Sr. and his wife the next day for lunch at our hotel at 1 p.m. At that time Cenni called us and postponed the meeting till 4 p.m. When no one showed up for the appointment, we drove to the Palazzo and alerted the police. They opened the apartment and found all our prints were gone, leaving only a few cellophane wrappers."
Several other European dealers were hit by this scam. The moral of the story: dealers can be too trusting. Get a background check on these people.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.