Michael Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City,
Michael Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City,
Bust-Length Portrait of an Old Man with a Beard,1633.
Andrew Mellon, 1929.
Canaletto, Venice: A Pair of Paintings,
c. mid-1730s-early 1740s.
$4.51 million the pair.
Francois-Hubert Drouais, Chidren of the Duc 1756.
Willem Drost, Officer in a Red Beret, 1654
Franx Jansz Post, Town and Homestead of Frederik
Francois Hubert Drouais, Portrait of a Lady,c. 1750s,
El Greco, Christ on the Cross,1570-77,
Zurbaran, Apples in a Wicker Basket,
Goya, Judith and Holofernes, 1824-5, $937,500.
Michael Sweerts, Young Manc. 1656, .
Jan van Goyen, A River Estuary,1653,
by Judd Tully
Sotheby's Old Master paintings sale on Jan.
30, 1997, totaled a spectacular $47.58
million (est. $27.3 million-$37 million),
setting a world record for that category in
New York, even trouncing the $45.3 million
mark set at the height of the art boom at
Christie's in May 1989, when Pontormo's
Duke Cosimo I de' Medici fetched a
whoppping record of $35.2 million.
There were no Pontormos this time around
but Plague in an Ancient City, Michael
Sweerts' grand 17th century composition,
sold for a record $3.85 million (est. $3
million-$4 million) to the Los Angeles
County Museum. Long attributed to Nicolas
Poussin, the work was from the collection
of financier Saul P. Steinberg, who was
seller of eight star lots in the auction.
Sotheby's senior expert, Scott Schaefer,
former curator of European paintings at
LACMA, took the winning bid by telephone.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was the
The painting last sold at auction at
Christie's London in July 1984 to dealer
Richard Feigen for a then-hefty $1.2
million. "You don't see grand gallery
museum pictures like this on the market
every day," said George Wachter, Sotheby's
head of Old Masters. "It's a great home for
it." All eight Dutch and Flemish pictures
from the Steinberg horde sold, for a tally
of $10.9 million (est. $7.2 million-$9.6
Feigen, who had the Steinberg pictures on
consignment prior to their move to
Sotheby's, told ArtNet he had been offered
$7.5 million for the Sweerts by London's
National Gallery, but at the time Steinberg
was holding out for $10 million.
Another jewel in the insurance magnate's
collection was the smallest recorded
Rembrandt, an oil on paper mounted on
panel, titled Bust-Length Portrait of an
Old Man with a Beard (En Brunaille) (1633).
The gem-like work, that could well
represent God, Moses or Old Testament
saint, realized $2.97 million (est. $1.5
million-$2 million). It once belonged to
Andrew Mellon, founding patron of the
National Gallery of Art in Washington,
D.C., who reportedly took the tiny image
with him everywhere he traveled in its
special leather and velvet case, which was
included in the bargain. Steinberg acquired
the portrait in 1986 from Feigen. Though
the authenticity of the signature has long
been questioned, the work has received full
blessing from the Rembrandt Research
Bidding in the packed sales room for many
of the 239 works offered was intense. One
trophy went to London dealer Richard Green,
recently in the real estate news for
acquiring the lease-hold on the prime and
about-to-be vacated Wildenstein property on
New Bond Street in London, who beat back
wild private bidding to win Canaletto's Two
Views of Venice from the 1740s for $4.51
million (est. $1.5 million-$2 million). The
duo had been on public display at the San
Antonio Museum from 1986 until last year.
"We have a number of clients who'd like to
own such a pair of pictures and that's why
we bought it," said Green. He pointed out
that a similar pair of Canalettos fetched
$11 million at Sotheby's New York in June
1990 and thus were "well-bought." In any
case, it tied for the top lot of the day
(stay tuned) and was one of 24 works from
the British Rail Pension Fund. "Amazingly,
the dealers didn't manage to buy anything
of the best stuff--(with the exception of
the Canalettos)--it all went privately,"
marvelled Wachter, who could not recall a
more buoyant sale.
The British Rail pictures made overall
$9.56 million (est. $4.5 million-6.3
million) and were auctioned in New York (as
opposed to Sotheby's London) because they
aparently appealed more to the sweet-
subject-matter taste of private buyers on
these shores. They couldn't have arrived at
a more opportune time, considering the huge
year-end bonuses and giant fees fattening
Wall Street pockets.
Among the high British Rail fliers (a mixed
metaphor for that famed investment fund)
was Francois-Hubert Drouais elegant
portrait, The Children of the Duc de
Bouillon Dres, 1756, which sold to a
private European buyer for $1.21 million
(est. $600,000-$800,000). The child
aristocrats are costumed in Montagnard
outfits, fitting for the street urchin
entertainers who worked the streets of
Paris in the 18th century.
With such a high premium on first rate
works, bidding showed few bounds as
evidenced by Willem Drost's 17th century
seated Portrait of of an Officer in a Red
Beret (1654), which brought a staggering,
record $2.69 million (est. $150,000-
$200,000), going to an anonymous private
buyer. It was one of several works
consigned by a descendant of Baron Alphonse
de Rothschild (1827-1905), from the once
formidable banking empire. Provenance paid
An exceptional and exotic landscape view,
aided by royal lineage, helped fuel Frans
Jansz Post's early View of the Town and
Homestead of Frederik in Paraiba, Brazil to
zoom to $4.5 million (est. $600,000-
$800,000). Recently attributed to the 17th
century artist, the painting once belonged
to France's Louis XIV. It tied the top lot
for the Canalettos.
In the relatively modest buy-in category
(21 percent or 51 of the 188 works
offered), Francois-Hubert Drouais' oval-
shaped Portrait of a Lady from the 1750s
(est. $30,000-$50,000) that was
deaccessioned by the Shelburne Museum
failed to arouse any interest.
World-record prices continued at Christie's
on Jan. 31 as a rare-to-the-market El Greco
from his Roman period (1570-77), Christ on
the Cross, sold anonymously to a private
buyer for $3.6 million ($600,000-$800,000).
It vanquished the $3 million price set back
in Oct. 1990 by El Greco's El Expolio at
Edmund Peel in Madrid (now Sotheby's Peel &
The trio of Spanish pictures performed
brilliantly and attracted a drove of
private collectors, as evidenced by a
recently discovered Juan de Zurbaran still
life, Apples in a Wicker Basket with
Pomegranates, that sold for a record $2.86
million (est. $700,000-$900,000) to a
Spanish-speaking buyer in the salesroom.
The Zurbaran was only the second picture by
the artist to appear at auction since 1989,
and helped drive Christie's tally to $21.9
million, easily eclipsing the decidedly
conservative $12.6 million-$17.9 million
Francisco Goya's powerful but miniature
carbon black and watercolor on ivory,
Judith and Holofernes (1824-5), sold for a
huge $937,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000) to
the New York/Paris dealer Bob Haboldt, who
acquired the work for a prominent but
otherwise anonymous American collector.
"Because of the rarity of the material,
these things fare very well," said Haboldt,
who teamed up later in the sale with
Maastricht/London dealer Noortman to win
Michael Sweerts' portrait, A Young Man,
Bust Length, in a Gray Jacket, for $310,500
Richard Green was active again, snapping up
a 1653 riverscape by Jan van Goyen for
$332,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000). Last
year, Green mounted a major van Goyen loan
show to celebrate the 400th anniversary of
the Dutch artist's birth.
"There may be some life coming into the
old masters' market," summed up dealer
Richard Feigen, who walked out of the
JUDD TULLY covers the international art
market for a variety of publications,
ranging from Art & Auction to
The Washington Post .