Maybe it's me. But for all the evident beauty of J.M.W. Turner's Giudeecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (ca. 1840s), I can't quite comprehend the reasons it became the most expensive Old Master sold in America at Christie's New York on Apr. 6, 2006, going for $35,856,000 (with premium) over a presale estimate of $15 million-$20 million, to an American buyer believed to be Las Vegas hotel magnate Steve Wynn. The price boosted Christie's 97-lot Old Master sale to a total of $69,496,800, a new record for an auction of Old Master pictures in America.
The Turner does have a lot of things in its favor. Available Turner paintings of this period are rare and this one was in particularly fresh condition, and of relatively modest size. And it was a great subject -- a Venetian view as bright and pretty as a Monet. But I confess, I didn't find it a particularly compelling painting by the artist, and if I had a choice, I would rather own five or six brilliant Turner watercolors instead. But then, I don't personally have a gallery of later French Impressionist pictures to which Giudecca would make an inspired and intelligent addition.
Likewise, Lucas Cranach's St. Barbara in Half-Length (est. $1.5 million-$2.5 million) is exactly what you want in a religious painting by this artist -- a pretty, smiling blonde attractively dressed, shown before a luxuriant Danube landscape spotted with pine trees, free of messy martyrdoms and obnoxious cherub heads. It might as well be a portrait of a saucy beauty of the Saxon court, posing with St. Barbara's chalice the way bankers' wives grasp Dianas' bow and arrows in the Rococo confections of painter Jean-Marc Nattier.
Despite some condition problems (the panel was split down the middle and needs to be re-restored to mend the crack), the overall appeal of Cranach's masterpiece pushed its price to $4,944,000. The buyer was an unidentified European collector bidding via the phone.
For an Old Master sale, Christie's offerings were rather unusually stacked with appealing, pretty pictures. Hubert Robert can be a real snore (as seen in the four large, late and rather empty canvases of mountainous landscapes, all of which failed to sell) but he was shown at his absolute best in a delicious oil sketch of La Danse (est. $60,000-$80,000), perhaps painted in Rome ca. 1765 and done very much in the spirit of Robert's friend Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Though it sold for $262,400, well above the estimate (to London dealer Derek Johns), I can't help feeling it was rather a bargain, as was another Johns purchase, a small and fine devotional canvas by Juan de Valdés Leal of Christ Tormented, which went for $114,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000).
Everybody loves still-lifes, and Christie's had a large consignment from the stock of Milan dealer Silvano Lodi. Nearly all of them went back to Italy, notably a better-than-average Evaristo Baschenis Still-Life of Musical Instruments on a Table, which sold for $1,640,000 (est. $700,000-$1,000,000) (American museums dropped the ball on this one), and a rare panel of Peaches in a Glass Compote with Quinces and a Grasshopper by Fede Galizia, which brought $1,640,000 (est. $500,000-$700,000). A similar and even more beautiful variant on that last composition is on loan at the Metropolitan Museum.
From the collection of John Kluge came the most expensive still-life of the day, a rare canvas by the early 16th-century master Georg Flegel of a Bouquet of Flowers in a Stone Niche surrounded by a goblet of wine, loaves of bread, cherries and a stag beetle, which went to yet another anonymous phone bidder for $4,048,000.
More serious Italian pictures also sold well, but for still reasonable sums. Sassetta's St. Augustine, the unique surviving pinnacle from the Borgo Sansepolcro Altarpiece, was rather the steal of the sale despite its sales price of $1,136,000 (paid by Italian dealer Giovanni Sarti), as works by this most important Sienese 15th-century painter are now either unobtainable or unexportable.
A beautiful Duccioesque Madonna and Child Enthroned by the Master of Monte Oliveto sold to dealer Bob Haboldt for $833,600 (est. $200,000-$300,000), while a tall panel of an unidentified Bishop saint by the unheralded Francesco di Neri da Volterra, still in exceptionally fresh condition (over the centuries, gold grounds have inevitably been subjected to some kind of scrubbing in an attempt to reignite their brilliance) sold to a phone bidder for a reasonable $486,400 (est. $200,000-$300,000).
Later Italian pictures of note included a large decorative and rather kinky canvas by Jacopo Amigoni of Queen Omphale disciplining a naughty captive Hercules (who seems to savor his beating), which sold to a phone bidder for $ 553,600 (est. $200,000-$300,000), and, a personal favorite, a double-portrait of A Seated Elderly Man and an Old Woman Holding a Rosary by Simone Cantarini, a Bolognese follower of Guido Reni. An exceptional masterpiece by a relatively minor painter, it sold to a phone bidder for $408,000 (est. $120,000-$180,000).
For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.