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Dec. 30, 2009 

December auction sales present the usual busy lineup -- antiquities, design and the decorative arts, African art, American paintings, Old Masters, things like that.

One highlight certainly was Christie’s London sale of Old Masters and 19th-century art on Dec. 8, 2009, which totaled £68,380,250 ($112,417,131), a record for an Old Masters auction, even though only a modest 65 percent of the lots found buyers (a typical result for an Old Masters auction). The sale, dubbed "an historic event for the art market" by Christie’s expert Richard Knight, also set new records for auction sales of works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Domenichino.

The Raphael work, a delicate black-chalk study of the head of a female figure for a Vatican fresco, sold to a telephone bidder for £29,161,250 ($47,941,095), more than double its presale estimate of £12,000,000, and the highest price for any auction lot all year. The buyer, according to published reports, was leveraged buyout king Leon Black, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you see it in the museum’s prints and drawings gallery, let us know!

The sale’s Rembrandt, a Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo (1658), sold for £20,201,250 ($33,210,855), also to a telephone bidder. This time, the anonymous buyer was reported to be casino mogul Steve Wynn. The painting was once owned by A&P heir Huntington Hartford II, who donated it to Columbia University in 1958, where it hung in the president’s office. Columbia quietly sold the picture in 1974 (well before such transactions caused any outcry); it was sent to the auction block by Johnson & Johnson heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson.

Domenichino’s Saint John the Evangelist (ca. 1627-29), which has been in a British private collection for most of the century, sold for £9,225,250 ($15,166,311).

For its part, Sotheby’s London came in a valiant second with its sales on Dec. 9-10, 2009, which totaled £19,066,200 ($30,954,450), with an overall sell-through rate of 65 percent. The auction’s highlight was a 1640 self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck, which sold for £8,329,250 ($13,521,704) after being pursued by nine bidders who drove the price well above the presale high estimate of £3 million. The painting had been in a family collection -- the Earl of Jersey’s Trust -- for almost 300 years; the buyer was Old Master dealer Alfred Bader in partnership with Philip Mould.

Sadly, the sale’s other highlight, the much-ballyhooed portrait of a young woman by Peter Paul Rubens, which carried a presale high estimate of £6 million, was passed. The auction did see good results for Cesar Boetius van Everdingen, whose previously unknown canvas, Girl holding a basket of plums, sold for £1,161,250 (€1,283,758), a new auction record for the artist.

Christie’s New York sale of American art on Dec. 2, 2009, totaled $32,358,750, with 90 of 138 lots selling, or 65 percent. The top lot was a tempera-on-panel by Andrew Wyeth, Above the Narrows, a portrait of the artist’s teenage son standing on an overlook of the St. George River in Maine, which sold for $6,914,500 to a European buyer.

A Mary Cassatt pastel study for Young Mother Sewing, made in 1902, sold for $2,434,500, about double the $1.2 million presale high estimate. New auction records were set for works by Guy Pène du Bois ($782,500) and John Joseph Boyle ($116,500).

Sotheby’s New York sale of American art on Dec. 3, 2009, totaled just over $25 million, with 76 of 101 lots selling, or 75 percent. The top lot, Childe Hassam’s The White Dory, Gloucester (1895), went to an U.S. buyer for $3,666,500, at the high end of its estimate. Thomas Hart Benton’s Little Brown Jug (ca. 1941), sold for $2,434,500, well above its presale high estimate of $800,000 and a new auction record for the artist.

The same day, Sotheby’s Paris notched a world record in its auction of art from Africa and Oceana when it sold a Bamana Kono Mask from Mali for €1,408,750 ($2,139,565). Estimated at €300,000- €400,000, the dramatically abstract object -- a potent emblem of a tribal initiatory society -- was included in "’Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984.

Christie’s New York next held a trio of design and decorative arts sales on Dec. 8, 2009, totaling $15,484,463 with 85 percent of the lots sold. The total represents a jump of 70 percent over the $9.1 million made at a similar sale a year ago, according to dec-arts expert Philippe Garner.

Top lot at the sale was an elaborate peony leaded glass and bronze table lamp, ca. 1915, by Tiffany Studios, which sold for $1,538,500 to a private U.S. buyer, above the presale high estimate of $900,000. In all, Christie’s sold 68 of 81 Tiffany lots offered, for a total of almost $7 million.

A good price was also reached by a table of ebonized wood and glass by Carlo Mollino, made ca. 1949-50, which sold for $602,500, almost double its presale high estimate. The auction also included 52 works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, including an example of Claude Lalanne’s 1997 Ginko aluminum table, which sold for $482,500, considerably above the presale high estimate of $60,000. Nine of the sale’s ten top lots were Lalanne works, ranging in price from $150,000 and up.

Sotheby’s held its New York design auction on Dec. 17, 2009, featuring a group of 25 Arts and Crafts lots from collector Stephen Gray and works from the estate of New York party-planner Robert Isabell as well as the usual Tiffany material. All together the three sales totaled over $10 million, with 246 of 293 lots selling, or 84 percent.

Top lots included ten painted-glass églomisé panels -- essentially the top half -- from the "Birth of Aphrodite" mural from the grand salon of the S.S. Normandie, painted by Jean Dupas in ca. 1934, which sold for $512,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000).

Sotheby’s New York sale of antiquities on Dec. 10, 2009, totaled $5,828,188, with 90 of 105 lots selling, or almost 86 percent. Top lots included a finely detailed Dionysiac sarcophagus relief from ca. AD. 200-225, showing several cavorting couples in classically decorated niches, which sold for $1,538,500, well over its presale high estimate of $250,000. The object was said to have been once owned by Émile Zola, as well as by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, actress Cecile Sorel (who had it built against her bathtub) and French politician Paul Reynaud.

Christie’s New York sale of antiquities on Dec. 11, 2009, totaled $8,280,525, with 160 of 205 lots selling, or 78 percent; buyers from Europe dominated the top of the sale, the auction house said, thanks in part to the strong Euro.

The top lot was a Roman marble portrait bust of a Julio Claudian prince from the first half of the 1st century AD, which went for $722,500, considerably above its presale high estimate of $120,000. Though identified as Augustus in the 1930s, when it first surfaced on the art market, the bust has more recently been thought to be identified as Gaius Caesar, or one of the two sons of Germanicus, brothers of the future emperor Caligula.

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