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Old Masters


by Paul Jeromack
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As extensively reported in this space, Christie’s star lot of its New York Old Master paintings sale on June 6, 2012, was Girolamo Romanino’s Christ Carrying The Cross (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million), which was restituted to the heirs of Italian collector Federico Gentili di Giuseppe from the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, in February. One of the greatest 16th-century Brescian painters, Romanino is a relatively rare artist, especially in American collections. Rather shockingly, none of his paintings are included in the greatest collection of Italian paintings in America, which is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

One would have thought that the NGA would have made obtaining this masterpiece a priority, but of U.S. institutions, only the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had the foresight to peruse it. LACMA failed to outbid the insatiable Chilean billionaire media magnate Alvaro Saieh, who is informally described in the trade as “The Hoover of the Old Master market.” He paid $4,562,400 (including premium).

This was not the first time an American museum was thwarted by Saieh. In January, the Clark Art Institute went after Fra Bartolommeo’s beautiful St. Jerome in the Wilderness at Sotheby’s New York, but the painting sold to Saieh for $4,898,500, well above the $2 million presale high estimate.

The other notable consignment at Christie’s New York was a group of 12 pictures deacessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve been critical of such Met sales in the past, but I’m happy to report that this time no mistakes were made, as most of the offerings were pictures by minor painters in deplorable, even unrestorable condition. 

Much of the surface of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Whitsun Bride (est. $200,000-$300,000) had flaked off and was poorly in-painted, a fact already noted when the picture was donated to the museum in 1939. Given the unslakeable thirst for works by this artist, however, it sold for $686,500, while a weak and worn Brueghel the Younger workshop copy of The Birdtrap with Ice-Skaters (est. $250,000-$350,000) sold for $410,500.

By contrast, the condition of An Interior of a Gothic Church by the 17th-century Flemish artist Peeter Neefs the Elder was pristine. Bought by the Met as part of its initial acquisitions of European paintings in 1871, it retained both its original gilt Victorian frame and beautifully rendered original label. But it was still a mighty dull thing compared to the two exquisitely rendered oval church interiors on copper by the artist already owned by the Met.

A curiosity was a small panel of a Young Woman Standing in an Interior bequeathed to the Met in 1971 (est. $150,000-$250,000). For much of the 20th century it was considered a masterpiece by Rembrandt thanks to its composition and superficially golden tones, but a closer examination revealed it to be by a very weak follower, probably Jacob van Spreeuwen. It failed to excite bidders but sold anyway at $134,500. 

The priciest Met castoffs were two round canvases of The Ruins and The Old Bridge by Hubert Robert, which sold as a pair for $1,874,500. The Met has uncommonly rich holdings of this 18th-century French landscapist, notably a dozen monumental capricci of Italianate landscapes and ruins painted for the Château de Bagatelle of Charles Philippe, comte d'Artois, donated to the museum by the estate of J. P. Morgan in 1917. (Doubtless the Met would have loved to have been given a second 18th-century decorative suite owned by Morgan, but his estate sold Fragonard’s “Progress of Love” to Henry Clay Frick via Duveen two years before).  

Compared to the finely painted Morgan panels, the Met tondos were rather vapid and uninspired bread-and-butter decorative canvases cranked out by the artist and his studio for the general market. But they sure were pretty, and fitted out with beautiful Louis XVI frames they proved irresistible, selling to the trade for $1.6 million (est. $800,000-$1.2 million). 

It is worth noting that in January, Christies offered a Robert finer than anything owned (and sold) by the Met, a dazzlingly fresh oil sketch (which the Met should have bought) of The catafalque of Pope Benedict XIV in Saint Peter's, Rome. It sold for a bargain $290,500, just near its $300,000 presale high estimate.

Christie’s Old Master paintings sale on June 6, 2012, totaled $12,574,125 (with premium), with 60 of 98 lots selling, or 61 percent. New auction records were set for Romanino and Philippe de Champaigne, whose Holy Family with a Sparrow sold for $578,500.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.