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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The Old Master auctions held at Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York are the art world’s best-kept secret. Or not so secret, as this year’s previews lured everyone from television star Anderson Cooper to painter Philip Taaffe (with his young son in tow). Everyone who’s anyone, it seems, needs at least one Old Master on the walls.

And despite the prevailing notion that the Old Master market was mined out long ago, the sales this winter had some real sparklers. Old Masters at Sotheby’s totaled about $70 million, while Christie’s did $52 million, including a special sale of 18th-century French paintings.

Christie’s started the action on Jan. 25, 2012, with more than 100 lots, including about 60 in “The Art of France.” The showpiece lot was a miraculous-but-tiny gold-ground roundel of The Virgin Mary Nursing the Christ Child (est. $6 million-$8 million) by Hans Memling, which has been widely published and even subject of a special show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was on loan 2007-2010. Nevertheless, it failed to sell -- the picture measures just under seven inches in diameter. 

Also bought in was a Reversible anthropomorphic portrait of a man composed of fruit -- lips like cherries, cheeks like red apples and eyes like almonds -- by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. When the picture came to auction back in 1999, with a “manner of” attribution, it sold for $104,000. A year later, the painting was back on the block at Sotheby’s, its credits shored up, and it sold for $1.4 million, a new auction record for the artist. Since then, insiders say, it has appeared at TEFAF Maastricht several times, notably in the booth of French & Co. Christie’s estimated that the picture would bring at least twice as much this time around, $3 million-$5 million, but no luck.

More successful was The Arrival of Henry III at the Villa Contarini, ca. 1750, a sparkling, 28 x 42 in. oil sketch by Giambattista Tiepolo, made for a stately fresco for the Villa Pisani, a baroque mansion on the Venice mainland, to commemorate the king’s 1574 visit. The picture’s fascinating provenance includes a stop in the collection of Hermann Goering, after which it was repatriated to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who sold it via Colnaghi’s to an Oklahoma City collector named S.T. Fee in the 1980s. The painting was subsequently exhibited twice at the Kimbell Art Museum, in 1982 and ’93. This time on the block, bidders chased the picture up to $5,906,500 (including premium), just shy of the $6 million high estimate. The price is a new record for a work by the artist at auction.

Speaking of provenance, the cultish adulation that fueled feverish bidding during Christie’s sales of Elizabeth Taylor’s finery had the same effect on a Frans Hals portrait that sold for $2.1 million, more than double its $1 million presale estimate. Thought to be a gift to the late actress from her father, an art dealer (!), the painting was described as “doubtful” by scholar Seymour Slive in his 1974 Hals catalogue raisonne. More “recent first-hand examination,” the auction house said, “by Hals scholars and conservators prove otherwise.” In any case, Mike Todd, Taylor’s third husband, once told the press, “she really digs the Frans Hals.”

Other top lots at Christie’s included a late and richly textured Gerrit Dou painting of a young woman playing the clavichord that was sold for $3.3 million, and a Thomas de Keyser portrait of a gentleman that was purchased for $1.5 million by the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

A pair of six-foot-wide decorative canvases of nymphs by Jean Honoré Fragonard, representing Day and Night, sold for $3,666,500, well above the presale $3 million high estimate. And an Anthony van Dyck painting of a rearing stallion, from behind, that was once on view at Downton Castle, sold for $2,546,500 (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000)

It was Sotheby’s turn the following day, Jan. 26, 2012. A Canaletto view of Venice was the top lot, selling for $5.7 million, at the low end of the presale estimate. The seller was the estate of Britain’s greatest hotelier, Lord Forte, and the winning bidder may be requested -- or so the catalogue alluringly suggests -- to share his prize for the upcoming exhibition “Canaletto, Itinéraire Vénitien” at the Musée Maillol in Paris.

Amid all the Old Master piety was a portrait of Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder, showing the always surprisingly pagan sensibility of 16th-century Bavaria. Cranach and his studio turned out many versions of the tragic Roman heroine, who killed herself after being raped by the last Roman prince. Here, she is draped in fur and gold, and clad in a sumptuous gown that has been rent open to reveal her breast. The picture sold for $5.1 million (est. $4 million-$6 million) to an unnamed European buyer. Demand for works by Cranach has soared in the last decade; this painting last changed hands in 1988, when it fetched $352,000.

An exquisite painting of St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Fra Bartolommeo, ca. 1490s, in an elaborate Neoclassical gilt and polychrome frame -- wrong period, but alluring nevertheless -- came from the collection of Dodie Rosekrans, the late San Francisco socialite and art collector. It sold for $4.9 million, more than twice its high estimate of $2 million, a new auction record for the artist.

A large tondo by Sandro Botticelli (and studio) also took off. The complex composition features the Madonna, Saint Peter and a rather lively naked Christ Child, who seems to be about to fall out of the picture. With one hand the Madonna begins to open her robe to feed the Child, who playfully tugs on her diaphanous veil. In the background is a second devotional image, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata.

Though well documented, the picture has been little discussed, perhaps because at some point the honey-colored tresses of the mother and child had been overpainted in a clumsy brunette tone, an addition removed in the ‘80s (the Virgin’s barely open gown was also painted closed). The picture was estimated at $1 million-$1.5 million, but it was one of the sale’s stars, selling for $4.6 million.

Simone Martini’s exquisite gold-ground tempera on panel of The Virgin Annunciate, ca. 1334 -- said to be one of the first renderings of the Mother of God sitting on the ground, rather than on the throne of heaven -- sold for $4.1 million, at its high estimate.

Other notable lots included a Peter Paul Rubens oil sketch for The Adoration of the Magi ($2,994,500); a vigorous painting by Rubens’ animal-specialist assistant, Frans Snyders, from Aesop’s tale of The Lion and the Mouse, wherein the tiny animal gnaws through the hunter’s net that holds the trapped lion ($662,500); and a truly odd oil-on-copper still life by Osias Beert the Elder showing  two glasses of wine and three bowls filled with almonds, chestnuts, rock candy, marzipan and lavish confectionary (est. $1.5 million-$2 million, but bought in).

Sotheby’s auction of Old Master drawings was enlivened by the sale of a roughly letter-size pen-and-ink drawing attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo, which was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum for $1.4 million, well above the $400,000 presale high estimate. The museum noted that the “extremely rare” portrait from the early Florence Renaissance -- a sensitive rendering of a young man -- is the first such work to enter the Getty collection, and that it would “be put on public display for likely the first time in its long history.”

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.