From the looks of it, many acres of trees were harvested to supply paper for the catalogues of Sotheby’s five sales of Old Master paintings, sculpture and works of art and drawings, Jan. 23-26, 2008. It seems to have been worth the effort, as the recent stock market downturn affected the results not at all, and prices were exceptionally buoyant all around. The two-day sale of paintings and works of art totaled $82.5 million, with 246 of 398 lots finding buyers, or almost 62 percent. With the drawings included, the grand total for the week was $91.7 million.
Prices given here include the auction house premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the remainder up to $500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.
The stand-out lots at Sotheby’s paintings sale on Jan. 24 were sculptures, notably A large ca. 1505 limewood carving of St. Catherine by the great German 16th-century sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (est. $4 million-$6 million). A mate to an even more beautiful statue by the artist of an unidentified female saint, sold to the Peter Moores Collection at Compton Verney at Sotheby’s in May 2001 for $2,975,750, the St. Catherine more than doubled that price, selling for $6,313,000 to a phone bidder. One assumes that Moores would be the likely buyer, though as one dealer said, "He bought the better one for half the price. Why would he need this one?"
Sotheby’s made much of a highly polychromed and gilt terracotta relief of The Virgin and Child with Seraphim (1450-60) by Donatello (est. $2 million-$3 million). Attributed to the artist by no less an authority as the late Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the relief still sparks some contoversy over whether it is an authentic work by the master or an unusually fine work by a talented follower. According to one esteemed sculpture dealer, "An undoubted marble by Donatello would be worth $50 million and up. There’s a lot of overpaint on this terracotta relief and it’s a real gamble on what kind of quality one would find after it is restored." More than a few bidders were willing to gamble on The Virgin and Child with Seraphim, and it sold for $5.6 million to an anonymous buyer.
Among the Italian paintings of note was a rather grim panel by the rare mannerist Lelio Orsi depicting Leda rather clinically and joylessly copulating with a swan among the clouds (est. $1 million-$1.5 million). Recently on the Italian market priced at just over $1 million, it sold for a bit more than that at $1.5 million.
As usual, Northern European paintings attracted the most interest, led by two by the suddenly hot Lucas Cranach the Elder. The most appealing was Sotheby’s catalogue cover girl, an elegantly feline idealized beauty of the Saxon court, perhaps a modish Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit) wearing Cranach’s trademark gold bodice, red jacket with puffed sleeves and beplumed red velvet "Frisbee" hat holding grapes and apples in a white linen cloth, shown nearly life-size in half length (est. $1.5 million-$2 million).
Cranach usually depicted such sly ladies proffering more unpalatable treats, such as the severed heads of St. John the Baptist or Holofernes, and at one time it was assumed that the fruits were a dealer’s overpaint to make the picture more saleable. Technical examination revealed that they were in fact original, and the canvas (transferred from panel) sold to a phone bidder for $5 million, the second highest auction price for the artist.
The second of Sotheby’s Cranachs was Phyllis and Aristotle (1530), a popular subject representing the "power of women" that appears to be unique in Cranach’s oeuvre. Set in a typical Cranach wooded glen with a castle-topped mountain landscape beyond, the Frisbee-hatted vixen rides the philosopher, who crawls on all fours and regards the cunning courtesan with the expression of a cranky mastiff. The picture made a splash at Sotheby’s London in December 2001 when it brought $2,220,863, and this time around (despite the rather atypically constipated expression of Phyllis, that suggests some damage to her face), it was bought by London dealer Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi for $4 million (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million).
Of the Netherlandish pictures, rather a good buy was made by a phone bidder, who won an exceptionally sensitive and well-preserved panel of a bust of Christ by Quentin Massys, a highly important early Netherlandish master whose works are seldom encountered at auction. Estimated at $250,000-$350,000, it sold for $1,105,000.
Far more popular are the highly finished copper panels by the Dutch mannerist Joachim Wtewael. New works by this master pop up periodically, and Sotheby’s tiny 4 x 3 in. oval of Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus (Without Food - Ceres - and wine - Bacchus- Venus Is Cold, i.e. you can’t get laid on an empty stomach). Grimily awaiting its jewel-like colors to be revealed after gentle cleaning, the tiny oval gem (est. $300,000-400,000) soared to $1.1 million, knocked down to a phone bidder, who was underbid by New York collector Charles Hack.
The French pictures were led by a re-discovered Georges de la Tour of St. James the Great, part of a series of half-length canvases depicting apostles. La Tour is one of the most sought-after French painters and, though St. James was in rather poor and worn condition, bidders were not put off, and it sold to a private New York collection for $3,233,000 (est $1.5 million-$2 million).
Even more surprising was the case of an unusually ambitious historical canvas by Jean-Jaques Lagrenée depicting Sextus Tarquinius Admiring the Virtue of Lucretia (1781) (est. $350,000-$450,000). Though in lovely yellowed condition, Sextus Tarquinius is a rather empty composition that (to my eyes at least) reveals the artist’s weaknesses more than his strengths. To everyone’s surprise it was bought by a European collector for a remarkable $1.3 million.
The best of the 18th-century French pictures was the double portrait of The Children of the Duc de Bouillon Dressed as Montagnards, One Playing a Hurdy-Gurdy, the Other Playing with a Marmot on a Leash by François-Hubert Drouais. Once one of the most popular French painters with American collectors, Drouais specialized in portraits of softly modeled, saucer-eyed, pink-lipped and heavily rouged sitters (be they male or female), seem stickily confectionary. Sotheby’s portrait was an exception to the rule, painted with sensitivity and charm (hold the sugar). Sold by Sotheby’s in January 1997 for $1,212,500 (est. $600,000-$800,000), it did not advance much in the interim, now selling for $1,217,000 (est. $700,000-$900,000), which is nonetheless a new record for the artist.
The main event at the January Old Master drawings sales in New York was Sotheby’s offering of the Jeffrey E. Horvitz collection of Italian drawings from the 16th through the early 19th centuries on Jan. 23. A Massachusetts collector primarily known for his fine holdings of French drawings, Horvitz had a pretty good assemblage of Italian drawings, with both high quality sheets but also a fair number of unexciting and minor examples. Hobbled by the high estimates, 38 of the 105 drawings failed to sell, but there were a few examples that mostly filled in the difference.
A large and flashy sheet by Lelio Orsi depicting Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun in pen on light brown paper heightened with white (a study for a lost fresco) had been bought by Horvitz from Colnaghi in 1986 and was now estimated at $200,000-$300,000, and sold to a phone bidder (underbid by New York collector Diane Woodner) for $373,000.
Woodner was more aggressive when it came to a more beautiful and livelier pen study by Agostino Carracci of St. Jerome in His Study (accompanied by his dozing pet lion), preparatory for the artist’s last engraving of the subject ca. 1602. Estimated at $70,000-$100,000, Woodner had to pay $385,000 for it, underbid by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Though LACMA is not known for its collection of Old Master drawings, its prints and drawings curator Kevin Salatino has been aggressive in strengthening its holdings, and LACMA was the biggest institutional buyer at the Horvitz dispersal, cannily snapping up three superb sheets. One was an uncommonly lovely black chalk study by Andrea Appiani of Cupid Introducing Psyche to Jupiter (est. $30,000-$40,000) for $55,000.
The second was an image of Neptune and Amphitrite, a large and rare oval design for a lost silver dish in black chalk heightened with white, formerly attributed to the Florentine Pietro da Cortona, then to his disciple Ciro Ferri and finally to another, less well-known student of Cortona, Cosimo Ulivelli.
Designs for decorative arts are curiously undervalued. According to Sir Timothy Clifford, former director of the National Galleries of Scotland, "Collectors are only excited if a drawing is for a painting or print, but they can’t quite understand a drawing for an embroidered cope, a medal, or a piece of maiolica or silver," adding that the Ulivelli was his favorite drawing in the sale and, "Had I still been at the National Gallery, I would have bought it for the collection." Edinburgh’s loss was LACMA’s gain -- the museum bought it for $103,000.
LACMA’s most spectacular purchase was Briseis Leaving the Tent of Achilles by Guiseppe Cades. One of the most remarkable Italian artists of the 18th century, Cades was something of an outsider in the official Roman art world, preferring the circle of international painters and sculptors including the Swiss Henri Fuseli, the Frenchman Francois Andre-Vincent, the Irish James Barry and, most notably, the Swedish sculptor Johann Tobias Sergel and the Danish sculptor Berthel Thorvalsden.
The latter two were both friends of Cades’ and brought back to Scandinavia a significant number of his finest drawings, which are now in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, and Thorvalsden Museum, Copenhagen. As a result, far fewer major drawings by Cades are available than once thought.
The Horvitz drawing reflects Cades’ interest in such Italian 16th-century mannerists as Pellegrino Tibaldi (the artist was known for cheekily selling his "adaptations" as original works by Tibaldi and Parmagianino), and its strong sculptural modeling recalls friezes by his friend Sergel. Of similar subject to a freer sheet in the Louvre of Achilles and Patroculus Surprised by Achilles and in technique to Tullia Riding the Chariot over the Body of Her Father (bought by the Getty Museum at Christie’s Monaco in 1994 for $83,000), Horvitz had bought it at Christie’s New York in January 1998 for $57,500.
Newly estimated at Sotheby’s at $70,000-$100,000, it was won by LACMA (underbid by the Louvre) for $253,000, a new record for the artist.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.