Christie’s New York got the fall Old Master season off to a strong start on Oct. 4, 2007, with a sale that offered a few discoveries and some old friends well-known in the trade. Among the former was a fascinating late-16th-century still life of Flowers in a Glass Vase (est. $1.7 million-$2.7 million) attributed to Ambrosius Bosschaert, one of the first Dutch specialists in this popular genre.
Though authenticated by Bosschaert expert Fred Meijer, many people thought the painting was more closely related to the much rarer still-lifes of the Munster master Ludger Tom Ring the Younger. Its attractive composition and execution overrode their uncertainties of authorship, and it sold to an American private collector (who doesn’t care who painted it) for $1,833,000.
Another discovery came from the storerooms of the Hispanic Society of New York, which over the last few years has been doing an institutional version of ethnic cleansing by selling off works from its collections that have been discovered to be by non-Spanish masters. The latest reject was a handsome Portrait of Archduke Ernst of Austria, acquired as a Juan de Sanchez-Coello and re-identified as a rare work by one of Emperor Rudolph II’s favorite portraitists at his Prague court, the Italian Martino Rota. Estimated at $100,000-$150,000, it went to the London trade for $205,000.
One of the most notable pictures in the sale was a large canvas that had been kicking around the market for a little over a decade, Achilles Preparing to Avenge the Death of Patroclus (est. $800,000-$1,200,000), a spectacular life-sized multi-figured history painting by the Dutch "Utrecht Caravaggist" Dirck van Baburen (the picture was signed and dated 1624, the year of the artist’s death) depicting Achilles’ wrath and red-faced fury as the nude body of his best friend killed in battle is unceremoniously plopped before him.
When the picture first surfaced, smothered in dirty varnish, at a French auction in the late 1980s, it caused a sensation and was bought by Agnew’s for over $1 million, and after cleaning was priced anew at $3 million.
Unfortunately, Baburen is no Hendrick Terbruggen and his rougher, cruder style is considered commercially acceptable only in half-length genre scenes of card-players and musicians of more modest dimensions. The picture was dealt a further blow when the late Baburen expert Leonard J. Slatkes decided that the picture had been severely cut on the right with at least one entire figure excised. Even though technical examination revealed that Slatkes was mistaken (there is original canvas "cupping" all around), it made an already tough picture even harder to sell.
American museums are rich in Dutch paintings, but they own very few works by Baburen (or any of his Utrecht contemporaries Terbruggen and Honthorst), so one would think this would be a perfect opportunity to seize. But as usual, no American museums were remotely interested and it sold to German dealers Galerie Neuse (acting for a German museum, probably for the Kassel Museum) for a bargain $937,000.
Equally unpopular with American museums are heavily didactic French pictures of the 18th century, particularly featuring life-sized figures. A marvelous example was Painting Awakening Sleeping Genius by Charles-Antoine Coypel, where a hovering female figure, aswirl in drapery with palette in hand, hovers over the nude and slightly androgynous Genius, surprising him with the order to take up his brushes and get to work. Though no American museum wanted it, it was an astute buy for an American private collector at $937,000 (est. $600,000-$800,000), a new auction record for the artist.
Though no American museums bought, the St. Louis Art Museum sold a couple of 15th-century Italian pictures in poor, even ruinous, condition with surprising results. A very early Madonna and Child with An Angel by Francesco Botticini (bearing the strong influence of Neri di Bicci) soared above its $50,000-$70,000 estimate to sell to a European collector for $85,000.
A second work from St. Louis was the long and thin secular cassone panel depicting one episode in The Story of Nasagio degli Onesti (a tale from Boccaccio rendered most memorably in a series of panels by Botticelli and Bartolemmo di Giovanni in the Prado in Madrid), which was first considered to be a 19th-century fake in the "manner of" Ercole de’ Roberti, so heavily was it repainted.
A test cleaning by Christie’s revealed that the picture was indeed old, but had been so grievously damaged that precious little 15th-century paint remained, with only its underdrawing visible (not that beautiful, and probably not by Ercole de' Roberti). Estimated at $40,000-$60,000, it sold to an adventuresome member of the European trade for $205,000.
Overall, Christie’s sold 108 of 159 lots, or 68 percent, for a total of $12,910,750, including premium, now 25 percent on the first $20,000, 20 percent on the rest up to $500,000, and 12 percent above that. Sotheby’s New York holds its Old Master sales, by the way, in January.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.
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