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muscular old masters
by Paul Jeromack
Despite the gloom settling across the global economy, the Old Masters market seems to be steadily thriving -- minus the recklessly exuberant prices of recent years -- at least judging by the sale of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in New York on Jan. 29, 2009.

The most potent reminder of old times was Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Bagpipe Player (1624). While the artist is the greatest of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, his paintings are not as popular as one might think. Though nothing on the order of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Crucifixion or the St. Sebastian Tended by St. Irene at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin has been on the market for decades, the auction block has seen a steady stream of half-length merry musicians and wide-grinned topers that tend to get a tepid reception, either because of compromised condition, the existence of other versions or simply because the models are just butt-ugly.

Signed and dated 1624, the burly Bagpiper was a cut above the usual, the half-length figure posed dramatically with his profile in deep shadow with his white sleeve, bare shoulder, upper back and hand strongly lit. In excellent condition, the picture had a blanket of old yellow varnish that both flattened the composition and suggested a post-cleaning revelation.

For the past 65-odd years, the portrait had been one of the most-admired Dutch pictures in the Wallraf-Richarzz-Museum in Cologne, which "acquired" it from its Jewish owner, Dr. Herbert von Klemperer, at a forced Berlin "auction" in 1938. Restituted to the von Klemperer heirs in July and instantly consigned for sale, the work bore a very aggressive estimate of $4 million-$6 million, already more than any ter Brugghen sold.

Bagpipe Player did rather better than that, prospering in a battle between New York dealer Richard Feigen, acting for an unnamed American museum (possibly the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which has been on the lookout for a great ter Brugghen for years) and London dealer Johnny van Haeften, who won the painting with a bid of $9 million ($10,162,500 with premium). Cracked Feigen, "I guess we’ll see that again at Maastricht in a few months," a reference to the art fair in March.

Feigen no doubt hoped for a similarly estimate-shattering result with the auction of one of the celebrated pictures from his private collection, J.M.W. Turner’s The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored (ca. 1816), a masterpiece of his early crystalline style, the subject and composition straight out of Claude Lorrain. While important canvases by the artist rarely appear on the market, this example was not the sort of Turner that generates the enthusiasm of most collectors, who prefer the master’s later, washy, proto-Impressionistic seascapes and Venice scenes, and it carried a presale estimate of "only" $12 million-$16 million.

Starting at $ 9 million, the bidding action took place entirely between two phone bidders, proceeding in bitsy increments until one prevailed at $11.5 million ($12,962,500 with premium). Another Feigen consignment (though not identified as such) was a beautiful and moving early Annibale Carracci Crucifixion (est. $600,000-$800,000), which, sadly, nobody warmed to and went unsold.

But Feigen was still luckier than the Belgian collector Eric Albada, who consigned a pair of husband-and-wife portraits from 1637 by Frans Hals, which demonstrated that the great Haarlem master could crank out portraits as stodgy and dreary as anything from the Jan van Ravesteyn studio. Initially slapped with whopping estimates of $8 million-$12 million and $7 million-$9 million, they were in the end offered with the loopy announcement that the owner wanted to sell them together with a new estimate of $15 million-$20 million. Unsurprisingly, they elicited not a bid.

Another disappointment at Sotheby’s was the failure of an unexciting and worn Salome with the Head of the Baptist assigned to late Titian (est. $4million-$6 million) which the chandelier "won" at $3.4 million. An even uglier purported late Titian was the Portrait of an Admiral (est. $1.5 million-$2 million), bought at Sotheby’s London in 1997 for £1.1 million (about $2 million) and now sold against the reserve for $1.5 million, a loss for the consignor.

A trio of panels by the newly popular Lucas Cranach the Elder & Co. met with mixed results. Thanks to the assembly-line production of the efficient Cranach studio, many pictures always considered as authentic Lucas the Elders have been re-accessed as either by him, his sons Hans or Lucas the Younger, accomplished assistants, or any combination of the above. But as Cranach & Co. has now become a recognizable brand name on the order of Pieter Breughel the Younger and minions, little of this matters.

A large slickly rendered panel of a fur- and silk-swathed Lucretia, dagger in hand, was attributed to both Lucases father and son. Despite her sullen expression, which indicated she was poised to kill herself out of boredom instead of honor, she sold for a solid $800,000 ($962,500 with premium), just at the presale low estimate.  

More appealing and unusual was a large panel of a blonde courtesan playing peek-a-boo with a snaggle-toothed codger while her gold-digging accomplices merrily scoop up his gold. They are observed by a standing woman and a young man who gestures disapprovingly, which makes one wonder if this depicts a scene from a play or story rather than a general illustration of female duplicity. Given to Lucas the Elder with perhaps some help from Lucas Jr., its appeal was considerable, and it sold to a phone bidder for $ 1.5 million ($1,762,500 with premium).

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art received considerable scolding in the local press for its move to sell a relatively early Cranach picture (indisputably by Lucas the Elder), Portrait of a Bearded Young Man of 1518 (est. $600,000-$800,000). While it was the only Cranach painting owned by the museum, it was never exhibited due to its severely compromised condition. Potential buyers were similarly unenthused, and it was meekly bought in at $520,000.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.