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by Paul Jeromack
Whoops! Looks like a slight correction is in order!

As I reported in Friday’s write-up of Sotheby’s New York Old Master sale on Jan. 29, 2009 [see "Muscular Old Masters," Feb. 6, 2009], Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Bagpipe Player sold after "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."

I’m bemused to report that I was mistaken -- yet my instincts were right. It turns out that van Haeften was the one bidding for the National Gallery, while Feigen was acting for another American museum. He wouldn’t say which, but he did say, "It wasn’t the Met."

The ter Brugghen is yet another smart purchase by Washington’s Arthur J. Wheelock, who has been steadily strengthening the National Gallery’s collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings by masters great and small. Utrecht Caravaggists have long been a gaping hole in the collection, and ter Brugghen’s Bagpipe Player is a smashing beginning. Now Wheelock needs a great Gerard van Honthorst to go alongside it. . . .

Christie’s Old Masters
Two seasons after moving its big New York Old Master paintings sale to the spring, perversely going against the tradition of holding such events during the last week in January, Christie’s sensibly backtracked and held its latest Old Master sale on Jan. 28, 2009. Though not as strong as Sotheby’s sale the following day, it was filled with quite a few good things, though like Sotheby’s, the results were rather mixed.

Twelve canvases depicting all 12 Sibyls, though attributed to Francesco de Zurbaran "and studio," were all obviously studio works of exceptional mediocrity (est. $2 million-$3 million) that didn’t elicit a single bid. A group of 18th- and 19th-century French pictures mostly received a similarly chilly reception, with works by Phillipe Mercier, Jean Chardin (Still Life With Fish and a Copper Pot, est. $1.2 million-$1.8 million) and a rare though awkward early Antoine Watteau of an army encampment (The Supply Train, est. $800,000-$1.2 million) failing to find buyers.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the failure of a beautiful Anne-Louis Girodet painting of the equally luscious Jacques-Joseph de Cathelineau. A fascinating posthumous portrait of a famous Anti-Republican general who was killed in 1793, the painting shows the hero dressed and coiffed in the smart fashion of 1820 (est. $800,000-$1.2 million).

These unsuccessful lots were partially offset by an interesting group of 15th-century Italian pictures which, though by anonymous and obscure masters, sold -- albeit often under-estimate. A handsome tondo of The Adoration of the Shepherds by a late follower of Filippino Lippi dubbed the "Master of Memphis" (est. $500,000-$800,000) still sold at $302,500, and a second tondo from the Sandro Botticelli workshop of a Madonna with the Young Baptist and an Angel (est. $200,000-$300,000) sold at $152,500, while a devotional panel of Sts. Jerome and Joseph with a donor by the eccentric Lucchese master Michelanglo di Pietro Mencherini (est. $60,000-$80,000) sold for $230,500.

The highlight of the Italian pictures was a bravura sketch of the Head of St. John the Evangelist (est. $400,000-$600,000) by Federico Barocci, an oil study for the artist’s famous Entombment of Christ altarpiece. Though a second version of the sketch exists, unusually enough (in the National Gallery of Art), most scholars accept the Christie’s sketch as equally authentic, an opinion confirmed by the $1,762,500 price paid by London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni.

The pride of the sale was a group of three (originally five) J.M.W. Turner watercolors and drawings from the collection of William and Eleanor Wood Prince of Chicago. With the exception of one minor work withdrawn by the family and a creepy chalk study of a head of a girl looking either orgasmic or strangled, all sold very well, notably The Brunig Pass from Meringen, Switzerland, a late watercolor seemingly executed in breaths of color (est. $1.5 million-$2.5 million), which brought $1,082,500. A briskly painted John Constable oil sketch of a View of Salisbury -- more dramatic and arresting than any French sketch of the period -- (est. $500,000- $800,000) sold even better, well above its estimate, at $1,082,500.

The most interesting results in the British art selection were two canvases by the expatriate Pennsylvanian Quaker Benjamin West, both recent museum deacessions. The Battle of La Hogue, a history picture commemorating a British-Dutch naval victory against (as usual) the French in 1692, is a second version of a picture now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1964 and sold by the museum at Sotheby’s New York in 2006 for $632,000, its buyers resold it three years later at $722,500 for a nice profit.

A more inexplicable deaccession was Cupid Embracing Psyche of 1808 (est. $300,000-$500,000), sold by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which had purchased the work in 1910. An exceptionally erotic picture by West, much inspired by Antonio Canova’s great marble of the subject, it was a masterpiece of Anglo-American neoclassicism and very much unlike most pictures by West in American collections. Its sale by the Corcoran is inexplicable, and its buyer got rather a bargain for $458,500.

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

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.