Big prices for Dutch and Flemish old master pictures are to be expected, but what made Sotheby’s New York’s spring Old Master sale on June 8, 2007, particularly interesting were the strong prices for pictures and schools long deemed unfashionable. Fourteenth-century Italian gold-ground panels have long been a very specialized, scholarly taste, and though a few Americans collect them (most notably veteran New York dealer Richard L. Feigen), most are now bought by Italian collectors.
Several good examples were deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at Sotheby’s: two large, fragmentary panels by the Florentine Giovanni del Biondo depicting The Angel of the Annunciation and The Annunciate Virgin (est. $150,000-$200,000) were, despite their cut-down state, in unusually good condition, particularly the lapis lazuli robe of the Virgin and details of the tooled brocade and gold backgrounds. No surprise, then, that these sold to a European phone buyer for $656,000.
Also from the A-K was a large, worn and grimy cassone panel by Masaccio’s brother, Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi, called Lo Scheggia, depicting a rare Roman historical subject from Livy, The Reduction of Alba Longa by Tullus Hostilius (est. $150,000-$200,000). This work also went to a phone bidder for $540,000.
Eighteenth-century French paintings have long been neglected by American museums. Only curator J. Patrice Marandel of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has sought them with any regularity and discernment, though recently the Metropolitan Museum has awakened from its acquisitional slumber, buying a pair of Nicolas Lancrets on copper and (just a few months ago) a superb sketch by Pierre Subleyras.
Sotheby’s sale featured a number of exceptional French paintings. Everyone loved the tiny three-inch oval portrait of Mohammed Reza Bey, Persian Ambassador to France during the Reign of Louis XIV by Antoine Coypel (est. $20,000-$30,000). Sold in Paris in December 2005 as "attributed to Coypel" for €6,800 ($8,047), it was recently on offer at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York for $18,000, and at Sotheby’s, it was bought by New York dealer Jack Kilgore for $57,000.
A particularly fine selection of items was consigned by Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Hilbert. Though an early and somewhat atypical Jean-Antoine Watteau Nymphe de Fontaine (est. $500,000-$800,000) was unsold at $400,000 bid, most of the other pictures sold gratifyingly well. François-André Vincent’s Zeuxis Choosing His Models (est. $400,000-$600,000), a reduced replica (by the artists and his assistants) of the artist’s monumental canvas exhibited at the Salon of 1789, sold to a phone bidder for a strong $734,400, and Francois-Xavier Fabre’s Portrait of Edgar Clarke (est. $150,000-$200,000), depicting the tousle-haired boy in a unisex neoclassical white shift chasing butterflies in a forest, had a curiously Biedermeier air about it but sold very well indeed at $336,000.
But by far the finest of the Hilbert pictures was an extraordinary group portrait of the household and private court of the Duc and Duchesse du Maine under the guise of the Feast of Dido and Aeneas (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000), by François de Troy. The court presided over by the Duc (a legitimized bastard son of Louis XIV) and the Duchesse was notorious for both the opulence of its parties and talents of its guests, described in Sotheby’s catalogue as "poets, comedians, musicians, dancers and intellectuals of all kinds who were expected to be there around the clock."
De Troy’s panorama of the court in this mythological guise was crammed with over 40 portraits (including a self-portrait of the artist). A lesser painter would have produced a dreary masquerade, but De Troy’s light and sensuous brush delineated each head with liveliness, personality and humor, producing an unheralded masterpiece of early 18th-century French painting.
Purchased by the Hilberts from Wildenstein & Co. more than a decade ago for a staggering $3.4 million, its superlative quality, its scale and courtly subject are still not to the taste of the average American collector or museum. The picture sold to a phone bidder (rumored to be the French government) for $1,776,000.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.
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