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Art Market Watch

by Paul Jeromack
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Christie’s London evening sale of Old Master and British paintings on July 5, 2011, totaled £49,766,050 (ca. $79.6 million, with £1 = $1.60), with 41 of the 61 lots selling, or 67 percent.

The highlight at Christie’s was a George Stubbs masterpiece from ca. 1765, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainee, a jockey and a stable lad (est. £20,000,000-£30,000,000, or about $31 million-$45 million). An icon of British 18th-century art, this portrait of the celebrated racehorse had last appeared on the market in 1951, when it was sold at Christie’s for 12,000 guineas. In recent years the picture has been much-exhibited at museums, and it is requested for the 2012 Stubbs retrospective at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

So, the painting was not exactly fresh to the market, as indicated in the catalogue by a discreetly placed red diamond, indicating that "Christie’s guarantee of a minimum price has been fully financed through third party.” Just how much this sum might be remained undisclosed, so prospective buyers for the picture were encouraged to try to top this anonymous mystery "bid."

While the practice of guarantees may work with Impressionist and modern pictures, Stubbs remains a limited taste and with the exception of Paul Mellon, few non-English buyers have pursued his works at auction. Christie’s went the limit with its promotion, including an exhaustive, scholarly 30-page catalogue entry, but despite the firm’s valiant efforts, nobody bid -- but the picture sold all the same (presumably to the mysterious "third party" guarantor) for a record £22,441,250 (about $35.9 million), among the highest prices ever paid for any British picture.

The previous record for Stubbs was set at Sotheby’s in December, when a group portrait of Brood Mares and Foals brought £10,121,250 ($16 million), just at the presale low estimate of £10,000,000.

By the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, Stubbs was forgotten, but the works of his contemporaries Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds and other British portrait painters were among the most expensive pictures anyone could buy. Much favored by the American "squillionares" Mellon, Frick and Morgan, the market for these glamorous aristocratic images reached its height in 1921, when Duveen sold Gainsborough’s iconic Blue Boy from the collection of the Duke of Westminster to California railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington for a staggering $728,000 (equivalent today to $9 million), the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

With a change in American taste and the American economy, the market for these pictures crashed -- but this month Christie’s London offered a taste of those heady times with Gainsborough’s satin-clad full-length Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois (est. £4,000,000-£6,000,000). Remarkably, the portrait remained on British shores through the American boom, selling via Agnew’s in 1919 (for a high £49,500) to the first Viscount Cowdray, whose family consigned it to Christie’s. As an example of the artists work, it may not be quite a masterpiece or even one of his more interesting portraits, but it was one of the few pictures of its type that were still available, and sold for £6,537,200 ($10.5 million), a new record for the artist.

Seventeenth-century Dutch pictures are usually the backbone of the London summer sales of Old Masters, yet both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had fewer works of this school than usual. The highlight of Christie’s selection was Simon de Vlieger’s placid marine, Dutch Frigates Exchanging Salutes in a Calm (est. £400,000-£600,000, or $610,000-$900,000), which sold to a private collector (outbidding such stalwart dealers as Johnny van Haeften) for £1,553,250 (ca. $2.5 million).

But a surprising number of Christie’s Dutch pictures failed to find buyers, including solid works by Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Salomon van Ruysdael. The biggest disappointment was Dirck van Delen’s splashy Technicolored masterpiece Palace Arcade with Elegant Figures. Even though it was estimated at a strong £500,000-£800,000, I thought it would go high, yet it was bought in when the bidding failed to exceed £490,000.

Other schools were even more sparsely represented, but a masterpiece or two could be found. Louis Leopold Boilly, for instance, may be best known for his refined and highly finished depiction of life and love amongst the prosperous middle-class and demimondes of Paris (splendidly seen in The Entrance to the Turkish Garden Café, bought by the Getty at Christie’s New York in January 2010 for a record $4,562,500), but he was also an unusually accomplished specialist of trompe l’oeil painting (the most famous example being the Tabletop with Coins and Playing Cards in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille).

Christie’s offered Boilly’s most striking and powerful example of this genre, an Ivory and Wood Crucifix Hanging on a White Wall (est. £200,000-£300,000). Exhibited by the artist to great acclaim at the Paris Salons of 1812 and 1814, it was last sold by Christie’s in the Northwick Park dispersal of 1965, where it brought 12,000 guineas ($35,280), an unusually high price for this artist at the time. Forty-six years later it was well-bought by dealer Luca Baroni for £481,250 ($770,000).

Of the Italian pictures, the big disappointment was the failure of Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna and Child, (est. £2,500,000-£3,500,000), bought at Sotheby’s New York in 2000 for $1,102,500 and now going down without a bid. A small group of panels from the 14th and 15th century were better received, notably an exquisitely preserved complete private devotional gold-ground triptych by Taddeo Gaddi, which sold for £1,329,250, within its presale estimate.

The sale concluded with the newly discovered black chalk drawing of a male nude seen from the back by Michelangelo, a study for the famed but now-lost fresco of The Battle Of Cascina of 1505. Strongly estimated at £3,000,000-£5,000,000, the beautiful but damaged sheet failed to elicit much salesroom enthusiasm. It did seem to squeak by, however, selling to an anonymous phone bidder for £3,177,250, or just over $5 million.

*     *     *
The next evening, on July 6, Sotheby’s London held its evening Old Masters sale, totaling £47,640,900 (ca. $76.5 million), with 50 of 73 lots finding buyers, or 68.5 percent.

The auction began ominously with a barely broken string of unsold pictures, including a Lawyer’s Office by Pieter Breughel the Younger (est. £800,000-£1,200,000) -- and when a Breughel the Younger actually fails to sell, the Old Master market begins to get nervous. The proceedings brightened considerably when a newly-discovered ca. 12 x 9 in. Floral Still Life in an Arched Stone Window with a Landscape Beyond by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (est. £300,000-£400,000) sold to dealer Johnny van Haeften for £1,026,850 (about $1.6 million).

While not in flawless condition, as one of only seven still lifes by the artist featuring a landscape seen through an arch (the sublime example in the Carter Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum is unique in having a landscape sans arch), the work is the kind of Bosschaert everyone dreams about, and is not likely to remain "available" very long.

The other northern picture of note was also in its way the most exciting thing in the sale: a large double-sided altarpiece wing by Hans Schauffelein of The Dormition of the Virgin, backed with Christ Carrying the Cross (est. £1,500,000-£2,000,000). A pupil of Albrecht Durer, Schaufelein has always been a rare master; while several of his drawings have appeared on the market over the last few years (notably a pen Standing Landsknecht sold at Christie’s, London in 2005 for £187,200 and a red-chalk Head of a Man bought by the Metropolitan Museum at Christie’s New York in 2002 for $270,000), it has been decades since a painting of real quality by the artist has been available.

German paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries -- with the notable exceptions of Durer, Cranach and Holbein the Younger -- have long been as undervalued as they are scarce, and they still have a low acquisition priority among most museums. But this negligence appears to be at an end, as evidenced by last July’s sale of Georg Pencz’s Portrait of Sigismund Baldinger at Christie’s London to New York dealer Otto Naumann for £5,641,250 (about $8.5 million). In 2011 Naumann again emerged victorious, fending off considerable competition to secure the Schaufelein for a record £2,279,250 (ca. $4.4 million).

Sotheby’s other rare offering of the evening was a beautiful, newly discovered Madonna and Child by Antonio Allegri, called Correggio, recently unearthed from an anonymous Swiss private collection, which carried a presale estimate of £2,000,000-£3,000,000. Though an early work lacking the melting luminosity and grace of his mature masterpieces, it is the only painting by the artist to come to market since the Getty’s acquisition of a small Head of Christ in 1994, and as such, sold to a phone bidder for a record £3,625,250 (ca. $5.8 million).

The sale’s one major flop was the luscious Portrait of a Nude Woman and Child as Venus and Cupid by Sir Peter Lely, which failed to sell. Almost certainly depicting Nell Gwynn, the mistress of King Charles II, this much celebrated picture is one of the sexiest (and most blatantly sexual) English nudes ever painted. It caused something of a sensation at Christie’s London in 2007 when it was bought by for a record £1,588,000. Now consigned by the same owner, and despite Sotheby’s much-lower estimate of £600,000-£800,000 (ca. $1 million-$1.3 million), “pretty, witty Nell” failed to arouse the audience, buying in without a bid at £580,000.

Yet all was forgotten at the sale’s conclusion when Francesco Guardi’s Venice: A View of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North from the Fondamenta del Carbon came on the block. Since being rediscovered in the early 20th century, Guardi’s sparkling, decorative view paintings have never gone out of fashion, and Sotheby’s example was in every way exceptional, being one of his three largest paintings and one that had only changed hands once in its history, sold by the descendants of its first owner Chaloner Arcedeckne to the First Earl of Iveagh via Agnews in 1891. Best of all it was miraculously spared the scrubbings of later cleaners and "restorers" and was in pristine condition beneath its yellowed varnish.

Even so, Sotheby’s bullish estimate of £15,000,000-£25,000,000 was greeted with some shock. "THAT much? For a GUARDI?" But few auctioneers are as patient or as delicately coaxing as Sotheby’s chairman Henry Windham. Opening the bidding at £12 million, Windham calmly finessed the telephone clients as bidding inched up slowly.

As the price surpassed £20 million, the glee in the room from the Sotheby’s contingent was palpable (Nyah, Nyah, Christie’s! We beat your Stubbs!) andwhen the hammer fell at last, the final price of £26,697,250 ($42.8 million), paid by an anonymous phone bidder, was not only a record for the artist, but the second highest auction price for an Old Master painting -- the £49.5 million spent by Canadian businessman Kenneth Thomson, 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet, for Rubens’ great Massacre of the Innocents in at Sotheby’s London in 2002 being the highest.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York journalist and critic.