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Art Market Watch

by Paul Jeromack

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Serving as an appetizer of sorts before the big July Old Master sales London, the Old Master painting auctions in New York in June are relatively small but can feature unusual, often reasonably priced pictures for the astute buyer. Christie’s sale on June 8, 2011, started the week with an imposing panel of Mary Magdalen with an Ointment Jar, ca. 1510-1515, by the Master of the Parrot, estimated at $600,000-$800,000.

One of a number of anonymous minor masters active in Antwerp in the first decades of the 16th century, the Master of the Parrot headed a large workshop specializing in images of the Madonna and Child, often accompanied by the bird that gives him his moniker.

Most of the works given to the Master and his shop are of relatively modest quality, but Christie’s picture of the lavishly attired, rather bemused-looking saint standing before a tassel-trimmed curtain hoisted by two putti was of exceptionally fine quality and finish and is likely to be an autograph work of the Parrot Master himself.

Previously sold by Christies (as “attributed to” the Master of the Parrot) in 1992 for $170,000 (est. $80,000-$120,000), and subsequently cleaned with impressive results, it sold to an anonymous buyer for $1,426,500, a record for the artist.

Another of my favorites at Christie’s was The Battle between Alexander and Porus by Nicolaes Berchem, a theatrical tableau of flamboyant violence between Roman and turbaned soldiers accompanied by blasts of smoke and rampaging killer elephants. The artist is best appreciated for his atmospheric, pastoral Italianate landscapes, and despite its high quality, Christie’s canvas is the sort of Berchem most buyers of Dutch 17th-century pictures don’t especially want.

Selling nicely at Christies London in 1988 for £90,000, and for $344,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2003, The Battle between Alexander and Porus now sold to the London trade for a bargain $302,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000).

Sotheby’s offerings the following day likewise featured several excellent pictures not of mainstream taste, of which Etienne Jeaurat’s Judgment of Paris (est. $ 30,000-$50,000) was especially notable. While not an 18th-century French painter of the first or even second rank, Jeaurat surpasses himself in a delightful cabinet picture executed in a creamy Amigoni palette with both exceptional finesse and a droll humor not often seen in depictions of this popular subject.

Most painters give the love-smitten Paris and victorious Venus compositional primacy, but Jeaurat concentrates on Juno, who proves herself a poor loser as she stands between the two, angrily glaring and jabbing her finger at her smug rival. Though the picture sold to an anonymous buyer for $86,500, I thought it still rather cheap.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.