This Creepy 17th-Century Baby Portrait Was Found in the Home of an ‘Eccentric’ English Farmer. It May Fetch $24,000 at Auction

For years, a 17th-century portrait of a child hid on the back of a door in an English cottage that was crammed with antiques, rarely seen even by the eccentric collector who lived there. 

Now, following the owner’s death, the artwork is set to hit the auction block in London, where it’s estimated to fetch £18,000 to £20,000 ($21,500 to $24,000).

That’s a lot for an artwork relegated to the back of a door. But if you’re wondering why such a valuable piece of art didn’t garner a more prominent placement in the Surrey home, well the painting itself may hold the answer: It’s creepy as hell. 

Hansons, the auction house set to sell the piece on January 28, calls the portrait’s subject a “miniature adult.” But the phrase “weirdly big baby” may better capture this picture’s particular brand of uncanniness. 

Painted nearly 400 years ago, it depicts a cherubic toddler decked out in an ankle-length gown and a lace collar. Stiffly upright the child stands next to a table, the proportions of which make her seem at least four-and-a-half feet tall. 

“I was surprised to find such a compelling portrait hidden away,” said Hansons associate director Chris Kirkham in a statement. “However, I discovered there was a reason for it. The keen collector who acquired it had downsized some years before and brought all of his much-loved antiques with him.”

“His collection included several paintings which were hung on much smaller walls than they had originally been intended for,” Kirkham went on. “He struggled for display space and this little girl in all her finery got tucked away behind a door. Sadly, the collector passed away and this centuries-old work was forgotten.”

It was only by chance that the auction house executive happened to look on the other side of the door, which otherwise remained perpetually propped open. “I just happened to move it and thank goodness I did,” he said.

Courtesy of Hansons Auctioneers.

The piece is being commissioned by the collector’s daughter, who called her father “an eccentric and a collector of all types of antiques and curios.” 

“He had a really good eye for unusual objects and art,” she said. “It offered him a hobby away from his working life as a farmer.”

She noted that she thinks the man “may have purchased the painting at auction many years ago but can’t be sure.”

In the upper register of the canvas is the artist’s name, Adriaen Verkins, and the date it was created, 1626. Hansons suggests that Verkins may have been a Dutch artist whose work—heavily influenced by that of masters like Van Dyck and Rubens—was otherwise lost to time.

The painting will be offered in the company’s Fine Art and Antiques Auction on January 28.

“It is remarkable what we find hidden away in homes, often forgotten and, in this case, behind a door,” added the auction house’s owner, Charles Hanson. “Collectors tend to fill their homes with so many wonderful items over the course of decades, it is easy to lose sight of which ones may be of special significance.”

“When you look into this little girl’s eyes you are swept back to the early 17th century. Fashions of the time for the rich—the poor were in rags—were showy and laden with ornamentation. Jewelry, lace, and multiple contrasting fabrics displayed wealth. This portrait is a remarkable find. It is like a time capsule offering an insight into the life of a wealthy child.”

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Are We in for a Basquiat Auction Boom? A Fashion Executive’s Rare Skull Painting Could Fetch Over $50 Million at Christie’s

The season of dueling Basquiats is upon us, with two major paintings up for sale next month—one at Christie’s, the other at Sotheby’s. Together, they may bring in $100 million.

Christie’s will offer In This Case (1983), a large skull on a red background, in its New York evening sale of 21st century art on May 11. The canvas has an unpublished estimate of about $50 million. Two days after that, Versus Medici (1982) will be part of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction on May 13, where it is estimated to bring in between $35 million to $50 million.

“It’s going to be Basquiat versus Basquiat,” said Alberto Mugrabi, a private art dealer and collector. “They are both great paintings.”

The works come to market as demand for Basquiat is surging, according to dealers and auction executives. Just last month, Basquiat’s Warrior (1982) fetched $41.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, a new record for a Western artist in Asia. Last year, hedge-fund manager Ken Griffin paid more than $100 million for a major 1982 Basquiat owned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant during the pandemic lockdown.

The seller of the skull at Christie’s is Italian businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, a co-founder of the Valentino fashion house, according to a person familiar with the work. It used to hang in Giammetti’s Manhattan apartment, where it was photographed above his dining table in a 2013 Architectural Digest spread. Christie’s declined to comment on the identity of the seller. Giammetti could not be immediately reached for comment.

Installation view of Basquiat's retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Christie's.

Installation view of Basquiat’s retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Christie’s.

Skulls are among Basquiat’s most sought-after works. The symbol is part momento mori, an icon of death; part self-portrait; and part memorable logo, harkening back to Basquiat’s origins as a street artist.

Giammetti purchased the painting for $999,500 at Sotheby’s in 2002. It is the last of three large skull canvases Basquiat made in successive years, according to Christie’s.

In This Case was included in the late artist’s blockbuster retrospective in 2018 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, where the three skulls hung together. The other two are an untitled blue skull from 1982 that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought for $110.5 million in 2017, and a blue-and-peach one from 1981 in the collection of the Broad museum in Los Angeles. Maezawa’s work holds Basquiat’s auction record.

Christie’s rival Sotheby’s is hoping to strike gold with the seven-foot-tall Versus Medici, which Basquiat painted soon after an influential trip to Italy in 1981. The painting is among the artist’s “most forceful visual challenges to the Western art establishment, in which the young artist boldly crowns himself—the son of immigrants from Haiti and Puerto Rico—as successor to the artistic throne as established by the masters of the Italian Renaissance,” according to the house.

Art handlers with Basquiat's Versus Medici (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Art handlers with Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Only two other works by the artist have sold for more than $50 million at auction.

“Everything that relates to the new generation of Black artists, he was the beginning of all this,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art. “Without Basquiat, art history of the past 40 years would have been very different. He’s the most desirable artist at the moment.”

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A 1982 Basquiat Is Expected to Fetch Over $30 Million at Christie’s Hong Kong, Setting a Record for a Western Artist in Asia

As auction houses prepare to enter another season with most of the world in lockdown, they are seeking ways to make sure their sales still feel like events. To that end, Christie’s is holding a single-lot sale in Hong Kong dedicated to a pricey painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat on March 23. 

The painting, titled Warrior, is from 1982, Basquiat’s most coveted year, and is estimated to fetch between HK$240 million and HK$320 million ($31 million to $41 million). Christie’s co-head of postwar and contemporary art, Cristian Albu, tells Midnight Publishing Group News that the work, which carries a third-party guarantee, is expected to become the most expensive by a Western artist ever to be sold in Asia. 

The Asian market’s appetite for Western art has been steadily increasing in recent years, and Albu says the auction house was particularly encouraged by last year’s results, which saw a wide net of Asian buyers bidding on work spanning the 20th century, as well as a new world record set for George Condo in Hong Kong in July. 

“Collectors are increasingly making links between traditional artists and Western art history,” Albu says. “I think it’s so important to broaden that idea of building the collection and understanding that Sanyu also gets inspired by Matisse, or that Zao Wou-Ki gets inspired by Soulages and the artists in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Warrior depicts a full-length figure, sword in hand. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in 2012 for $8.7 million and has been in the same collection ever since. Before that, it had an active decade on the market, having traded hands three times in seven years. During that time, its price climbed some 450 percent. 

The single-lot sale in Hong Kong will kick off for a five-hour marathon day of sales that continues in London with Christie’s 20th-century art evening sale and surrealist art evening sale.

The live auctions will be digitally streamed from salesrooms in Hong Kong, London, and New York, a continuation of the global strategy Christie’s began experimenting with in July 2020 with its four-location relay sale, “ONE.”

The sale will begin at 2 p.m. London time (10 p.m. in Hong Kong, 9 a.m. in New York), an unusually early start for an “evening” sale, in an effort to tempt Asian buyers to stay awake and active throughout the evening while still being late enough for US bidders to have had time for a quick espresso.

It certainly doesn’t hurt matters that Hong Kong’s market seems to be recovering from the impact of the pandemic more quickly than Europe and the US. At Christie’s December 2 sale in Hong Kong and New York, some 17 records were broken for modern and contemporary artists from around the world, including Dana Schutz and Amoako Boafo; it marked the house’s best result in Asia yet.

Hong Kong sales tend to draw a whole gamut of Asian collectors, according to Albu. “I was on the ground for that sale, and the whole web of collectors goes from Taiwan to China, to Hong Kong, to South Korea, to Japan, to Malaysia, Indonesia, to Singapore,” he says.

Basquiat’s Warrior will be on view at Christie’s showroom at Rockefeller Center in New York beginning next week, before it is flown to Hong Kong to be shown at Alexandra House until the sale.

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