Masters

Christie’s Sets Records for Georges de la Tour and Six Other Artists at Its Healthy $52.8 Million London Old Masters Sale


The Old Master market came to life for two hours at Christie’s London on Thursday evening, whipping up a respectable £45.3 million ($52.8 million) and sparking occasions of broad bidding.

The sale was a faithful antidote to Sotheby’s anemic £17.2 million ($23.8 million) outing on Wednesday evening in London, where 21 of the 49 lots failed to find buyers, resulting in a dismal sell-through rate of 57 percent.

Experts attributed the week’s unevenness in part to the field’s conservative penchant for viewing works in person, especially the 500-year-old Dutch pictures prevalent at Sotheby’s, in light of the fact that international travel still hamstrung by the pandemic. Christie’s also had a leg up with more long-held works coming to market.

While Sotheby’s £17.2 million ($23.9 million) sale came in at the low end of its £16.9 million-to-£24.8 million estimate, Christie’s 59-lot offering came in toward the top end of its £36.7 million-to-£56.1 million range. Forty-six of its offerings sold for a decent sell-through rate of 78 percent.

Artemisia Gentileschi, <i>Venus and Cupid</i>. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Venus and Cupid. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

Seven artist records were set, including standout paintings by Georges de La Tour, Bernardo Bellotto, and Adriaen van de Velde. Five works were backed by financial guarantees, assuring their sale ahead of the auction. (By contrast, Sotheby’s sale earlier this week boasted zero guarantees.)

The London Old Master sales marked a return for the summer events after they were cancelled last year. (In lieu of these standalone sales, auction houses experimented last year with cross-category efforts, which had the added bonus of enabling them to build a sale with whatever available works were strongest.)

This week also saw a reversal of fortunes compared to the most recent equivalent sales in July 2019, when Sotheby’s achieved a £56 million total for its evening sale, one of its best results ever, and Christie’s scored a paltry £14.9 million. (Final prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)

Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli, <i>View of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, from the entrance of the Grand Canal</i>. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021.

Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli, View of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, from the entrance of the Grand Canal. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

A Buoyant Start

The usual maxim for the Old Master market applied to both evening sales: supply was the name of the game.

“The two results were kind of reflective of the quality of the two sales,” said Anthony Crichton Stuart, director of Agnews London. “I don’t think there were any big surprises. The market as we know is still very selective so in that sense, the Christie’s sale was something of a triumph and the results were commensurate.”

The sale got off to a buoyant start with the wildly surreal oil on panel by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of Saint Anthony, which fetched £262,500 ($361,463), more than double its high estimate of £100,000.

The top lot of the evening was Bernardo Bellotto’s sweeping and super large-scale View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi (1745–47). Acquired by the seller at Christie’s London in 1971 for £300,000, it has been on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh ever since. Though it took top honors, it came in below the heady estimate at a record £10.6 million ($14.6 million) (estimate: £12 million to £18 million).

Another virtuoso work, groaning with epicurean foodstuffs, was Jan Davidsz. De Heem’s A Banquet Still Life, with the artist’s signature deftly placed on a sheet of music resting under a lute. It sold for a mid-estimate £3.1 million ($4.3 million). The work was restituted in 2019 to the heirs of Jacob Lierens, whose villa and art collection were confiscated by the Nazis and the banquet “acquired” in 1941 for the unrealized Fuhrermuseum in Linz.

Also a top lot of the evening was Gaspar van Wittel’s View of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, from the entrance of the Grand Canal, which floated past its  £1 million high estimate to fetch £1.6 million ($2.3 million).

Bernardo Bellotto, <i>View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi</i>. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021.

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

A trio of women artists stuck out in a sale otherwise dominated by male names. Angelica Kauffman’s striking, elaborately costumed portrait of Lady Elizabeth Smith Stanley, her infant son Edward, and her half sister Lady Augusta brought £562,50 ($774,563) (estimate: £500,000–800,000). This outstanding neoclassical portrait painter, who developed a strong reputation in Rome and London during her lifetime, suffered through the ages from misogynist allegations of her romantic liaisons with famous male artists such as Joshua Reynolds and, as a result, paled next to her male colleagues.

Later in the sale, Artemisia Gentileschi’s evocative composition, Venus and Cupid, featuring a reclining and mostly nude mythic beauty embraced by the winged cherub, sold for an estimate-busting £2.4 million ($3.3 million), double its £1.2 million high estimate.

The painting—now the second highest auction price notched for the artist—was acquired by the seller privately in Switzerland in 1959 and cuts a long trail of ownership begun in the 17th century by Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a nephew of Pope Urban VIII and collector of such masterpieces as Caravaggio’s Cardsharps and The Lute Player.

But the sleeper in that small female group was the 17th century Southern Netherlands painter Michaelina Wautier’s Head of a Boy, executed in oil on canvas and measuring just 16 7/8 by 13 1/3 inches. It ignited a bidding war and finally sold for £400,000 ($550,800), a whopping five times its high estimate. The modest painting last sold at Christie’s London in December 2008 for £30,000, when it was misidentified as Circle of the Le Nain Brothers.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, <i>A banquet still life</i>. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, A banquet still life. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

It has been only in the past 20 years or so that Wautier’s Baroque style has been properly acknowledged after generations of misattributions, including those of her painter brother Charles, brought to light by art historian Katlijne der Stighelen.

Also in the 17th century vein, a rare and late oil on canvas by Georges de La Tour, Saint Andrew, capturing the intense spirituality of one of the 12 apostles, realized a record £4.3 million ($6.1 million) (estimate: £4 million–6 million). The success of another nocturne, which sold last year for $5 million to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, may have helped pry this one from its owner’s hands; there are few others, if any, known to be left in private collections.

Ferdinand Bol, <i>Portrait of a lady at a casement</i>. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2021.

Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a lady at a casement. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021.

Reassuring Depth

The market showed reassuring depth for first-rate offerings, as evidenced by Ferdinand Bol’s riveting Portrait of a Lady at a Casement (1652), featuring the bride resting her arm on a pillow, which soared to £1.2 million ($1.7 million) (estimate: £400,000–600,000). The detached pendant (of her husband) resides at the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig.

On a lighter and decidedly musical note, Frans van Mieris, the Elder’s intimate and detailed 12-by-9.5-inch The Music Lesson attracted a posse of bidders and hauled in £3.5 million ($4.8 million), more than triple its £1 million high estimate.

Of the British entries, Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s Pre-Raphaelite stunner and retelling on canvas the tale of Sleeping Beauty, The Prince Entering the Briar Wood (1869), spun to £2.4 million ($3.4 million).

“Tonight was a tremendous confidence boost to the Old Master market,” said Henry Pettifer, Christie’s London head of the Old Master paintings department.

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What Helen Frankenthaler Learned About Painting From Visiting the Old Masters at the Prado


Helen sat on the steps of the Prado, smoking a cigarette in the blazing heat of midafternoon while the museum was closed for siesta. By then she had been in the darkened galleries for five hours, having arrived when the doors opened at nine, and she would go back in when the doors reopened and stay until closing time at 7:30. This was Helen’s routine every day during her time in Madrid, part of a two-month tour she took alone that summer through Spain and southern France.

That spring, Helen had been thinking of escaping Manhattan for part of the summer. The city was too grimy and noisy. Her analyst was taking the month of July off. Her sister Gloria was in Europe with her husband, ticking off boxes on the list of popular sites—“everything was wonderful, beautiful, divine, delicious”—and the banality of her sibling’s tourism was an inspiration: Helen knew she would never waste a European trip like that. Meanwhile her mother’s condition was worsening—“She is really a very sick, helpless, hopeless woman in so many ways, and the whole situation is depressing and difficult to manage”—and the relationship with Greenberg was never easy. On July 8, she was one of a thousand passengers on board the S.S. Constitution, an air-conditioned luxury ocean liner more than two football fields long, departing New York for the six-day voyage to Gibraltar.

[…]

Her visits to the Prado were a pilgrimage to stand before actual works, to bask in their aura. She did not care for a “museum without walls,” a phrase coined by French writer André Malraux in his book The Voices of Silence, published later in 1953, which extolled the fact that “an art student can examine color reproductions of most of the world’s great paintings” without ever leaving home. Helen was no longer an art student. Her Bennington days critiquing postcards on bulletin boards were over. She was a real painter now, with far more blood and toil and ego invested in the pursuit. She would look at the Old Masters to double down on her own art, to draw direct inspiration from the greatest artists who ever lived, to fashion an imaginary alliance with these men from the past who would inspire—by some internal standard of her own—the measure and seriousness of her art.

[…]

It all required a deep breath, taking in paintings of this kind, none more so than those of Peter Paul Rubens, an artist Helen loved whose work anticipates her own protean creative energy. Master of bombast and vulgarity, Rubens was probably the wettest painter who ever lived, the artist who most reveled in oil paint’s shimmer and viscosity, the one who put a person in mind not of a palette but of a bubbling cauldron as the source into which he dipped his brush. In picture after picture he set about his subjects—martyrs, mythologies, coronations—with a zeal that portrayed skin, water, sky, robes, fishes’ gills, decapitated heads, marble statues of maenads squirting fountain water from their breasts, muscles flexing on broad backs, the foliage of trees, anything at all, as if these lustrous facsimiles were nothing more than the products of a regular day at work, just another morning in the studio. Helen thought Rubens was “the greatest painter of all.”

Two years before her trip to Spain, she explained to [critic Sonya] Rudikoff the charge she got from looking at such paintings. The word was notably anti-intellectual; the more bookish Rudikoff did not like it. “Do you really get a ‘charge’ out of a painting?” she wrote back. Helen’s response was, “Of course I do! I believe that’s the only way to really look at a painting.” Sure, works of art offered more: “I do think that the first second of seeing a great painting is only a charge; and then you can look at the whys of it; its history or tradition, technique, etc.” But for Helen that first moment was paramount; a picture succeeded or failed exactly then, not by some academic scrutiny that came afterward. She was adamant that “no painting  is good ‘intellectually.’” And she credited one person with helping her make that realization. Paul Feeley had taught her how to paint, Meyer Schapiro had taught her what paintings mean, but [Clement] Greenberg had “really helped me to see or feel paintings; to develop a finer eye and detect the truth and magic in paintings.” She had gone with him to Philadelphia in late March 1952 to see a touring show of Old Master paintings from Vienna and had come away with a “thrilling feeling.” Now, at the Prado, without Clem, Helen was finding this magic for herself, and she was thinking that she, too, must make knock-out paintings—works that would stun the viewer with an unforgettable first impression, a sensation that endured, a “charge.”

At stake was the greatest thing a painter could do—convey the sense of being alive at a certain time, just as the Old Masters had done in their eras. In New York Helen looked around and felt that few painters were doing that. “I feel that contemporary painting simply isn’t great painting,” she lamented in 1951. The art crowding the walls of modern art galleries “isn’t good enough for us, now.” It missed the feeling of life that Helen found at Ed Winston’s Tropical Bar and other such places: the texture of experience, the life on the street, the elusive and intoxicating sensations that Ralph Waldo Emerson back in the 19th century had extolled as the greatest subject for American poets and painters: “the meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body.” The Old Masters had found these sensations in their respective eras, portraying biblical and mythological events with a lustrous presentism: a peasant couple in their coarse rags welcoming disguised Jupiter and Mercury to their hut; callous soldiers in their leather jerkins and silvery black armor, rolling dice and swilling ale, one of them fitting Jesus with his crown of thorns. As she thought of painting in her own time in comparison, Helen went into a “real depression.” She had gone first to a contemporary art show at the Kootz Gallery in New York, then to a masterpieces show at a Manhattan Old Master gallery, then back to Kootz, where the new paintings that had looked fresh and exciting before now looked meager, unimportant, trivial. She made an analogy: “Shakespeare is greater than most (all) things going on now poetry-wise, but this is not his era.”

Who would be the Shakespeare of the 1950s? Who would be the Rubens? Pollock was on their level. So was Arshile Gorky, the morose Armenian hedonist whose surrealist-inspired paintings of lush Venus flytrap pleasure gardens, aglow in spike edges and orifices, had grown in fame since his suicide in 1948 at the age of 44. But Helen felt that they were “the only ones of a particular school that give me a real charge that might compare— somewhat—to the excitement I get from seeing a really great Old Master.”

From Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. ©2021 Alexander Nemerov.

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A Single Mega-Collector Went on a Big-Time Buying Spree to Power Sotheby’s $114 Million Old Masters Auction


A rare-to-market 15th-century masterwork by the Florentine super-star painter Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel from circa 1480, led Sotheby’s live-streamed Master paintings and sculpture sale on Thursday morning for a record $92.2 million.

Bidding opened at an eye-popping $70 million and chugged along with the help of chandelier bids at $2 million dollar increments until a real one came in at $78 million, quickly followed by the winning $80 million hammer price. It went to an anonymous telephone bidder represented by Lilija Sitnika, Sotheby’s London-based senior client liaison working the Russia desk.

The underbidder was from Asia, according to Sotheby’s, which had tagged an unpublished and unprecedented estimate for the department in excess of $80 million for the 23-by-15-inch tempera-on-poplar panel.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1444/5–1510). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1444/5–1510). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The price shattered the previous mark for Botticelli, set at Christie’s in January 2013, with the so-called “Rockefeller Madonna” (also known as Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist) that made $10.4 million against an estimate of $5 to $7 million.

Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, a pristine, half-length portrait, shows an unidentified but seriously handsome young man with shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair, costumed in a tightly tailored mauve doublet, holding a disc-shaped gold portrait of a 14th-century bearded saint.

The figure is framed by a window but no landscape is visible, only a pale blue rectangle of light as his delicately rendered hands rest on a stone ledge.

It last sold at auction at Christie’s London in December 1982 with the title Portrait of Giovanni de Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to the New York real estate magnate Sheldon Solow for a then-record £810,0000 ($1.1 million in today’s currency).

It was Solow’s estate that sold the work today.

Some art-historian heavyweights from that time, including the late and esteemed Everett Fahy, the long-time chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and later a consultant in the Old Master department at Christie’s, held reservations about the attribution to Botticelli, preferring to credit fellow Florentine Francesco Botticini as the artist in question.

That viewpoint vanished today with the record price. Sotheby’s Old Masters department head Christopher Apostle characterized doubts as to its attribution as “a red herring.”

The Master of Marradi, The Death of Lucretia at the Banquet of Lucius Junius Brutus. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Since the portrait sold in London, it has spent extended periods on loan at both the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the latter loan from May 2013 to February 2020.

Today’s Botticelli buyer (paddle number 45), whether Russian or not, went on a bit of a buying spree, and scooped up three other works through Sitnika, including the Master Of Marradi’s mid-15th century multi-figured scene, The Death of Lucretia at the Banquet of Lucius Junius Brutus, for a record $1 million (against an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000) and Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 19th-century landscape, La Cascade de Terni, for $600,800 (estimated for $200,000 to $300,000).

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, <i>La Cascade de Terni</i>. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, La Cascade de Terni. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The sale tallied $114.5 million including fees—meaning that the collector who snapped up the Botticelli accounts for more than 80 percent of the money that changed hands. The sales total beat presale expectations of $100 million to $110.2 million. (Pre-sale estimates do not include buyers’ fees; final figures do).

Thirteen of the 43 offered lots failed to sell, for a buy-in rate of 30 percent.

Six artist records were set, and the Botticelli now ranks as the second-most-expensive Old Master painting to sell at auction, surpassed only by Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (circa 1500), which sold at Christie’s New York in a Post-war and contemporary art evening sale in November 2017 for $450.3 million, the highest price ever achieved for any work at auction.

The live-streamed sale, with Oliver Barker conducting from the Sotheby’s studio in London, easily surpassed last January’s Master paintings evening sale, held in person at the firm’s York Avenue headquarters. That sale realized $61.1 million against an estimate of $47.7 to $61.8 million.

Remarkably (or so it would seem) the other star lot of today’s sale—Rembrandt’s stunning Abraham and the Angels from 1646, measuring just 6 3/8 by 8 3/8 inches, and estimated at $20 to $30 million with a Sotheby’s-backed financial guarantee—was withdrawn from the auction at the 11th hour.

“We’re short-term caretakers of this painting,” Apostle said when asked about its status. “It’s going to find a new home very quickly.”

Luca della Robbia, Relief of the Madonna and child (ca. 1450). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Luca della Robbia, Relief of the Madonna and child (ca. 1450). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

That drama aside, the sale motored on in rather effortless fashion with the standout Luca della Robbia’s Relief of the Madonna and child in tin-glazed terra cotta, and deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, making a record $2 million (it was estimated at $700,000 to $1 million). Four of the six lots the institution offered found buyers, for a total of $3.2 million.

Other highlights included the only female artist in the sale, the Dutch Golden Age painter Rachel Ruysch and her masterfully realistic Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly from 1698, which realized an estimate-busting $2.2 million (against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million).

Rachel Ruysch, Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly (1698).

Rachel Ruysch, Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly (1698).

Another Dutch master, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s sumptuous, late-17th-century Still life with grapes in a basket, peaches on a silver dish, medlars, two butterflies, a fly and a snail, all on a red velvet cloth over a partially draped ledge, went for $2.3 million (against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million).

It last sold at the Paris auction house Gros & Delettrez in June 2012 for €1.4 million ($1.7 million) hammer.

A charming Flemish work, Frans Pourbus the Elder’s Portrait of a young woman, aged 17, holding a small spaniel wearing a collar of bells (1576), elicited multiple bids, bringing$478,000, a record for the artist.

It last sold at auction at Doyle New York in September 1978, when it made $20,000 hammer.

On the more somber side, Hugo van der Goes’s dramatically dark composition The descent from the cross, sold for $3.4 million (it was estimated at $3 to $5 million) and came to market backed by an in-house guarantee.

Though the star Rembrandt was disappointedly withdrawn, there was some compensation with Portrait of a young man behind a balustrade, possibly a self-portrait of the artist by Aert de Gelder—Rembrandt’s last pupil, according to Sotheby’s. It sold to an online bidder for a record $927,500 (it was estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million).

“We met our expectations,” said George Wachter, co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings worldwide. “And we also met our goals, so we’re really relieved at that.”

The live-streamed action resumes Friday morning at Sotheby’s with the single-owner and heavily marketed “Fearless: The Collection of Hester Diamond,” featuring more Old Masters and then some.

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