old masters

New Collectors and Museum Interest Help Drive New York’s Old Master Auctions to $150 Million—a High Not Seen in Years


The latest round of Old Master sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings (each house could boast a “white glove” sale), museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers, both crossing over from other collecting categories or bubbling up from new pockets of regional interest around the world.

Christie’s pulled in $62.8 million on Wednesday with an offering of roughly 75 works with no-reserve prices, from the fully-sold collection of J.E. Safra ($18.5 million) and the main Old Masters sale ($44.2 million).

Yesterday, Sotheby’s took in a hefty total of $86.6 million for a main Old Master auction that realized $28.8 million, as well as a “white glove” or 100 percent sold offering of the prestigious Fisch Davidson collection that brought in $49.6 million for 10 lots alone, and was the highest-earning individual auction of the week. Yet another Sotheby’s single owner sale of Dutch paintings from the Theiline Schumann collection added $8 million to the total.

Both houses also held smaller related sales of Old Master drawings, which reflected lower price points and wider circles of interest. Underscoring the serious quality and connoisseur demand at even these smaller day sales, this morning, the Rijksmuseum scooped up an early 17th-century bronze figure of an “écorché” man by Willlem Danielsz. van Tetrode for $1.5 million, while the Cleveland Museum of Art bought the bronze group of Apollo Flaying Marsyas (1691–1700) by Giovanni Battista Foggini for $882,000. More on the marquee museum purchases later.

The total for the main sales at both houses was just under $150 million ($149.4 million). While of course not an exact apples-to-apples comparison, consider that the most recent round of major sales in London last month, pulled in a combined $56 million, and that marked one of the best seasons in years. As Midnight Publishing Group News noted at the time, experiments to reinvent the category—such as developing new art historical narratives, several of which have highlighted female artists, and extensive presale touring of work—seem to be paying off.

“There were more paintings on the market this week than there had been for many years and it was hugely encouraging how many important pictures sold,” said Milo Dickinson, who recently left Christie’s Old Masters department to take on the role of managing director at Dickinson in London. “There is clearly more depth to the Old Master market than is often appreciated,” he added.

“It is always hard to say who is buying what, but there were new faces at the auction and of course some of the old faces were buying for other new faces not seen,” said veteran New York-based dealer Robert Simon. “There is little question that new buyers are beginning to recognize the fundamental value in Old Masters, especially in contrast to contemporary art.”

Further, a calendar move by Christie’s seems to have created greater cohesion and momentum. As Dickinson noted, Christie’s moved their sales back to January after “a failed experiment moving to April.” Now, both auction houses are aligned again in the sale calendar across all major Old Master sales, he said, noting it “had a positive impact on the sales as there was visibly a much better turnout from private clients, museums, and the trade during the week, and there was a renewed buzz and excitement.”

Christie’s said the Safra offering “showed the power of the no-reserve strategy,” since all works found buyers. Ten were backed by third-party, or outside bids. The highest price of $2.7 million was paid for an album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. It marked a new auction record for Oudry.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine Image courtesy Christie's.

Jean-Baptistie Oudrey, Album containing a frontispiece and 138 illustrations for books I to VI of the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

It was followed by the $1 million result for J.M.W. Turner’s The Splügen Pass (albeit it missing the low $1.5 million estimate) and the price of $945,000 paid for Joos van Cleve’s Portrait of a gentleman holding gloves, half-length.

Dickinson said that Christie’s “took a significant risk by offering the Safra collection with no reserves and although there were some low prices, Christie’s did well to ensure there was competitive bidding on all the top lots.”

The top lot of the main sale was a double portrait by Goya, Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés, seated on a sofa with a lap-dog; and Portrait of her mother Doña Leonora Antonia Valdés de Barruso, seated on a chair holding a fan, that sold for a mid-estimate $16.4 million (estimate: $15–20 million), more than doubling the existing $7.7 million auction record for the artist.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie's Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York.

Two portraits by Francisco Goya, set a new artist auction record at Christie’s Old Master auction on January 25, 2023 in New York. Photo courtesy Christie’s.

The second highest price of the sale, given for another Turner, was just a fraction of that, at $4.6 million for Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. The third-highest price of $2.9 million was realized for Pieter Brueghel II’s The Kermesse of Saint George.

Meanwhile, another work from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, Canaletto’s The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with an embarkation, traditionally identified as the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740, sold for $2.7 million. It was intentionally kept back from the blockbuster Paul Allen collection sale held last November.

“Whoever bought it got an excellent painting for a fraction of the price that it would have made if it was the initial collection sale, which shows that context is very important,” said Dickinson.

In addition to the Goya and Oudry results, Christie’s set new records for Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de Lairesse, Thomas Daniell, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores, called Penot.

“The Old Masters market showed depth and strength today,” commented François de Poortere, Christie’s head of Old Master Paintings. “American bidders led the way, along with Europe and China, and strong activity from the trade.”

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s started off the morning with a bang with the aforementioned Fisch Davidson Collection—widely considered one of the most important collections of Baroque art to ever appear on the market. The entire sale was guaranteed, reportedly at high prices by both the house and various outside guarantors or third-party backers.

One such outside guarantee was for the blockbuster top lot, Peter Paul Rubens’ Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, which sold for just under $27 million, a new auction record.

The next two highest lots scored identical prices of $4.89 million each, namely Christ crowned with thorns by Valentin de Boulogne, and Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene by Orazio Gentileschi. Both were estimated at $4 million to $6 million.

The Stockholm Nationalmuseum bought a painting of a young man asleep before an open book by an artist active in the circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, for $945,000.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist Image courtest Sotheby's.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper, possibly a self-portrait of the artist. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the main sale, one of the fireworks was a newly rediscovered and restituted painting, Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper. It sold to a buyer in the room following a five-minute bidding contest, for $10.7 million, doubling its $5 million high estimate, and setting a new auction record for the artist. Proceeds of the sale will benefit Selfhelp Community Services, which supports Holocaust survivors in North America, and The Lighthouse Guild, a Jewish healthcare organization.

The Cleveland Museum of Art also bought Anna Dorothea Therbusch’s Portrait of a scientist seated at a desk by candlelight for $441,000. It was also previously from the J.E. Safra collection. An insider said that given that Christie’s had the lion’s share of Safra material, this may have been part of a previous consignment to Sotheby’s. Safra had acquired it from Sotheby’s London in December 1996 for $64,500 (£38,900), according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, A scientist seated at a desk by candlelight. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

The Dutch offerings from the Theiline Scheumann collection, where eight of the 12 works on offer were sold, was led by Frans van Mieris the Elder’s A young woman sealing a letter by candlelight, which sold for $2.7 million.

Dickinson said the new influx of buyers may make for more robust sales, but also some uncertainty as to demand. “There are new buyers in the market, most of them from the United States and some from Asia, but their collecting habits are very wide-ranging and therefore less predictable than before.”

And Simon said that Old Masters are likely to continue to appeal to new and seasoned buyers alike: “With the established track record of the work of the Old Masters, many collectors find the confidence to put some of their assets into work they enjoy, with the assurance that if they wish to sell at some future time, they will likely reap some reward. One does not have to wait for an artist to be discovered and acclaimed if the artist’s work has been hanging on museum walls for centuries!”

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An Oil Sketch Found Covered With Bird Droppings in a Farm Shed Is Actually an Early Van Dyck, Now Heading to Auction for $3 Million


An oil sketch by Anthony van Dyck, executed early in the Flemish artist’s career and rediscovered in a farm shed some four centuries later, will star in Sotheby’s Master Week series, where it is estimated to pull in up to $3 million. 

A Sketch for Saint Jerome is one of only two known live model-based studies by Van Dyck, likely created between 1615 and 1618, when the young painter was working as an assistant in Peter Paul Rubens’s Antwerp studio. The work captures a slouching elderly man, his face in shadow and his lean musculature finely rendered—a depiction that served as a study for Van Dyck’s Saint Jerome (1618–20), currently held by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. 

The oil sketch was discovered in a barn in Kinderhook, New York, in 2002, and acquired at auction by local collector Albert B. Roberts. Though the back of the canvas was reportedly dotted with bird droppings, Roberts believed the artwork to be a Dutch Golden Age painting and bought it for $600. 

He had his find authenticated in 2019, when art historian Susan Barnes recognized it as a “surprisingly well-preserved” work by Van Dyck. “The oil sketch,” she wrote, “is an impressive and important find that helps us understand more about the artist’s method as a young man.”

The Van Dyck sketch, offered to Sotheby’s by the estate of Roberts, who died in 2021, joins a number of other freshly resurfaced European masterworks in the auction house’s Old Master series.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of A Man, Facing Left, With A Quill and a Sheet of Paper (ca. 1527). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Portrait of a Man with a Quill and Sheet of Paper (ca. 1527), a rare piece by Agnolo Bronzino, will hit the block following a storied line of ownership and misattribution. Munich collector Ilse Hesselberger acquired the canvas in 1927, believing the portrait to be the work of another Florentine artist. During World War II, the painting was seized by the Nazis, reattributed, and installed in various governmental offices in Germany. 

Last year, the work was restituted to Hesselberger’s heirs, who consigned it to Sotheby’s. There, it was restored and its radiant surfaces recognized as emerging from the assured hand of a young Bronzino (and likely even his self-portrait), echoing his other early oils such as Portrait of the Woman in Red (ca. 1533) at the Städel Museum.

The painting leads the Master Paintings auction with a high estimate of $5 million, proceeds of which will benefit the Selfhelp Community Services and the Lighthouse Guild.

Also included in the same sale is an expressive portrait newly attributed to Titian. Titled Ecce Homo—not to be confused with the artist’s massive 1543 composition of the same name that hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum—the unfinished oil is painted with the proto-Impressionist flair that marked Titian’s late period, depicting Christ, crowned with thorns, being presented to Pontius Pilate. It is expected to fetch between $1.5 to $2 million.

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Head of a bearded man in a blue and yellow collared robe (ca. 1757). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Rounding out the sale is a group of Old Master paintings that will enter the market for the first time. Three previously unknown works by Giandomenico Tiepolo, executed around 1757, and forming a set of imagined portraits of Greek philosophers Demosthenes, Socrates, and Aristotle, carry estimates between $80,000 to $2 million each. 

Yet another newly attributed painting, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Portrait of a Woman Holding a Crown of Laurels (ca. 1540s), is making its debut as well. While three other versions of this same portrait exist—most notably, one that was sold at Christie’s London in 2015 from the collection of Lord and Lady Kennet—this particular panel, the largest and with a provenance that goes back to the Russian Dolgorukov dynasty, has been deemed the original. Its estimate starts at $1.5 million.

Sotheby’s Master Week series in New York runs from January 18–30. A public exhibition opens January 21.

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An Oil Sketch Found Covered With Bird Droppings in a Farm Shed Is Actually an Early Van Dyck, Now Heading to Auction for $3 Million


An oil sketch by Anthony van Dyck, executed early in the Flemish artist’s career and rediscovered in a farm shed some four centuries later, will star in Sotheby’s Master Week series, where it is estimated to pull in up to $3 million. 

A Sketch for Saint Jerome is one of only two known live model-based studies by Van Dyck, likely created between 1615 and 1618, when the young painter was working as an assistant in Peter Paul Rubens’s Antwerp studio. The work captures a slouching elderly man, his face in shadow and his lean musculature finely rendered—a depiction that served as a study for Van Dyck’s Saint Jerome (1618–20), currently held by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. 

The oil sketch was discovered in a barn in Kinderhook, New York, in 2002, and acquired at auction by local collector Albert B. Roberts. Though the back of the canvas was reportedly dotted with bird droppings, Roberts believed the artwork to be a Dutch Golden Age painting and bought it for $600. 

He had his find authenticated in 2019, when art historian Susan Barnes recognized it as a “surprisingly well-preserved” work by Van Dyck. “The oil sketch,” she wrote, “is an impressive and important find that helps us understand more about the artist’s method as a young man.”

The Van Dyck sketch, offered to Sotheby’s by the estate of Roberts, who died in 2021, joins a number of other freshly resurfaced European masterworks in the auction house’s Old Master series.

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, Portrait of A Man, Facing Left, With A Quill and a Sheet of Paper (ca. 1527). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Portrait of a Man with a Quill and Sheet of Paper (ca. 1527), a rare piece by Agnolo Bronzino, will hit the block following a storied line of ownership and misattribution. Munich collector Ilse Hesselberger acquired the canvas in 1927, believing the portrait to be the work of another Florentine artist. During World War II, the painting was seized by the Nazis, reattributed, and installed in various governmental offices in Germany. 

Last year, the work was restituted to Hesselberger’s heirs, who consigned it to Sotheby’s. There, it was restored and its radiant surfaces recognized as emerging from the assured hand of a young Bronzino (and likely even his self-portrait), echoing his other early oils such as Portrait of the Woman in Red (ca. 1533) at the Städel Museum.

The painting leads the Master Paintings auction with a high estimate of $5 million, proceeds of which will benefit the Selfhelp Community Services and the Lighthouse Guild.

Also included in the same sale is an expressive portrait newly attributed to Titian. Titled Ecce Homo—not to be confused with the artist’s massive 1543 composition of the same name that hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum—the unfinished oil is painted with the proto-Impressionist flair that marked Titian’s late period, depicting Christ, crowned with thorns, being presented to Pontius Pilate. It is expected to fetch between $1.5 to $2 million.

Giandomenico Tiepolo, Head of a bearded man in a blue and yellow collared robe (ca. 1757). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Rounding out the sale is a group of Old Master paintings that will enter the market for the first time. Three previously unknown works by Giandomenico Tiepolo, executed around 1757, and forming a set of imagined portraits of Greek philosophers Demosthenes, Socrates, and Aristotle, carry estimates between $80,000 to $2 million each. 

Yet another newly attributed painting, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Portrait of a Woman Holding a Crown of Laurels (ca. 1540s), is making its debut as well. While three other versions of this same portrait exist—most notably, one that was sold at Christie’s London in 2015 from the collection of Lord and Lady Kennet—this particular panel, the largest and with a provenance that goes back to the Russian Dolgorukov dynasty, has been deemed the original. Its estimate starts at $1.5 million.

Sotheby’s Master Week series in New York runs from January 18–30. A public exhibition opens January 21.

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