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‘New Energy’ Sends Old Master Sales Soaring

More than $57 million worth of Old Master paintings was traded in New York during January’s auctions sweep. That’s a big jump from 2004, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s together tallied $42 million. Dealers and auction house experts agree there was a “new energy” in the air. Conditions were favorable: With TEFAF (The European Fine Art

NEW YORK—More than $57 million worth of Old Master paintings was traded in New York during January’s auctions sweep. That’s a big jump from 2004, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s together tallied $42 million. Dealers and auction house experts agree there was a “new energy” in the air. Conditions were favorable: With TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair), Maastricht, on the horizon (March 4-13) and stimulus from the strong euro and some marquee property, museums, collectors and dealers came forward to bid. Although much of the heavy buying was done by the European trade, especially British dealers, the biggest ticket item of all went to a private U.S. collector.

”I felt there was more of a buzz, and better material” reports Old Master drawings dealer Katrin Bellinger, who is a co-owner of the Colnaghi gallery, London. Bellinger says she sensed early on that January sales in New York were livelier than December sales in London. “The trade was very active in these painting sales,” Bellinger told ARTnewsletter. Dealers also noted that interest spanned borders and quality. While the creations of 17th-century Holland have been in demand for quite some time, the sales showed strength for works made in England as well as across western Europe.

The main reason for the higher sales total was the fact that Christie’s stepped up its sale. In the past Sotheby’s dominated the category in New York, and last January its Old Master sales totaled $31.1 million versus $11.6 million at Christie’s. This year Christie’s total for Old Master paintings alone climbed to $25.9 million, an indication of its bid to get back in the game. Last year the house acquired the prestigious Old Master dealer Hall & Knight (see ANL, 6/22/04). Nicholas Hall and Richard Knight are highly regarded Old Master experts and former directors of Colnaghi.

Christie’s added the two experts to their staff, along with the gallery’s inventory. Both men are now international specialists for the auction house, with Hall based in New York and Knight working from London. Christie’s also took over the lease at the former New York branch of Hall & Knight, a townhouse on East 67th Street. This space is now being used as a private-sale gallery.

Christie’s Doubles Year-Ago Paintings Total

For the Jan. 26 sale of “Important Old Master Paintings,” Christie’s presale total of $22-28 million presaged a range that was more than double its take in 2004. The sale fell comfortably in the middle of the estimate, totaling $25.9 million, with six auction records among the top ten lots sold. A sale of Old Master and 19th-century drawings on Jan. 25 added $4.2 million to the week’s total (see ANL, 2/1/05).

“It’s the beginning of a really good, strong turn,” says Christie’s Old Master painting expert Anthony Crichton-Stuart. “The market is good, and it was an exceptionally good sale.”

While the European trade dominated buying, the two top lots went to private American buyers. The highest lot, consigned by an English noblewoman, was the circa 1740 The Bacino di San Marco, by (Giovanni Antonio Canal) Il Canaletto (1697-1768), which fetched $5.28 million, well above the nonpublished estimate “in excess of $4 million.” The second-highest lot was a 15th-century panel by Filippino Lippi (ca. 1457-1504), The Penitent Mary Magdalen Adoring the True Cross in a Rocky Landscape, which realized $2.26 million, way above the $800,000/1.2 million estimate and a record for the artist.

According to Christie’s, the work was in great condition, and the provenance added cachet. The Lippi had once been owned by Denys Sutton, editor of Apollo magazine from 1962-1987, who died in 1991. The 11 works in the sale previously owned by Sutton had been consigned by his beneficiary.

Despite the strength of the euro and active buying by the trade, it was American buyers who chased the two biggest lots at Christie’s. Overall, Europeans accounted for 60 percent of the buyers in Christie’s Part One sale, while Americans comprised 39 percent. Yet, in terms of value, Europeans spent $8.8 million, while Americans dropped $13 million.

“For the right type of painting, America is as strong as it’s ever been,” observes Crichton-Stuart. “The Europeans were buying en masse, whereas the Americans were more active at the top of the market.” In addition to the Lippi, auction records were set for Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld, Francesco Di Giotto Di Bondone, Agnolo Gaddi, Nicolas Lancret and Giuseppe Recco.

Intense Bidding at Sotheby’s

Experts at Sotheby’s also noticed a palpable change in the auction-house air. “There is new interest in Old Master paintings,” Sotheby’s George Wachter, head of Old Master paintings, told ARTnewsletter. “In this particular group of sales, I felt a change in the breadth of interest from all over the place—from America, England, Italy, Germany. It’s a first for me.” Wachter, a 32-year Sotheby’s veteran, says this new interest translated into an increased intensity in the bidding, with eight to ten buyers vying for certain prime lots.

Sotheby’s held a total of five sales, including its usual Old Master paintings sale on Jan. 27. The house took in $31.5 million from the painting sales.

At a sale of “Art of the Enlightenment” (see box below), one of the more notable lots on offer was a 1770s lead bust, The Ill-Humored Man, by Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, which brought $4.8 million from the Musée du Louvre, Paris. A second Messerschmidt bust, Incapable Bassoonist, also executed after 1770, took $2.48 million from a private collector. In 2003 these heads were restituted to the heirs of

Dr. Richard Beer-Hoffman, whose Viennese home, replete with busts, had been forcibly sold in 1940.

The sculptures come from a series of 43 known heads. At least three others are thought to be in the U.S.: one at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and two in the private collection of Ronald Lauder. The Louvre bust captured a record for 18th-century sculpture.

Guilhem Scherf, chief curator of the paintings department at the Louvre, said the head “considerably enriches the museum’s collections. This work of art is a fascinating example of the research done during the Age of Enlightenment into systematic characterizations of the physiognomy and of facial expressions.”

Sotheby’s also offered 11 paintings that were sold as “property from a distinguished private collection,” and were said by dealers to have belonged to Edmund Pillsbury, formerly director of the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, now head of the Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas. These were included in the important Old Master paintings sale. The works did very well, particularly an Italian landscape by Giuseppe Zocchi (1716/17-67) that was sold for $192,000 (estimate: $40/60,000).

Another sale that fared better than most dealers had predicted was an eclectic collection of paintings, decorative arts and furniture from the estate of Lillian Rojtman Berkman. The paintings in the sale had been expected to bring $2/3 million but wound up totaling $5.1 million. Berkman owned a townhouse on East 64th Street. She collected with her first husband, Marc Rojtman, a tractor magnate, buying vast quantities of artworks in the 1950s and ’60s, mainly from New York dealer Central Galleries.

Much of what Berkman bought was later reattributed; and it appears she bought dozens of paintings that were ultimately found to be by artists other than those to whom the works had been attributed. The sale includes works she bought as by Il Canaletto, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Francesco Guardi, Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony Van Dyck and Jean Antoine Watteau—all of which appeared in the Sotheby’s Jan. 28 sales catalogue as “in the manner of” or “circle of” or “studio of.”

As Sotheby’s experts explain, in all fairness to Berkman and the Central Galleries, connoisseurship has evolved in the last 50 years. Experts now can quickly travel around the world to compare paintings, there are scientific tests for paint and wood, and information flows much more freely.

The top lot, once though to be by Giorgione (Giorgio da’Castelfranco), was offered as a work from the Venetian School. Like many of the Berkman pictures, it shot way over its $40,000/60,000 estimate, selling for $340,000. Even Sotheby’s experts were surprised by the strong results, noting that new buyers seemed to appear out of thin air. Says Wachter: “They were good old pictures, and we tried to price conservatively. The buyers were new people altogether.”

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