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Private Turner Trove Boosts Sotheby’s $91M Old Master Sale

Sotheby’s opened its Old Master sale on July 4 with 14 watercolors by J.M.W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner (1775-1851) that belonged to Belgian collectors Guy and Miriam Ullens. They were selling to raise funds for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, slated to open in November. In all, Sotheby’s realized £45.2 million ($91.3 million),

LONDON—Sotheby’s opened its Old Master sale on July 4 with 14 watercolors by J.M.W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner (1775-1851) that belonged to Belgian collectors Guy and Miriam Ullens. They were selling to raise funds for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, slated to open in November. In all, Sotheby’s realized £45.2 million ($91.3 million), up considerably from £30.7 million ($56.4 million) last July.

Turner is usually sold in London at sales of British paintings and watercolors, but since Christie’s has been selling his works in Old Master sales in New York, and integrating historic British pictures into its London Old Master sales, the distinction between the two categories is breaking down.

Guy Ullens, who has amassed 1,500 examples of contemporary Chinese art since the mid-1980s, began collecting Turner watercolors in 1995 to fulfill a “childhood dream,” he said. Working through Matthew Green, of London’s Richard Green Gallery, he had acquired some of the best examples available. But last summer, after Turner’s Blue Rigi, Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise, sold for £5.8 million, or $10.98 million (ANL, 6/20/06, pp. 3-5), he felt he could not develop his Turner collection and pursue the Beijing project simultaneously.

Sotheby’s guaranteed the collection and estimated it to sell for £10/15 million. The valuation was not affected by the high price of the Blue Rigi, said expert-in-charge Henry Wemyss.

At the evening auction, 12 Turner lots sold for an accumulative £10.8 million ($21.8 million). However, two of the highest-valued lots, estimated between £2/3 million each, failed to sell. One, A View of the Lake of Lucerne, had been bought at Sotheby’s two years earlier for £1.85 million ($3.35 million).

The highest price came for another, much later and more Impressionistic Swiss view, painted by the artist when he was 71 years old: Lungernzee, 1846, which fetched £3.6 million, or $7.3 million (estimate: £2/3 million), the second-highest auction price for a Turner watercolor. This was followed by another late work, Venice with a Storm Approaching, circa 1840, which fell to a U.S. collector for £2.99 million, or $6 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), seemingly confirming that Turner’s later works are now his most-sought-after. Of the ten buyers, seven were new to Sotheby’s, Wemyss said.

Sotheby’s then added another £25.5 million ($51.5 million) to the evening’s total with 55 lots of Old Master paintings in which 41, or 77 percent, were sold. Sotheby’s grand total for its evening sale of £36.3 million ($73.4 million) was an improvement on last July’s £22.9 million total, but short of previous totals set in the summers of 2005 and 2002 that were affected by the appearance of major works by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) and Sir Peter Paul Rubens on the market.

Velázquez Painting Takes $17M

The highest price attained was a record £8.4 million, or $17 million (estimate: £6/8 million), given by the Focus Abengoa Foundation, Seville, for the portrait St. Rufina, by Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez (1599-1660), on behalf of the town of Seville. A good and certainly rare painting for the market, it was last at auction in 1999, when it fetched £5.4 million ($8.9 million). But a great Velázquez—such as the portrait Juan de Pareja, which sold in 1970 to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for $5.5 million—would now be worth more like $300 million, says Alex Bell, head of Sotheby’s Old Master department.

Otherwise the auction was dominated by Dutch and Flemish painters the likes of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), whose Aeneas and Sibyl in the Underworld was one of several Dutch paintings consigned by a private European collector and guaranteed by Sotheby’s. Last sold in 2001 for £1.3 million, it went to London dealer Johnny Van Haeften for a record £1.9 million, or $3.9 million, despite falling below the £2/3 million estimate. From the same source came a painting by Jan Steen (1625/6-79), A Terrace with a Couple Dancing to a Pipe and Fiddle, which sold, again below the estimated £2/3 million, to Noortman Master Paintings, a fully owned subsidiary of Sotheby’s, for £1.7 million, or $3.4 million (estimate: £2/3 million).

Among other top-selling Northern School paintings: a work by Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne (1589-1662), Winter Landscape with Figures Skating, which Van Haeften won for a record £1.3 million, or $2.6 million (estimate: £400,000/600,000); and an oil by Salomon van Ruysdael (1600/3-70), River Landscape with Fishermen Setting Out Their Nets, which sold to London gallerist Richard Green for £938,400, or $1.9 million (estimate: £300,000/400,000).

With no vedute paintings of note this time, the Italian schools were led by a 16th-century religious panel by Luca Cambiaso (1527-85), which unexpectedly had been granted an export license by the Italian authorities and sold for a record £692,000, or $1.4 million (estimate: £150,000/200,000). Not far behind was a tiny 16th-century oil on copper of the Holy Family, by Florentine painter Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), which fell to dealer Daniel Katz for £557,600, or $1.1 million (estimate: £150,000/200,000).

The French schools were perhaps the most thinly represented. A seascape by Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89), Mediterranean Harbour at Sunset, doubled estimates to sell for £1 million, or $2 million (estimate: £400,000/600,000). But a work by Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)—an oil sketch for his Le Verrou, in the Louvre, last sold in 1999 for a record £5.2 million ($8.5 million)—found no takers (estimate: £5/8 million).

After the sale several dealers commented that they thought the Sotheby’s estimates were generally on the high side. Nonetheless, trade buying did account for 38 percent of the lots sold. Apart from the transactions already mentioned, Verner Amell bought Fragonard’s portrait of a little boy, Le petit garçon à la curiosité, for £228,000, or $460,600 (estimate: £100,000/150,000). Green bought a Willem Claesz.Heda still life for £367,200, or $741,740 (estimate: £300,000/400,000).

Van Haeften bought a string of works, including a cabinet picture by Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver, for £378,400, or $764,368 (estimate: £100,000/150,000); van Ruysdael’s River Landscape with Ferryboat for £240,000, or $484,700 (estimate: £200,000/300,000); a still life by Isaak Soreau (1604-circa 1645) for £216,000, or $436,300 (estimate: £200,000/300,000); and Jan Brueghel the Elder’s collaborative painting with Hendrick Van Balen (1575-1632), of The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Garlands for £216,000, or $436,300 (estimate: £80,000/100,000). Van Haeften told ARTnewsletter he was buying stock for his next biannual Old Master exhibition in December.

The geographical breakdown of buyers was: U.K., 36%; European, 30%; U.S., 23%; Russian, 6%; and Asian, 3%.

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