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Old Master Auctions: Big Prices but Many Buy-Ins

Old Master auctions in New York, from Jan. 23-26, achieved some big numbers for select artworks, but high percentages of the lots failed to find buyers.

NEW YORK—Old Master auctions in New York, from Jan. 23-26, achieved some big numbers for select artworks, but high percentages of the lots failed to find buyers. Most of the action was at Sotheby’s, since Christie’s now holds its New York sale of Old Masters in April.

While Christie’s conducted just one sale of Old Master and 19th-century drawings, on Jan. 24, which realized $4.1 million, Sotheby’s held two sales of drawings on Jan. 23 that achieved $9.2 million, followed by its main sale of important Old Master paintings on Jan. 24, which took $82.5 million—and wrapped up the week with a sale of lower-priced Old Masters and 19th-century European art on Jan. 26.

Sotheby’s $94.3 million total for the week was a strong showing, albeit down from the $111 million series total achieved by the house last year (ANL, 2/6/07). George Wachter, Sotheby’s cochairman for Old Master paintings worldwide, said “the buoyancy of the market is further underlined with these results as compared to the sales held one year ago. They are virtually comparable, with the difference in total explained by the sale of one painting”—a reference to the $25.8 million paid last year for Rembrandt’s 1661 portrait of Saint James the Greater.

Sotheby’s Jan. 24 sale of 398 Old Master paintings and objects brought out rare artworks and rarified prices, producing $82.5 million, the midpoint of the auctioneer’s $68.3/99.7 million presale estimate. The auction was topped by the $6.3 million paid for a carved limewood sculpture, Saint Catherine, by German medieval sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), which had been estimated at $4/6 million, and set a record for a work by the artist.

Another three-dimensional work, a gilt and painted terra-cotta relief of the Virgin embracing the Christ Child, The San Felice Madonna, by Donatello (1386-1466), rose above its $2/4 million estimate to fetch a record-setting $5.6 million. Both the Riemenschneider and Donatello works set new auction records for the respective artists.

Portrait of a Young Lady, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), far outperformed its $1.5/2 million estimate to earn $5.1 million; and Titian’s The Penitent Magdalene, circa 1485-90, won $4.5 million, within its $4/6 million estimate.

Intense Competition for Cranach I

Wachter told ARTnewsletter that “15 to 20 people were bidding on the Cranach portrait,” adding that throughout the sale “buyers were really focused on getting what they wanted.”

Other top prices were paid for Cranach the Elder’s Phyllis and Aristotle, which took $4.1 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million); Bernardo Bellotto’s Venetian View of the Grand Canal, which made $2.17 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million); and the oil David Playing the Harp Before Saul, by Mattia Preti (1613-99), which also brought $2.17 million (estimate: $2/3 million).

An oil on canvas, London, a View of the Thames . . ., by Canaletto (1697-1768), took $2.1 million (estimate: $700,000/900,000); and Winter Landscape with Kolf Players and Skaters . . ., by Dutch painter Aert van der Neer (ca. 1603/4-77), sold for $2.1 million (estimate: $1.5/2 million). The Bellotto, Canaletto, Preti and van der Neer works set new price records. In all, 17 lots sold for more than $1 million each—ten for more than $2 million.

Some pleasant surprises for consignors arose during the sale, including the $1.16 million paid for the oval Bacchus and Venus, in oil on copper, by Dutch painter Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael (1566-1638), which carried a $400,000 high estimate; and Christ, Bust Length, an oil on panel by Dutch artist Quinten Massys (1466-1530), which took $1.1 million, generously past the $350,000 high estimate.

A still life in oil on copper by Floris van Dijck (ca. 1575-1651) brought $993,000 (estimate: $250,000/350,000); and Portrait of a Woman with Gloves, by Frans Hals (1581-1666), sold for $937,000 (estimate: $300,000/400,000). A ca. 1280 Head of an Angel, in tempera on panel with gold ground, by a Sienese Follower of Cimabue (circa 1280), earned $713,000 (estimate: $200,000/300,000).

Amid the fireworks, however, a considerable number of unsold lots marred an otherwise strong sale, especially since many of the buy-ins were lots that carried high estimates. Thirty-eight percent of the offerings went unsold, including two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1564-1637)—A Flemish Proverb (estimate: $500,000/700,000) and The Adoration of the Magi (estimate: $1/1.5 million).

Wachter defended the results, saying that “given the tremendous uncertainty and volatility in the [financial] markets, not just in New York but in Europe and Asia, we pulled off a very good sale.”

Horvitz Trove of Drawings Takes $4.9M

A day earlier, on Jan. 23, Sotheby’s two sales of Old Master drawings scored strong results, also despite a higher-than-usual rate of buy-ins. First up was the sale of the Jeffrey E. Horvitz collection of Italian drawings, which brought $4.96 million; of the 104 lots on offer, 65 found buyers. Horvitz, 57, a Florida real estate investor and onetime Los Angeles dealer in contemporary art, began buying 16th- to 19th-century French and Italian drawings in the early 1980s. His eponymous foundation has endowed the drawings department of the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University.

The highest price realized in the Horvitz sale was $385,000, for a double set of drawings by Italian Agostino Carracci (1557-1602), depicting (recto) St. Jerome in His Study; (verso) A Seated Woman, Partly Draped, which significantly bettered Sotheby’s $70,000/100,000 estimate and set an auction record for the artist. The work was purchased by an American collector.

Lelio Orsi’s 16th-century image Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun also brought more than the $200,000/300,000 estimate, selling for $373,000. A drawing of a male nude grasping a dagger by Il Semolei (Giovanni Battista Franco, 1510-61), took $301,000 (estimate: $80,000/120,000); Giuseppe Cades’ 18th-century Briseis Leaving Achilles’ Tent, drew $253,000 (estimate: $70,000/90,000); The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, by Pietro da Cortona (Pietro Berrettini, ca. 1596-1669), sold for $217,000 (estimate: $100,000/150,000); and Marco da Siena’s 16th-century The Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist made $205,000 (estimate: $65,000/85,000). The Orsi and Semolei works produced new auction records for the artists; both fell to American collectors.

The second offering of Old Master drawings included 117 lots, of which 83 were sold for a total of $4.2 million. The top price achieved in that sale was $1.94 million, for Fra Bartolommeo’s studies of heads on a double-sided sheet (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), setting an auction record for the artist. Also far outstripping its estimate was Ventura Salimbeni’s St. Clare Repulsing the Saracens from Assisi, which brought $193,000 (estimate: $20,000/30,000), setting an auction record for the artist.

High prices for unattributed lots often indicate that the buyers, usually dealers, have a hunch about their authorship. A study of the head of a boy described as a circa 1500 Netherlandish School, drew $79,000, well above its $30,000/40,000 estimate. Another lot, a pastoral scene attributed to School of Rembrandt, sold for $37,000, within its $30,000/40,000 estimate.

A Delacroix Nearly Quadruples High Estimate

The final sale at Sotheby’s was the Jan. 26 auction of Old Masters and 19th-century European art, a bit of a grab bag with 331 lots that produced $2.6 million. The top sellers were Moroccan Courtyard, a watercolor painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), which made $79,000, far surpassing the auctioneer’s $10,000/20,000 estimate; and Sunset at Syracuse, by Prosper Georges Antoine Marilhat (1811-47), which earned $67,000, within its $50,000/70,000 estimate.

Dealers in particular expressed their willingness to take on lots with unclear attribution. A painting of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, by a 16th-century Follower of Joos van Cleve,” brought $21,250, way above the $8,000/12,000 estimate, while a Vanitas from the Circle of Giovanni Martinelli earned $10,625 (estimate: $5,000/7,000).

The 41 percent buy-in rate included some of the higher-estimated lots, such as Portrait of an Elegant Lady, by François Brunery (1849-1926), estimated at $25,000/35,000.

At the Christie’s Jan. 24 sale of Old Master and 19th-century drawings, the $4.08 million total just cleared the high presale expectation of $4.07 million, with 73 percent of the lots finding buyers. The top sellers were French artists Jean-François Millet’s black-chalk The Knitting Lesson, which sold for $529,000 (estimate: $400,000/600,000); and François Boucher’s A Seated Female Nude, in colored chalk on paper, that sold for $361,000 (estimate: $200,000/300,000). It was followed by The Holy Family, in chalk and ink, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82), which won $277,000 (estimate: $30-50,000); and A Mother Carrying a Child, in pen and ink, by Jusepe Ribera (Il Spagnoletto, 1591-1652), which fell for $181,000 (estimate: $8,000/12,000).

Jennifer Wright, Christie’s specialist for Old Master drawings, noted that a driving force in pushing up prices for lots that sold was an influx of younger buyers, many of whom have purchased contemporary art in the past. “Traditionally the collectors of Old Master drawings are scholars who have a deep knowledge of art history and are very passionate about this art,” she said. “But you look at some of these prices—$2,500, in some cases, for really first-rate work—and you see a lot of opportunities for people who have found other areas of collecting becoming unaffordable.”

As at Sotheby’s, a sizable number of higher-estimated lots went unsold, including Adoration of the Shepherds, by Tintoretto (1560-1635), which carried a $40,000/60,000 estimate; and a panoramic View of the Village of Hofgastein, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), which bore a $50,000/70,000 estimate.

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