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Old Masters at Christie’s: Ups, Downs And Intense Bidding at High End

A Christie’s auction of Old Master paintings on April 15 brought $48.1 million, down from $57.5 million a year-ago April when a group of restituted works boosted the size and overall result of that sale.

NEW YORK—A Christie’s auction of Old Master paintings on April 15 brought $48.1 million, down from $57.5 million a year-ago April when a group of restituted works boosted the size and overall result of that sale. This year Christie’s offered 227 works, compared with 261 lots in 2007.

Despite the smaller offering, the sell-through rate by volume was weaker, with just over half, or 58 percent, of lots selling. By value the auction sale rate was a stronger 84 percent, compared with last year’s 77 percent rate.

At the high end, bidding was intense, with several new artists’ records set and some works far surpassing expectations.

“It was a very good atmosphere, very robust,” Christie’s international co-head of Old Masters, Nicholas Hall, told ARTnewsletter. He notes that nine of the top ten lots exceeded expectations “in some cases where estimates were already high. What is important for me is to see depth of bidding.”

The top lot was Hercules and Achelous, 1590, by Dutch mannerist Cornelius Cornelisz. Van Haarlem (1562-1638), depicting a violent struggle between man and beast as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The painting had been confiscated from the owner, the son of art dealers, by the Stasi, the former East German secret police, in December 1985. For most of the past two decades it was housed in the Bode Museum, Berlin. After a lengthy restitution claim process, initially begun in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin wall, it finally was returned to the owner late last year.

The work brought a final price of $8.1 million, more than four times its $2 million high estimate, from a European collector and established a new record for the artist.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves, Wife of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous of Saxony, circa 1526, fetched $7.7 million (estimate: $4/6 million), the second-highest price of the sale as well as a record for the artist. (Sybille’s sister Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of England’s King Henry VIII.)

A record $7.2 million was paid for a Portrait of Ramel de Nogaret, 1820, by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), against an estimated $4/6 million. Christie’s called the painting “a magnificent example from a legendary French master.”

Since the following lot was a portrait of the first subject’s wife, Madame Ramel de Nogaret, also by David (estimate: $2/3 million), Christie’s said the successful bidder on the first painting would “have the option, immediately after the hammer has come down on that lot, to purchase [the next portrait] at its reserve price.” Though the work instead was sold immediately after the sale, it went to the same bidder, Hall confirmed, ensuring that the pair would remain together.

Says Hall, the collector “was persuaded that it was a shame to ‘divorce’ them after they had been successfully reunited in the mid-1990s.” Hall adds that the only other such pairs by David are in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Among other records, a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, Wooded landscape with herdsman, ca. 1786, won $5.75 million (estimate: $3/5 million) from a European collector. The same work had fetched $2.1 million at Christie’s in 1999.

An unlined canvas by Esaias van de Velde (1587-1630), An elegant company in a garden, 1614, that Christie’s experts said had been unknown to the market for more than 50 years, also topped its $700,000/900,000 estimate, selling for a record $2.9 million to a U.K. dealer.

Hall and fellow department head Richard Knight noted “keen institutional interest, along with extensive private participation, from both Europe and the United States. A significant number of our bidders who battled for the top lots were new collectors.”

An oval painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of A young girl holding two puppies, ca. 1770, realized $1.4 million, generously above the high $800,000 estimate. And a rediscovered painting by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), Jupiter and Antiope, brought $959,400 (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

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