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Robust Demand, Discerning Bids Mark Old Master Sales

With auction prices for contemporary art still somewhere in the stratosphere, it often felt like catch-up time at the Old Master sales held in London July 8–10.

LONDON—With auction prices for contemporary art still somewhere in the stratosphere, it often felt like catch-up time at the Old Master sales held in London July 8–10.

At the final count, the £100 million ($197 million) in total sales for the week (including part-two and drawings sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and a £2.9 million sale at Bonhams) was on par with last year’s Old Master sales total of £97.3 million ($196.5 million), revealing a discriminating but robust market, albeit far short of the £262.2 million ($522.4 million) total realized a week earlier for contemporary art. Sotheby’s had the better selection of pictures, and took in £51.5 million ($101.5 million) in its part-one sale, against Christie’s £24.1 million ($47.5 million).

At Christie’s on July 8, three drawings by Francisco de Goya, unseen for more than 130 years, sold for a combined £4 million ($7.9 million). One of them tripled an eleven-year-old record for a work on paper by the artist, selling for £2.3 mil¬lion ($4.5 million). A small gem of a painting, La Surprise, circa 1718, by Jean-Antoine Watteau, lost for 200 years until it was discovered in the attic of an English country house, soared past the previous £2.4 million record for the 18th-century French artist to sell to London dealer Luca Baroni, bidding on behalf of a collector, for £12.4 million ($24.4 million). This was also a record for any 18th-century French artist, but still not quite as much as the £12.9 million ($27.5 million) that a bulbous Jeff Koons flower sculpture fetched a week earlier at Christie’s.

Also at Christie’s, a horse painting in questionable condition by George Stubbs, Antinoüs, a chestnut racehorse, in a landscape, sold for £337,250 ($665,058), and A Rearing Stallion, circa 1620, a painting recently attributed—with some dispute—to the hand of Anthony Van Dyck, sold for a record £3 mil¬lion ($6 mil¬lion). Both were acquired by the same phone bidder.

According to sources, a contemporary-art buyer outbid Old Master dealer Johnny van Haeften for a modern-looking 17th-century composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Bad Shepherd, winning it for a double-estimate £2.5 million ($4.9 million).

The star of Sotheby’s sale was another rediscovery: Willem van Heythuysen, mid-1630s, a small, swaggering portrait of a textile merchant by the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals. The painting itself was not a rediscovery; its authorship was. Sold at auction four years ago in Vienna as a work by a “follower of Frans Hals” for £350,000 ($573,000), it has since been fully attributed to Hals, and sold for £7.1 million ($14 million), just short of the record set by a much larger painting by the artist. It was bought by the London-based Australian dealer Richard Nagy for a client he described only as a collector of contemporary art.

At Sotheby’s, a portrait by the 18th-century painter Pompeo Batoni, Count Kirill Grigorjewitsch Razumovsky, whose subject rose from humble Ukrainian origins to join the court of Empress Catherine II, sold for a record £1.3 million ($2.6 million) to a private European collector, a category which Sotheby’s said includes Russians.

Dealers Are Major Buyers

Old Master sales are still driven by a core of knowledgeable dealers, usually bidding for stock. At Sotheby’s, Richard Green paid a record £3.5 mil¬lion ($6.9 mil¬lion), nearly double the previous record, for The Edge of a Village With Figures Dancing . . . , 1616, by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Van Haeften bought seven Dutch paintings in the sale, including Aert van der Neer’s A Winter Landscape with Figures Battling Across . . . , circa 1655–60, for which he paid a record £2.7 mil¬lion ($5.3 mil¬lion).

Van Haeften also bought An Interior with a Soldier Smoking a Pipe by Frans van Mieris the Elder (estimate: £200,000/300,000) for a record £1.3 mil¬lion ($2.6 mil¬lion), as well as paintings by Willem van de Velde the Younger, Paulus Pietersz. Potter, Gerrit Dou, Simon Jacobsz. de Vlieger; and Jan Steen. The Koetser Gallery, Zurich, was another strong trade buyer in this category, acquiring two seascapes by van de Velde the Younger and a village scene by van der Neer.

Sotheby’s big surprises, though, came from the early Netherlandish and Italian paintings. The Misers, one of many known versions of Marinus van Reymerswaele’s 16th-century Tax Gatherers in the National Gallery, London, was estimated at £100,000/150,000, but soared to £2.1 million ($4 million) on competition between Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi and the eventual anonymous U.K. trade buyer, owing more to the sheer quality of the paintwork than to any speculation about who the artist—listed as a follower of Reymerswaele—may have been.

An expressive portrait of an elderly man by the 16th-century Mannerist painter Tintoretto soared to five times its estimate, selling to Baroni for a record £1.6 million ($3.2 million). A gold-ground triptych, circa 1400, by Taddeo di Bartolo (estimate: £300,000/500,000) sold for a record £1.9 million ($3.7 million) to a private European phone buyer, who also paid a record £1.2 million ($2.4 million) for A Triptych of the Lamentation, circa 1530, by Flemish artist Ambrosius Benson (estimate: £600,000/800,000).

Other purchases at Sotheby’s included two by Bernheimer, who bought Lucas Cranach the Elder’s David and Bathsheba, 1534, for £2.1 million ($4.1 mil¬lion) on a £200,000/300,000 estimate and paid a record £337,250 ($664,382) for Nicolaes Knüpfer’s Venus and Cupid (estimate: £100,000/150,000). London dealer Daniel Katz bought Maarten van Heemskerck’s pair of brunaille paintings Samson Grasping the Gates of Gaza, and Pluto, both circa 1540 (estimate: £150,000/200,000 for the pair), for a record £181,250 ($357,062). Richard Feigen bought Jacopo di Cione’s large altarpiece Mary Magdalene in the Desert, circa 1365–70, for a record £337,250 ($664,382) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.

British art had its moments, too: at Christie’s, an oil sketch by Thomas Lawrence of his mother, Lucy Lawrence, estimated at £50,000/80,000, sold to New York dealers French & Co., bidding against London dealer Jack Baer, for £373,250 ($736,000).

Among other sales at Christie’s, Lawrence’s Portrait of Frederick William Stewart sold to Richard Green for £657,250 ($1.3 million); William Larkin’s Portrait of a Lady (estimate: £400,000/600,000) sold for £505,250 ($996,353) to Weiss Gallery, London; and Albertino Piazza di Lodi’s Madonna and Child sold for £97,250 ($191,770) to Whitfield Fine Art, London.

A rare early painting by J. M. W. Turner, Pope’s Villa on the Thames at Twickenham, 1808, sold on a single bid to a private collector for its low estimate of £5.4 million ($10.6 million). This was the second-highest price on record for an oil painting by Turner.

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