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Uneven Demand Marks Sotheby’s Evening Old Master Sale

Immediately following Sotheby’s evening ­single-owner sale from the collection of heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson on July 8 (see story below), the room filled to capacity for the main evening Old Master sale.

LONDON—Immediately following Sotheby’s evening ­single-owner sale from the collection of heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson on July 8 (see story below), the room filled to capacity for the main evening Old Master sale. Expected to fetch £24million/35million, the sale did not disappoint, as 33, or 69 percent, of the 48 lots sold, bringing in £26.1million ($42million). The total, however, even including the £9.9million ($15.9million) Johnson sale, was down sharply from last July’s £51million ($101.5million), 90-lot auction.

Three lots were estimated to fetch £2.5million/3.5million each—the highest of the sale. One, a pair of portraits of garlanded ladies by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, thought to have come from the Wildenstein Gallery, New York, where they were included in its “Arts of France” exhibition in 2005–6, were over-estimated and too insipid for today’s taste, said dealers, and did not sell. The second, Francisco de Goya’s Equestrian Portrait of Don Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, 1794, drew sparse bidding, and sold for £2.6million ($4.2million). But the third, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s large panel A Flemish village in winter with the Massacre of the Innocents, set off a bidding war between Paris dealer Georges de Jonckheere and an unidentified Russian dealer, before both lost out to a telephone buyer, who won the work for £4.6million ($7.4mil­lion). The price was the second-highest ever paid for Brueghel, and far surpassed the £736,000 ($1.3million) paid by London dealer Johnny van Haeften for a similarly proportioned depiction of the same subject by the artist at Sotheby’s in London in December 2005 (ANL, 1/3/06).

Although van Haeften did not compete for this Brueghel, he was an active bidder for other Dutch and Flemish pictures. He paid a record £1.2million ($1.9million) for Gabriel Metsu’s A Woman selling game from a stall (estimate: £1.2mil­lion/1.8million), from the collection of the late Frederick, Second Baron Hesketh; £337,250 ($543,000) for Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life of a Vine twig … (estimate: £300,000/400,000); £457,250 ($736,172) for a pair of river landscapes by Salomon van Ruysdael (estimate: £200,000/300,000); and £825,250 ($1.3million) for Salomon de Bray’s oval Study of a Young Woman in Profile (estimate: £500,000/700,000). Van Haeften had sold this last painting in 1987 for £42,000 ($67,200) to a German collector, who in turn sold it at Sotheby’s in New York in 2004 for $1.3million. The dealer also ventured out of his normal territory, buying a 15th-century Spanish panel, St. George and the Dragon by Jorge Inglés, for £612,450 ($986,044) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000—though this, he told ARTnews­letter, was for a friend, not for inventory.

Among the few lots to exceed estimates were three gold-ground altarpiece panels, circa 1350, by Siennese artist Luca di Tommé, each estimated at £400,000/600,000. Dealer Anthony Crichton-Stuart bought the first, St. Michael, for £847,650 ($1.4 million), but was outbid by the same phone buyer for the second, San Bernardo degli Uberti, and the third, St. Giovanni, which sold for a record £937,250 ($1.5million) and £914,850 ($1.5million), respectively. According to Sotheby’s officials, 81 percent of the buying came from Europe (including Russia) and 9 percent from the United States.

Johnson Sale Brings $10.5 Million

In a sale of Renaissance and Baroque art from the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson on July 8–9, Sotheby’s offered 216 lots, which included paintings, sculpture, furniture and works of art. The two-part sale brought in a total of £10.5million ($16.8million). The more valuable works, which bore a combined low estimate of £5.2million, were offered in the evening session on July 8. Of the 56 lots, 44, or 79 percent, were sold, for a total of £9.9million ($15.9million). The lots sold in the day session brought in £591,519 ($966,000).

The top lot by far was Prometheus, circa 1620, a powerful painting by Jusepe de Ribera (Lo Spagnoletto), which sold to Naples collector Antonio d’Amato for a record £3.8million ($6.2million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.2million. At least four other bidders were in contention for the work as it reached £2million. The painting prefigures two of Ribera’s best-known paintings, which are in the Prado, Madrid; it was acquired from Matthiesen Fine Art, London, around 1989 for a price believed to be around $300,000.

Some of the other paintings in the sale were by big names but in poor condition, or had been reattributed since Johnson acquired them. Portrait of a Nobleman, Presumed to Be Jean de Dinteville, as St. George had been bought in the 1980s as a work by the 16th-century Mannerist painter Prima­ticcio, but was downgraded in 1997 to “attributed to Prima­ticcio.” Still, it soared beyond its £200,000/300,000 estimate, selling for £769,250 ($1.2million).

Although Johnson was known as a big buyer in the ’70s and ’80s, many of the works had been bought more recently. Some made big returns: Madonna of Humility, an early 15th-century gold-ground altarpiece, had been bought at Christie’s in Rome in 2001 for €95,530 ($81,000), and sold for £211,250 ($339,648) on a £40,000/60,000 estimate.

The top price for the sculptures—most of which had been bought from London dealer Daniel Katz in the ’80s—was a record £657,250 ($1million), paid for a white marble Colossal Bust of an Ancient Hero by Baccio Bandinelli (estimate: £500,000/800,000). Katz had paid £110,000 ($180,620) for the sculpture, then only vaguely attributed to Bandinelli or his student Vincenzo de’ Rossi, at Christie’s in London in April 1990 before selling it to Johnson the next year.

With nearly all of the lots selling over the phone, dealers in the room were left to underbid. Among them was Katz, who underbid on a pair of ­17th-century reliefs of scenes from the Last Supper, attributed to George Schweigger, which sold for £73,250 ($117,900) on a £12,000/18,000 estimate.

At the end of the two sessions, all of the paintings on offer had sold, for a total of £7.2million ($11.7million). At the evening sale, 81 percent of sold lots had gone to European buyers, and 16 percent to Americans. It was the only sale of the week to exceed estimates.