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Major Improvement at London Old Master Sales

In a three-day series of Old Master auctions Dec. 8–10, Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s realized a total of £94.8 million ($151.7 million)—a big improvement from the £70 million ($112 million) realized during the last London Old Master series, in June, and significantly more than any London series of sales of contemporary art this year.

LONDON—In a three-day series of Old Master auctions Dec. 8–10, Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s realized a total of £94.8 million ($151.7 million)—a big improvement from the £70 million ($112 million) realized during the last London Old Master series, in June, and significantly more than any London series of sales of contemporary art this year.

The series kicked off with Christie’s part-one evening sale, which set a record for any Old Master auction with a total of £68.4 million ($112.4 million). Three lots accounted for the majority of the proceeds: Raphael’s black-chalk drawing Head of a Muse, between 1510 and 1511, a study for a fresco in the Vatican, was sold for a record £29.2 million ($47.9 million) against a £12 million/16 million estimate. The work, which had come from a private U.K. collection, sold to a phone buyer relaying bids through Christie’s New York drawings expert Jennifer Wright, against bidding from London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni in the room. The price beat the previous record for an Old Master drawing, £8.1 million, which was paid both for Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ and for Leonardo’s Horse and Rider at Christie’s in London in July 2000 and July 2001, respectively.

Rembrandt’s oil on canvas Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658, had come from the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson. A late work by the artist, but a large one, the painting was believed by some dealers to have condition problems, and it was sold on a telephone bid, reportedly to collector and casino mogul Steven A. Wynn, for £20.2 million ($33 million), well within the estimate of £18 million/25 million. (A spokesperson for Wynn declined to comment on the matter.) The price just exceeded the previous record for a work by Rembrandt of £19.8 million—paid for a portrait of an old woman at Christie’s in London in 2000—by virtue of the increased buyer’s premium.

The third major price of the sale was the record £9.2 million ($15.2 million) paid by another anonymous phone bidder for Domenichino’s Baroque masterpiece Saint John the Evangelist (estimate: £7 million/10 million), which belonged to the family trust of George Christie (owner of Glyndebourne, the English country house where the famous opera festival is staged, and no relation to the auction house). The oil on canvas was underbid by Maas­tricht dealer William Noortman.

London dealer Johnny Van Haeften was less active than usual, buying only two works: The Flemish Proverbs, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/65–1637/38), for £1.7 million ($2.8 million) on a £1 million/1.5 million estimate, and A Hawking Party Resting by a Fountain, by Philips Wouwerman (1619–98), for £361,250 ($594,000) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000.

Other Dutch- and Flemish-picture-trade buyers in the room included Paris dealer Georges de Jonckheere, who bought Herri met de Bles’ battle scene A Siege at Thérouanne for £1 million ($1.7 million) on a £400,000/600,000 estimate, and Amsterdam dealer David Koetser, who bought a winter landscape by Aert van der Neer for £481,250 ($791,175) on a £400,000/600,000 estimate.

Another record was set by the £541,250 ($889,815) price fetched by a 1733 portrait by William Hoare of Bath of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, called Job ben Solomon, an African dignitary who had been enslaved on a Maryland tobacco plantation and later escaped to Europe. The oil sold to a phone bidder against competition from collector Alfred Bader.

The inclusion of 18th-century English watercolors proved successful as a group of five works, mainly by John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, were all sold, bringing a total of about £1 million ($1.7 million). The inclusion of six ­19th-century European paintings, however, half of which failed to find buyers, added less than £400,000 ($640,000) to the total.

Bonhams’ Old Master auction on Dec. 9 was 77 percent sold by lot, 90 percent sold by value, and the £2.8 million ($4.5 million) total was comfortably above the £1.8 million low estimate. The total included the record £1.2 million ($1.96 million) paid for a pair of still lifes of fruit and flowers by ­17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Christianus Roedig (estimate: £700,000/900,000). The big surprise of the sale was the last lot, a 17th-century Dutch marine painting by Regnier Nooms (called Zeeman), which sold for £276,000 ($451,700), more than ten times its £15,000/20,000 estimate, to Van Haeften.

Van Dyck Portrait Soars at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s main sale on Dec. 9 had fewer major works to offer than Christie’s had had, and brought in £15 million ($24.5 million) against an overall estimate of £12.3 million/18.4 million. Its major offering, a self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck from the collection of the Earl of Jersey said by Sotheby’s officials to be the only self-portrait by the artist remaining in private hands, was estimated at just £2 million/3 million. The painting raced to a record £8.3 million ($13.5 million) price, selling to Bader, bidding in partnership with British dealer Philip Mould, against competition from Noortman.

But a portrait oil sketch, which was presented as an early work by Peter Paul Rubens and given a hefty £4 million/6 million ($6.5 million/9.8 million) estimate, did not quite convince the market and was bought in.

Altogether 21 lots, or 42 percent of the 50 lots on offer, were bought in, mostly Italian works from gold-ground paintings to 18th-century view paintings. There were some surprises among the top lots: Girl holding a basket of plums, ca. 1645–50, a recently rediscovered work by the ­17th-century Dutch classical artist Cesar Boetius van Ever­dingen, was estimated at £50,000/70,000, in line with past auction prices. The exceptional quality of the work, however, drove bidding to a record £1.2 million ($1.9 million) price from an anonymous buyer, who left seasoned London dealers Van Haeften and Daniel Katz trailing among the underbidders. Another surprise was Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert, a grisaille sketch by François Boucher, which sold to Baroni for £385,250 ($625,415), far surpassing the estimate of £60,000/80,000.

As at Christie’s, 18th-century British and even 19th-century British (though not European) works were included—a common feature of New York Old Master sales, but a recent development in Europe. An 1837 stag hunting scene by Edwin Landseer landed third place among the top lots, selling to art advisory firm Roundell/Dickinson for £937,250 ($1.5 million)—the second highest price on record for the artist—against an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million.

Other trade buyers in the room included Konrad Bernheimer, who picked up an oil painting of river landscape with an artist sketching by Hubert Robert for £145,250 ($235,800) against an estimate of £120,000/160,000, and Koetser, who bought Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Brazier for £241,250 ($391,645) against an estimate of £200,000/300,000.

Of the 29 lots sold, 14 percent were sold to the U.S. buyers, 32 percent to U.K. buyers, and 54 percent to buyers from the rest of Europe, including Russia. Another fact to emerge from Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening sales was that of the 93 works offered, only 12 sold at hammer prices within estimate, excluding winning bids at the upper and lower limits of those estimates—which reflects the difficulty of gauging demand in this market, even though it has been considered the most stable throughout the recession.

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