ARTnewsletter Archive

Major Improvement at Old Master Auctions as Buying Rebounds

Sales of Old Master and 19th-century European art rose considerably at the most recent round of New York auctions held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s Jan. 27–29.

NEW YORK—Sales of Old Master and 19th-century European art rose considerably at the most recent round of New York auctions held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s Jan. 27–29. The overall total for the series was $113.7million, up more than $26million, or 30 percent, from last year’s total of $87.4million (ANL, 2/17/09).

Sotheby’s accounted for $74.2million of the overall total, with four sales: Old Master drawings, Old Master paintings and sculpture, terra-cotta and bronze sculpture from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection and a day sale of Old Master and 19th-century European art. Sotheby’s sales last January realized a total of $67.9million. Mean­while, Christie’s total doubled that of last January, rising to $39.5million from $19.5million.

George Wachter, Sotheby’s cochair of Old Master paintings worldwide, said that immediately following the auction house’s sales last January, “I knew that our approach to putting together future auctions was going to have to change to fit the environment in which we are living. We were incredibly stringent as we collected property” for subsequent sales. After last year’s sales, Wachter had remarked that the buying activity then reflected “a flight to quality.” In the months since, says Wachter, “we worked with consignors to help them understand that attractive estimates are what the market desires.”

Sotheby’s $61.6million Old Master sale on Jan. 28 was led by Two Studies of a Bearded Man, an oil on canvas by Anthony Van Dyck depicting a man from two slightly different angles: one in three-quarter profile looking down, and the other facing forward with an angry glare. Estimated at $5million/7million and guaranteed with an irrevocable bid, the work sold for $7.25million. Of the 200 lots on offer in this sale, 147, or 74 percent, found buyers. By value, the auction was 88 percent sold.

According to Sotheby’s catalogue, the Van Dyck work was painted by the artist while he was still in Peter Paul Rubens’ studio, and “shows how fully he had absorbed the lessons of his master, as well as how he had begun to assert his own style.” Distin­guishing Van Dyck’s study heads from those by Rubens has been problematic for scholars and collectors for centuries, but according to the catalogue, “the bold brush work and even selection of the model” clearly support the attribution of the work to Van Dyck.

The second-highest price of the sale, albeit well short of the $8million/12million estimate, was $6.8million, paid by a European collector for Jupiter and Antiope, 1612, by Hendrick Goltzius. Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Dorothy, Full-Length, Holding a Basket of Apples and Roses, sold for $4.2million, clearing the estimate of $3million/4million. The work was previously offered at Christie’s in New York in January 1998, where it sold for $2.1million against a $700,000/1million estimate.

“On balance, the prices were very high. Clearly there is a lot of money out there looking for Old Master paintings, and there is a very rapidly diminishing supply,” New York dealer Richard Feigen told ARTnewsletter. “You have a number of dealers who basically buy [at these auctions] and resell works at Maastricht,” he added, referring to The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF), held in the Netherlands each March. At this round of sales, a number of those dealers were the underbidders on several major works that sold well above estimate.

Feigen told ARTnewsletter that he made two attempts to acquire works at Sotheby’s, but was outbid in intense competition both times. One was The Madonna and Child, with the Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, a reliquary with a gold-ground tempera on panel by Francesco di Vannuccio (documented ca. 1356–89, d. before 1391). The reliquary had been estimated at $300,000/500,000, and Feigen said he dropped out when bidding reached $800,000. The lot ultimately sold for $1million. “This trend will only continue as demand increases and the supply of great works continues to diminish,” Feigen predicted.

Sotheby’s sale of Old Master drawings on Jan. 27 was led by two works by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697–1768). Study of a Merchant Vessel, a 95⁄8-by-71⁄2-inch drawing in brown ink with gray and brown wash over black chalk, sold for $542,500, well beyond its $200,000/300,000 estimate, and An Architectural Capriccio with a Pavil­ion and a Ruined Arcade on the Water’s Edge, estimated at $250,000/350,000, sold for $302,500. Both went to private European buyers. Study of a Merchant Vessel had been sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1988 for £72,600 ($123,848) on a £40,000/50,000 estimate. An Architectural Capriccio had sold for $121,000 at Sotheby’s in New York in 1987 on a $100,000/150,000 estimate.

The top lot of the sale of sculpture from the Sackler Collection on Jan. 29 was a pair of three-foot-high bronzes of the apostles Peter and Paul, ca. 1600, attributed to Tiziano Aspetti. Estimated at $300,000/500,000, the pair sold for $542,500. In all, the Sackler sale accounted for $6.8million of Sotheby’s Old Master total.

At Christie’s Old Master and ­19th-century sale on Jan. 27, the star lot was The Entrance to the Turkish Garden Café, 1812, an oil by Louis Léo­pold Boilly (1761–1845), which sold for $4.6million to London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, bidding on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The price, a record for a work by the artist, was well within the estimate of $3million/5million.

Michael Brand, who stepped down as director of the Getty at the end of last month (a year before his contract was to expire), told ARTnewsletter that the work was one of Boilly’s greatest paintings. “The rarity of Boilly’s work outside of France, along with the way this painting fits in with other works by the artist in our collection and that of the Getty Research Insti­tute, make this new acquisition a particularly im­portant one for the Getty, as well as for the ­larger art community in Los Angeles,” Brand said. He added that he was “very pleased to be able to conclude this acquisition as one of my last actions as director of the Getty Museum.”

The second-highest lot at Christie’s also set a new artist record: Diana and Callisto, an oil by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734–1802), brought $4.1million, more than three times its estimate of $800,000/1.2million, from a private buyer. The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark, ca. 1625, an oil on panel by Jan Brueghel the Younger, sold for $2.9million (estimate: $2.5million/3.5million).

The Four Elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air, a set of four oils on panel by Brueghel and Frans Francken II (1581–1642) never before exhibited and not published since the 19th century, according to Christie’s catalogue, sold for $2.2million, at the bottom of its $2million/3million estimate.

Christie’s specialist Nicholas Hall, international cohead of Old Master and ­19th-century art, said “master works and rediscoveries were the theme of the day. … Collectors remained selective overall but did not hesitate to bid high and often for the most rare and important works offered.”

  • Issues