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Buying is Selective at Summer Old Master Sales

Christie’s fell just short of its presale estimate of £49.4 million/74 million (without premium) for its main Old Master and British paintings sale on July 5 with a total £43.6 million ($70 million) without premium, or £49.9 million ($79.6 million) including premium.

LONDON—Christie’s fell just short of its presale estimate of £49.4 million/74 million (without premium) for its main Old Master and British paintings sale on July 5 with a total £43.6 million ($70 million) without premium, or £49.9 million ($79.6 million) including premium. Of 61 lots offered, 41, or 68 percent, were sold. By value the auction realized 83 percent.

Among the main unsold lots was a Madonna and Child by Andrea del Sarto that was estimated at £2.5 million/3.5 million and first appeared on the market at Sotheby’s New York in January 2000 when it sold for $1.1 million to a consortium of dealers who hailed it as a rediscovery. However, although Christie’s stated that the del Sarto expert, the late John Shearman, had regarded it as wholly autograph, others were less convinced and there was no bid at £2 million.

The sale was unusually thick with British pictures, which once commanded a sale category of their own in London, and the best had come from British collections. Top price was a record £22.4 million ($36 million) for George Stubbs’s masterpiece of sporting art, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainer, a jockey and a stable lad, ca.1765. The painting had belonged to the late Lord Woolavington, a whiskey magnate, who bought it in 1951 for £12,500 and was being sold by his heirs. There was, however, little bidding on the painting, which carried a third-party guarantee, and it sold to what appeared to be a single bidder, the New York dealer Piers Davies, who previously worked in Christie’s Old Master department in New York and was presumably bidding for the guarantor. The price was double the previous £10.1 million ($15.9 million) record for Stubbs, set last December at Sotheby’s (ANL, 12/28/10), and was claimed as the third-highest price for an Old Master painting at auction.

From the collection of the British peer Viscount Cowdray, came a collection of five large British portraits, previously housed at Cowdray Park which is now on the market for £25 million ($40 million).

A fine, full length Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois, mid 1770s, by Thomas Gainsborough, attracted some competition and sold to the art valuers Gurr Johns, bidding for a client, for a record £6.5 million ($10.5 million) compared with an estimate of £4 million/6 million.

Gurr Johns also bought a full-length portrait of George Douglas, 16th Earl of Morton by Sir William Beechey, ca.1790, for £481,250 ($770,000), compared with an estimate of £500,000/800,000, while a phone bidder claimed a third Cowdray portrait, Frances Howard, Countess of Hertford by Marcus Gheeraerts II, 1611, for £1.7 million ($2.8 million), compared with an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million, against London portrait-dealer Mark Weiss.

But at the same time, there were perhaps too many expensive British portraits on the market and several went unsold. These included Robert Peake’s Portrait of William Pope from the Cowdray collection, estimated at £1 million/1.5 million, George Romney’s Portrait of Francis Lind, estimated at £100,000/150,000 and last sold at Christie’s London in November 2003 for £128,450 ($218,370).

Gainsborough’s stylish Portrait of Colonel John Bullock, estimated at £3.5 million/5 million and last sold for £2.75 million ($4 million) at Sotheby’s London in June 2002.

Dutch 17th-century pictures, normally the backbone of these sales, were in relatively short supply. A 1640s still life by Willem Claesz Heda saw competition between two London dealers, Johnny Van Haeften and Richard Green, before falling to Green for £847,650 ($1.4 million) compared with an estimate of £400,000/600,000.

Van Haeften was again an underbidder on a marine painting by Simon Jacobsz de Vlieger, previously part of a British collection for several generations, that sold for a record £1.6 million ($2.5 million), compared with an estimate of £400,00/600,000. Van Haeften did however claim a pair of still lifes of fruit and flowers by Jacob van Kessel for £253,250 ($405,200) compared with an estimate of £120,000/180,000.

Early Italian pictures were led by a double-sided male nude drawing by Michelangelo, which was not in perfect condition and sold to a private Asian buyer for £3.2 million ($5.1 million) compared with an estimate of £3 million/5 million, and a gold-ground triptych by Taddeo Gaddi that sold for a record £1.3 million ($2.1 million), compared with an estimate of £1.2 million/1.8 million, against bidding from the London trade.

French pictures were not particularly well represented, but tipped to do well was a trompe-l’oeil painting of a crucifix by the 18th-century French painter Louis-Leopold Boilly, which sold to London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni for £481,250 ($770,000) compared with an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

Old Masters Hit Their Mark at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s, in contrast to Christie’s, had few British pictures of note in its Old Master evening sale on July 6. Its results, though, were almost exactly parallel with Christie’s, obtaining £47.6 million ($76.5 million) in a sale where 50, or 68 percent, of the 73 lots were sold. The total did, however, hit the presale estimate range of £31 million/49 million. And by value the auction was a robust 92 percent sold.

As at Christie’s, one lot dominated proceedings, accounting for half of the proceeds. Francesco Guardi’s rare large-scale, Venice, a View of the Rialto Bridge, had been in successive British collections for over 200 years.

Estimated at £15 million/25 million—already exceeding the previous £11 million record for a similarly large-scale Guardi set in 1989, and challenging the £16.6 million (hammer) record for any 18th-century Venetian-view painting (£18.6 million with premium) held by Canaletto’s Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi, sold in 2005—it found two phone-bidders ready to take it past both landmarks to £26.7 million ($42.9 million), the second-highest price for an Old Master at auction after Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, 1609, which sold for £49.5 million ($76.7 million) in 2002 at Sotheby’s London (ANL, 7/23/02). The only clue to the purchaser of the Guardi, was that the winning bid was placed by New York-based Charles Moffett, cochairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department.

Also fetching a record price was a rare painting, Madonna and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist, recently recognized as by the hand of the Italian High Renaissance artist, Correggio (Antonio Allegri). It is some 40 years since a painting by Correggio has surfaced at auction and, notwithstanding some issues about the condition of the painting, a bidding battle ensued between New York dealer Otto Naumann and London dealer Angela Nevill with the prize going to Nevill, bidding for a client, for £3.6 million ($5.8 million) against an estimate of £2 million/3 million.

A third prominent record was set for a double-sided altarpiece panel by the German Renaissance artist Hans Schäufelein. Dated around 1510, this rare work depicting The dormition of the Virgin and Christ carrying the Cross, sold to Naumann for £2.7 million ($4.4 million), compared with an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million.

Dutch paintings were in slightly more plentiful supply than at Christie’s, and Van Haeften, who specializes in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish pictures, was quickly into the action with the first lot from the collection of the late Dutch art dealer Saam Nijstad, a winter scene by Anthonie Verstraelen, A Winter Landscape with Figures Skating On A Frozen River Beside A Village, ca. early 1630s, which he bought for £481,250 ($774,800), compared with an estimate of £150,000/200,000. Other Van Haeften buys were a village scene by David Teniers the Younger, bought for £217,250 ($350,000), compared with an estimate of £150,000/200,000, and a rare early Still Life with Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder bought for £1 million ($1.6 million), compared with an estimate of £300,000/400,000.

Also in the Dutch market were Zurich dealer, David Koetser, who bought Frans Jansz. Post’s A Landscape in Brazil Looking Down on the Varzea, for £623,250 ($1 million), compared with an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and New York dealer Jack Kilgore, who bought an interior scene by Jan Steen for £97,250 ($157,000), compared with an estimate of £80,000/120,000. However, one of the bigger Dutch pictures, the recently restituted The Village Lawyer’s Office by the normally popular Pieter Brueghel the Younger, failed to sell on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million.

Also disappointing was one of the few major British pictures in the sale, Sir Peter Lely’s seductive Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, thought to be a revealing nude-portrait of the famous actress Nell Gwynn, who was also the mistress of King Charles II. The painting had only recently been on the market when it sold for £1.6 million ($3.2 million), compared with an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million, in an after-sale at Christie’s in July 2007 (ANL, 7/24/07) but found no takers this time with an estimate of £600,000/800,000.

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