ARTnewsletter Archive

New Discoveries, New Records At London Old Master Sales

Recent Old Master sales in London (Dec. 6–8) had their fair share of discoveries and fresh attributions, resulting in several better-than-expected and record prices.

LONDON—Recent Old Master sales in London (Dec. 6–8) had their fair share of discoveries and fresh attributions, resulting in several better-than-expected and record prices.

Five sales, including the part two, or day, sales were held by Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams, bringing a total of £59.7 million ($93 million) against a combined low estimate of £46 million ($71.8 million). While the result was satisfactory from that point of view, the total was down from the summer’s £93.6 million ($150 million), and from last December’s £63 million ($98.3 million)—denoting a shortage in supply of major works for sale.

Christie’s two sales just came out on top with £26.5 million ($41.3 million), followed by Sotheby’s £25.5 million ($40 million), and Bonhams’ £6.3 million ($9.8 million) for just one sale. Average unsold rates were around 40 percent by lot, though this was countered by some high individual prices in all the sales.

A portrait of an unknown gentleman arrived at Bonhams in Oxford last year as part of a consignment of works by the little-known Victorian artist Matthew Shepperson. Experts said the work was clearly not by Shepperson, and the painting was held back for further research. It was identified by Peter Cherry, from Trinity College, Dublin, as a work by the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. Considering how rare paintings by Velázquez are on the market, the £2 million estimate was perhaps conservative, as was the sale price of £2.9 million ($4.6 million) to New York dealer Otto Naumann, who told reporters he had been prepared to go much higher. Observers said the painting might have sold for more had Bonhams cleaned it.

There were more bidders on a previously unrecorded still life of three peaches and a butterfly by the Dutch painter Adriaen Coorte. The painting quadrupled estimates to sell to the Sotheby’s-owned dealership Noortman Master Paintings for a record £2.1 million ($3.2 million). The surprise of the Bonhams sale was a view of the River Adda ascribed to the studio of the 18th-century Italian-view painter Vanvitelli. As the Vanvitelli expert had not given the painting a full attribution, it was estimated at a modest £20,000. But at least two bidders were willing to pit their wits against the expert, and it sold for £385,250 ($601,750).

There was no doubt about the authorship of Sotheby’s top lot—a pair of paintings by Johann Zoffany of the actor David Garrick with his wife and entourage in the grounds of Hampton House on the River Thames. On loan since 2007 to the Tate, London, they had been sent for sale by Edward Lampton, son of the Tory peer Antony Lampton, who died in 2006.

Estimated at a bullish £6 million for the pair, they sold to the only bidder in the room, John Morton Morris of dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, for £6.76 million ($10.6 million). The following day, members of the Garrick Club, named for the actor, received an email informing them that they would now be able to enjoy the paintings as the club had bought them.

At Christie’s, the top prices were all records for 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists—proving how popular these schools are. Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s epic Battle Between Carnival and Lent doubled the price it sold for five years ago to fetch £6.9 million ($10.7 million). A serene marine painting of Dutch men-o’-war by William van de Welde, comparable to a work by him in the Wallace Collection, London, doubled estimates to sell for £5.9 million ($9.2 million). And a powerful portrait of an old man deep in thought by Govaert Flinck, once thought to be by Rembrandt when in the collection of Catherine the Great, sold to London-based dealer Jean-Luc Baroni for a record £2.3 million ($3.6 million).

Further down the price scale it became clear just how important it is to have a good restorer. In 1978, an unidentified artist bought a portrait of a boy attributed vaguely to the “circle” of Frans Hals at Christie’s for £5,500. Having been heavily painted over in the past, the small panel was cleaned in the 1980s but yielded no clues as to its precise authorship. It was not until earlier this year that the Dutch restorer Martin Bijl was given the painting and, after cleaning by him, the panel was recognised by experts as being solely the work of Frans Hals. It sold for £241,250.

A swifter judgment was forthcoming on a portrait of Sally Siddons, the daughter of the actress Sarah Siddons, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. In January this year, it was sold by Sotheby’s in New York, as a joint work by Lawrence and his studio assistants, for $62,500. But after it had been cleaned, Christie’s reinstated the work as fully by Lawrence, and sold it for £313,250 ($489,000, compared with an estimate of £150,000/250,000.