With prices for Artemisia Gentileschi continuing to rise, two paintings by the Italian 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi are coming to auction at Sotheby’s New York. Both will appear in an Old Masters auction on Thursday, and are each secured with a financial guarantee.
The paintings are from the collection of Jacob (Jacqui) E. Safra, heir of a Syrian Lebanese-Swiss banking fortune. They are expected to collectively fetch an estimated $3.8 million–$5.5 million.
The first work slated to hit the block this week, Susanna and the Elders (ca. 1638), depicts a large-scale biblical scene in which Susanna is preyed upon by two community elders. This scene was one that Gentileschi returned to multiple times, and art historians have recently begun to view her usage of it as a feminist gesture. It is estimated at $1.8 million–$2.5 million.
The second painting, titled Portrait of a seated lady, three-quarter length, in an elaborate and gold-embroidered costume, possibly Caterina Savelli, Principessa di Albano (1620), was produced earlier in her career. Its subject was identified as being the Genoese noble Caterina Savelli in 2012 after new research was released in tandem with the work going on view at the Musée Maillol. It is estimated at $2 million–$3 million.
In an interview, Calvine Harvey, an Old Masters specialist at Sotheby’s, said, “Though she was a significant portraitist, we don’t see that many portraits today by her. This is one of only very few that are fully confirmed to be by Artemisia.”
Both works have been in Safra’s collection since the 1990s. Three decades ago, Safra—who gained a reputation as a top Old Masters collector, but has more recently kept a low profile—far outbid both works’ estimates in order to win them at auction. He bought Susanna and the Elders for $300,000, more than 6 times its $46,000 estimate at Sotheby’s in London in 1995. A few years later, he purchased the Savelli portrait for $242,000, almost double its $125,000 estimate.
Safra made the two acquisitions at a time when the Old Masters market was still roaring as the dominant auction category. Still, female Old Masters did not command large prices at the time, and while Gentileschi’s work now sells for millions of dollars, back then those prices were relatively high. “This was not an artist that was highly sought after,” said Harvey, “It shows an incredible foresight into his seeing how important she would come.”
Gentileschi broke ground by deviating from the male-dominated style of the era that portrayed women as victims, instead rendering her female subjects as valiant protagonists. By age 20, she had established a career as an artist by and later became known for her dramatic Caravaggio-influenced style. Historians have seen links in her paintings to the violence she survived during her life, both before and during a highly public trial in Rome where she alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by her mentor.
Works by Gentileschi have long been rare on the market, and only around 40 of her known paintings reside in institutional collections around the world. With her work getting a new level attention in museums, her work is growing more expensive. In 2019, her painting Lucretia (ca. 1630) sold for a record-setting $5.3 million in Paris. If either of the two present paintings reach their high estimates, they will become two of the most expensive works by her sold on the open market.
Safra, who owns the publishing company Britannica, is offloading other works from his collection in the same sale, including pieces by Pieter van Mol, Gaetano Gandolfi, and Anne Vallayer-Coster. These Gentileschis are the only remaining ones that Safra owns, according to a spokesperson for the collector from Britannica Group. Safra “believes that these two museum-level paintings are better in a museum,” the spokesperson said.