On Thursday morning, Christie’s staged an Old Masters sale in New York that brought in $14.6 million on the hammer, or $18 million with buyer’s fees. The total landed below the pre-sale estimate range of $15.6 million–$24.4 million.
Led by Christie’s chairman and global head of private sales Adrien Meyer, the 64-lot sale saw a below-average sell-through rate of 59 percent, with just 33 works finding buyers. An equivalent New York live sale in October 2020 made $24 million made across 49 lots. Three of the works on offer were guaranteed: a Sebastiano del Piombo, a Paolo Veronese, and a Luca Giordano. Together, the three lots brought in a total of $7.6 million with buyer’s fees, accounting for 42 percent of the sale’s total.
“It’s encouraging to see that there’s an appetite for Old Masters,” said Jonquil O’Reilly, a Christie’s New York Old Masters specialist in New York, in an interview. And, she added, museums participated actively in the sale, showing that it’s no longer entirely true that Old Masters are not as important as modern and contemporary art when it comes to institutional priorities. “There’s a shift in what museums are looking at—they’re trying to make their collections more relevant,” she said. “I think we saw that today.”
Four works were withdrawn before the sale, including one that generated headlines in the Spanish press—a $1.2 million crucifixion scene by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In advance of the auction, Spanish experts raised concerns about the Murillo, claiming it was a copy done by a later artist based in Seville. A Christie’s representative declined to comment on why the Murillo was removed from the auction.
In recent decades, there has been increased market demand for lesser-known Old Masters, as well as rediscovered and reattributed works by well-known ones. In this sale, it was work by familiar artists, like Lucas Cranach the Elder and Artemisia Gentileschi, that saw the most competition among bidders. Yet the sale also attested to an ongoing challenge for the top-heavy Old Masters market: the difficulty of placing mid-value tier works with new buyers.
A religious scene by Cranach depicting Christ emerging from a stone tomb was among the top lots. After a protracted bidding spree between clients on the phone with Christie’s New York Old Masters specialists Francois de Poortere and Joshua Glazer, and head of client advisory Maria Los, the work hammered at $1.8 million, bringing the final price to $2.2 million with buyer’s premium, more than double the estimate of $800,000.
The Cranach came to the sale as part of a settlement agreement between the heirs of its original German Jewish owner Margarete Eisenmann and the estate of American dealer and collector Eugene V. Thaw, who died in January 2018. Despite the fact that it had at one point been sold under duress and was in the Third Reich’s possession during the war, the work performed well in the sale, proof that Cranach’s market is on the upswing. This past October, a Cranach painting that was deaccessioned by the Brooklyn Museum sold for $5.1 million.
Three bidders competed for a rediscovered painting by Sebastiano del Piombio’s The Vision of Saint Anthony Abbot (ca. 15th century). The 15th-century Venetian artist’s painting hammered at $2.6 million with de Poortere’s phone bidder. Because the work hammered below its low estimate of $3 million, the winning bid likely went to the guarantor. The final price was $3.15 million, a new record for the artist, surpassing Sotheby’s 2019 sale of del Piombio’s portrait of a Medici family member for $1.1 million.
Another guaranteed lot, Veronese’s Symbols of the Four Evangelists (ca. 1575), sold for $1.35 million, twice its estimate of $600,000. The seller of the work saw a favorable return, having bought it 20 years ago at Sotheby’s New York for $445,800. Another resold lot did not fare so well. A gold religious panel attributed to 14th-century Florentine painter Bernardo Daddi titled Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul hammered at a below-estimate $240,000, going to a buyer on the phone with Christie’s Old Masters head Ben Hall for a final price of $300,000. The seller had purchased it in 2006 at Christie’s for $486,400.
Early on, the salesroom’s energy was tepid. It wasn’t until Eight Scenes from the Life of Christ, a prized Roman painting from the 13th century, came onto the auction block that the morale picked up. According to the house’s specialists, finding scenes of this type and era outside Tuscany is unusual. Well-documented and studied by scholars, the work came from the collection of Chilean economist and collector Álvaro Saieh, who purchased it in 2002. On Thursday, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston acquired the work for a hammer price of $1.2 million ($1.47 million with buyer’s fees), below its estimate of $1.5 million.
Four bidders, including one from the Czech Republic, competed for Sandro Botticelli’s intimate portrait of the Madonna and child, moving the hammer price up to $1.1 million. It was won by a bidder on the phone with O’Reilly. The work, estimated at $600,000, came to auction after being held by a family that purchased it sometime in the 1930s. The result for the Botticelli is indicative of how a modest estimate can draw multiple bidders and stir up demand. “It reflects what’s going on at the moment,” Reilly said. “Conservative estimates do make the difference.”
Another rediscovered work, Dosso Dossi’s The Trojans building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and making offerings at Anchises’ grave (ca. 1514), sold for $400,000 with premium at its low estimate. The surviving large-scale work, originally commissioned by an Italian duke in 1514, is in fact one half of a two-part work that was split and sold as separate pieces. A representative for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which already owns the other half, confirmed that the museum was the winning bidder for the Dossi that hit the block on Thursday.
At one point, there was a slow-burn bidding battle for a new-to-market work by Artemisia Gentileschi. The artist’s market has been on the rise following the opening of a long-awaited exhibition around the Baroque painter at London’s National Gallery in October. Bidders moved the hammer price for her octagonal canvas The Penitent Magdalene up to $550,000. Its final price was $687,500, nearly two times its estimate of $300,000. The same buyer, bidding with paddle 1735, purchased Giovanni Battista Naldini’s panting of the Madonna and child for $106,250, more than $45,000 over its high estimate, as well as Orazio Samacchini’s 16th-century canvas The Baptism of Christ for $487,500, far beyond its estimate of $200,000. That result set a new record for a painting done by Samacchini.
Among the works that failed to find buyers was a reattributed El Greco portrait of a bearded man, estimated at $400,000. The seller purchased it in 2012 at Bonhams in London for about half the price, at $210,600.