On Thursday, during its nine-auction Classic Week series, Christie’s held an Old Masters evening sale in London that generated £37.3 million ($51.5 million) on the hammer, or $45.3 million ($62.4 million) with buyer’s fees—the highest result achieved for an evening auction in the category at Christie’s in London since 2016. The total landed within the pre-sale estimate range of £36.7 million–£56.2 million ($50.6 million–$77.4 million).
Earlier in the day, a minuscule drawing of a bear’s head by Leonardo da Vinci sold for £8.8 million ($12.2 million) with fees, hammering below its £8 million low estimate. It was auctioned during Christie’s “Exceptional Sale,” which focused on design objects and Old Masters works.
Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen led the beginning portion of the Old Masters sale and later handed over the gavel to London-based junior Old Masters specialist, Olivia Ghosh, for the second half. The 59-lot sale saw a below-average sell-through rate of 78 percent. But it brought in more than double what was achieved in an equivalent sale staged in July last year. (That 48-work sale realized a 74 percent sell-through rate.)
As is typical of Old Masters evening sales, 75 percent of bidding came from buyers based throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and 20 percent came from clients in the U.S. Just 5 percent of bidders were based in Asia—a much smaller share relative to what’s often seen at the top auction houses’ modern and contemporary evening sales, where clients from the region dominate.
Three works were withdrawn before the sale’s start, including a portrait of an English noble, Thomas Wentwork, by Anthony van Dyck. Estimated at £3 million ($4.13 million), it once belonged to King Charles I of England, and it was pulled from the auction at the request of the seller.
Four of the works on offer were backed by guarantees, among them a double portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder and a still life by Jan Davis van Heem. Together, the four lots brought in a total of £5.3 million ($7.3 million) with buyer’s fees, accounting for a modest 10 percent of the sale’s total.
Recently there has been growing demand for works by female Old Masters, according to Christie’s London head of Old Masters evening sales, Clementine Sinclair. Works by Artemisia Gentileschi and Angelica Kaufmann—two of just three female artists represented in the sale—saw intense competition among bidders on Thursday evening. The sale realized the second-highest auction prices for both artists.
In a post-sale press conference, speaking of records set on Thursday evening, Christie’s London head of Old Masters, Henry Pettifer, said, “We’ve given a real boost to the Old Masters market.”
An 18th-century scene by Bellotto depicting a Venetian canal was the evening’s top lot. After just a few bids registered from a client in the salesroom and another on the phone with Pettifer, it hammered well below the £12 million ($16.5 million) low estimate, at £9 million ($12.4 million). While bidding for the sale’s cover lot was tepid, the final price came to £10.6 million with buyer’s premium ($14.6 million), surpassing Bellotto’s previous auction record of $12.7 million, set when Rome – The Forum with the Temple of Castor and Pollux (ca. 18th century) sold at Christie’s London in 2006.
Coming to auction after 50 years in private hands and measuring more than 5 feet by 7 feet, the work was purchased by the seller in 1971 at Christie’s for £300,000 ($720,000). Since 1973, it has been on long-term loan at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
A market scene depicting an autumnal allegory by German painter Lucas van Valckenborch came to sale as part of a settlement agreement between the seller and the Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern Foundation. A restitution effort is underway to seek the recovery of some 400 works that Stern, a Dutch Jewish art collector active in the early 20th century, was forced to sell under duress in the years leading up to World War II. According to the lot’s provenance record, the painting was acquired by Galerie Stern, which sold it to Düsseldorf collector Moritz Grüntal in 1931. It was later confiscated from Grüntal by the Nazis and restituted to him in 1950.
At Christie’s the work sold for a final price of £437,500 ($603,000). It last went for around £200,000 when the current seller purchased it at the auction house in 2000, before the work’s full WWII-era provenance had been catalogued.
The same buyer that won the Valckenborch, bidding with paddle number 822, purchased the first lot in the sale, a painting by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch, for £262,500 ($362,000) with fees, more than three times the low estimate.
Just one bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s London deputy chairman John Stainton went for a portrait of Saint Andrew by de La Tour. The 17th-century Caravaggist’s painting comes from a coveted series depicting the apostles. It hammered at £3.7 million ($5.1 million), or a record-setting £4.5 million ($6.15 million) with premium. The previous record for de La Tour was €4.3 million ($5.2 million), set in December 2020 when his Girl Blowing on a Brazier (La Fillette au braisier), 1646–48, sold at the German auction house Lempertz. Later it was revealed that the Louvre Abu Dhabi purchased the work.
There are few de La Tour works available on the market, and that makes his works sought after by buyers. Just 47 other works by him are known to be in private hands. “They are in such short supply,” Pettifer said. “The prices are reflective of his major importance and rarity.”
A determined bidder on the phone with Sinclair vied for 17th-century Dutch painter Frans van Mieris’s interior scene The Music Lesson (ca. 17th century). That bidder drove the hammer price up to £2.9 million ($4 million), four times the low estimate of £700,000 ($965,000). The final price for the painting, which was last displayed publicly nearly a century ago, was £3.5 million ($4.8 million).
A new-to-market work by Artemisia Gentileschi, titled Venus and Cupid (ca. 16th century), came to auction on Thursday. It had been in a Swiss collection since 1959, and was originally commissioned for an Italian cardinal. It went for a final price of £2.4 million ($3.3 million), more than four times its estimate of £600,000 ($827,000). The artist’s market has been on the rise following the opening of an acclaimed exhibition devoted to her at London’s National Gallery in October. Her current auction record was set at Parisian auction house Artcurial, when Lucretia sold for €4.8 million ($6.1 million).
Early on in the sale, a buyer from Missouri won a study of a man by Peter Paul Rubens on a hammer of £800,000 ($1.1 million), more than three times the low estimate of £250,000 ($345,000).
Among the works that failed to find a buyer was 15th-century Italian artist Antonio Vivarini’s gold-ground panel depicting Saint Peter, estimated at £500,000 ($689,000). The seller was Old Masters mega-collector Alvaro Saieh, who regularly consigns works at auction.