On Thursday morning, Sotheby’s held its marquee Old Masters sale in New York that generated $76 million on the hammer (or $91 million with buyer’s fees). While the result met expectations, landing within the pre-sale estimate range of $73.1 million–$88.6 million, the amount rang in quite a bit below last year’s equivalent sale total of $114.5 million (with fees), which was the highest total for an Old Masters evening sale achieved in the house’s history.
Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist David Pollack took to the rostrum to lead the sale, which took place at the house’s York Avenue headquarters. Though the sale room drew a packed crowd with bidders participating on the floor, the tone of the room was focused and subdued—typical of a category that attracts a more academic crowd to its sales. The 55-lot auction saw a below-average sell-through rate of 74.5 percent, will 41 lots selling. Two paintings, including a scene of castle ruins by 17th-century Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael, were withdrawn before the sale’s start.
As has become typical at major auctions, 11 works, among them pictures by Sandro Botticelli, Peter van Mol, and Bellini, were backed by financial guarantees, meaning if they failed to sell at the sale, a buyer had already been secured. Together, these 11 works brought in a total of $63 million (with buyer’s fees), accounting for a bulky 70 percent of the sale’s $91 million total.
Though the hype surrounding the sale was fueled by a rare-to-market Botticelli portrait, it was in fact demand for smaller trophy works by lesser-known artists from centuries ago that proved to still be fertile with in Old Masters buying at auction. Records were set during the auction for pieces by Peter van Mol, Nicolaes Pickenoy, Anne Vallayer-Coster and Sophie Frémiet Rude.
The top lot of the sale was a portrait of a thorn-crowned Christ by Sandro Botticelli. Dating from ca. 1500, Man of Sorrows was backed by an irrevocable bid and sold for $45.4 million (with fees). It had hammered at $39.3 million, just below its expectation of $40 million, and went to a buyer on the phone with Sotheby’s New York Old Masters specialist Elizabeth Lobkowicz. Her client beat out another determined bidder on the phone with another specialist, Christopher Apostle, to win the work. Nearly 60 years ago, Man of Sorrows sold at auction for £10,000, where the seller, an anonymous American, purchased it.
Rewinding a few centuries, a life-sized ancient Egyptian limestone, dating from the late 5th dynasty (ca. 2440 B.C.E.), sold for $9.9 million to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s antiquities specialist Alexandra Olsman, who triumphed over two other bidders, who were on the phone with Sotheby’s chairman Brooke Lampley and New York contemporary art specialist Ashkan Baghestani. The artifact sold for three times its $3 million estimate.
Another big-ticket item that came to the sale with an irrevocable bid was Flemish painter Peter van Mol’s Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man (1969), a highly detailed rendering of five figures huddled together under dramatic lighting. It had once been owned by mega-collector Baron Rothschild and was sold in the present sale by Swiss investor and banking heir Jacqui E. Safra. It went for $5.8 million, more than double its $2 million estimate, setting a new record for the artist.
Safra also parted with other rarities that had long been in his collection during this sale. Two guaranteed works by 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi that Safra bought in the 1990s met their expectations. The first, Portrait of a seated lady, three-quarter length, in an elaborate and gold-embroidered costume, possibly Caterina Savelli, Principessa di Albano (1620) sold for $2.7 million, against an estimate of $2 million. Another of Gentileschi’s, Susanna and the Elders (ca. 1638), a large-scale biblical scene in which the protagonist Susanna is preyed upon by two neighboring elders, sold for $2.1 million, against an estimate of $1.8 million. The sale realized the second and third highest auction prices for the artist, for whom the house has been recently fielding “huge demand” for, according to Calvine Harvey, an Old Masters specialist at the house. A spokesperson for Safra, who is a regular consignor to Sotheby’s told ARTnews before the sale that the octogenarian collector felt the two paintings should be in a museum, but did not elaborate as to why the collector had put the works up for sale, as opposed to donating them to an institution.
It was a pair of oil portraits of a Dutch couple painted by Nicolaes Pickenoy that saw one of the day’s most spirited bidding periods. Portrait of a man in black and Portrait of a lady in black (both 1635) feature the sitters facing each other in historical black garb. Going to a bidder on the phone with Apostle, it hammered at $880,000 ($1.1 million with fees), almost doubleits $450,000 high estimate. The result also doubled the previous auction record set for Pickenoy in 2020 when another set of his pendant portraits sold for $537,345 at Christie’s London. Elsewhere in the sale, Portrait of the Marquis de Cabellero…Order of Santiago (1807), by Francisco Goya, sold for $2.2 million, more than five times its $400,000 estimate. It was offered by the Miami-based charity CINTAS Foundation, established by Cuban industrialist and collector Oscar B. Cintas.
In Thursday’s sale, Sotheby’s aimed to continue the momentum gained during its New York equivalent sale last year, which boosted the category’s image when Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young man (ca. 1500) sold for $92 million, a record for both the artist and an Old Master painting at auction. Now, the house is attempting to maintain that buzz, by anchoring its sales with examples by heavyweight art historical names, like Botticelli and Goya, flanking them with rare works by their lesser known contemporaries.