NEW YORK—A Venetian landscape by J.M.W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner (1775-1851) drew fierce bidding at Christie’s April 6 Old Masters auction, selling for $35.9 million to a telephone bidder. It was the highest price ever reached at auction for a British painting and also the most expensive painting to sell in an Old Masters auction in New York. Reportedly the buyer was Las Vegas casino mogul and art collector Steve Wynn, though neither Christie’s nor Wynn would confirm or comment.
The 24-by-36-inch 1840 oil, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio, opened at $11 million and quickly drew bidding from three buyers in the room. They were joined by one phone bidder; then another one jumped in.
The last of the bidders in the room, Maastricht dealer Robert Noortman, told ARTnewsletter: “I wanted to buy it at a reasonable price for stock, but it went to a private buyer at a retail price. I was not surprised—it could have fetched anything.” (The previous record for a British painting had stood at just over $21 million, for John Constable’s The Lock, sold in 1990.) The Turner, estimated at $15 million, was consigned for sale by the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation, a Catholic charity.
Overall, the Christie’s auction was 70 percent sold by lot and achieved $74.5 million, a result the auction house said was a validation of its decision to move Old Masters sales to the spring rather than going head-to-head with Sotheby’s in January. Christie’s international directors of Old Master paintings Nicholas Hall and Richard Knight said the result “underlines the wisdom of selling important Old Master paintings in April,” adding that the auction was “successful on every level,” including the total, the sold-by-lot percentage and average lot value.
In addition to the Turner, six other auction records were set among the top lots in the sale and six works besides the Turner sold for more than $1 million. Eight of the top ten lots sold for prices that exceeded their presale estimates.
The second-highest price in the sale was an oil by the 16th-century Viennese painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1533), Saint Barbara in a Wooded Landscape, which was sold from the collection of Hugo and Ruth Klotz to a European collector for $4.9 million (estimate: $1.5/2.5 million).
Among other records set: A painting by Georg Flegel (1566-1638) took $4 million; another by Fede Galizia (1578-1630) fetched $1.64 million; a still life by Evaristo Baschenis (1617-77) sold for $1.47 million; Saint Augustine, by Stefano Di Giovanni (or Sassetta, 1395-1450), took $1.13 million; a still life by The Master of the Lombard Fruit Bowl (active circa 1600) sold for $1.08 million; and Esther before Ahasuerus, by Jacopo Del Sellaio (1441-1493), brought $856,000.
Among the few high-profile disappointments in the sale were two early-18th-century paintings on martial themes by the Venetian Luca Carlevarijs (1663-1730). Estimated at $3.5/4.5 million and $2/3 million, they were bought in at $2.7 million and $1.5 million, respectively.
Noortman, a specialist in Dutch Old Masters and Impressionist painting, suggested the $4 million-plus prices for the Cranach the Elder and Irises, Tulips . . . a Stag Beetle and a Knife, the still life by Flegel, estimated at $2.5/3 million, were beyond the reach of most trade buyers but noted that he had bought several works for stock. “The market is very global,” he explained. “There are lots of new clients coming up and not enough on offer.”
Among the top lots, trade buyers did succeed in attaining the $1.64 million Galizia, a still life estimated at $500,000/700,000; Eglon Hendrick Van Der Neer’s Lady Playing a Lute in an Interior, which achieved $912,000 against an estimate of $400,000/600,000; and a Titian, The Mater Dolorosa, which fell below its low estimate for $912,000.