It's Old Master week in New York, but sadly I'm stuck in London. I can still enjoy the viewings vicariously as the major auction houses publish good quality pictures online, and I saw some of this highlights in London in December. The stand-out masterpiece is the Rothschild Prayerbook, which is one of the greatest works of art to be sold this decade. I was fortunate to see it in London, a group of us crowding around slack-jawed as the pages were turned. But many of the minor works of art are also of great interest; some of the most expensive lots are fashionable rather than great, and there are lots of cheaper pictures that I'd take over some of the $1m+ lots. Take this small Pieta by Lo Spagna at Sotheby's. It's a beautiful example of the influence of Raphael's early style, an absolute classic of the Italian Renaissance, and it's estimated at just $150k-$200k.
It looks well-preserved, and might be an independent work of art rather than a predella panel. This is Lo Spagna at his best, but even at his best he wasn't a great artist. The drapery is mechanical, the figures are rather wooden and the horizon isn't horizontal, but it's still a picture I'd love to have - a clear, moving composition from the cusp of the High Renaissance. From the expensive lots at Sotheby's I liked the remarkable Portrait of a Gyrfalcon viewed from three angles ($700k-$1m), a Tetrode bronze of Samson Slaying the Philistine ($800k-$1.2m) and a wonderfully rude Fragonard ($6m - $8m).
Christie's has a rare Michael Sweerts A Woman Grooming Her Child's Hair (above), estimated at just $200k - $300k. Christie's recently valued another Sweerts, In The Studio, at $5m - $10m in their controversial appraisal of works in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why the difference? The cheaper picture is smaller, less well known, apparently less well preserved, of a less attractive subject (de-lousing!) and its attribution is uncertain. I still think the estimate is too low.
At first glance the condition seems poor - the weave of the canvas is quite prominent and there seem to be lots of small losses. I haven't seen the original, but I suspect it's not actually as badly preserved as it seems. Sweerts was known to use coarse canvases and paint thinly, using only a few highlights rather than the delicate glazes used by other Dutch masters. Even if the damage is only apparent, it is off-putting. But the bigger question is whether it is by Sweerts at all. The catalogue entry gives the picture wholly to Sweerts, but doesn't reference Kultzen's catalogue raisonné (which I don't have, but presumably doesn't include it as autograph). It references the catalogue of the 2002 Sweerts exhibition, but doesn't mention that it's listed there as only 'attributed' to Sweerts. Going only by the photograph, it looks right to me and a bargain at its estimated price. Sweerts is a rare and fascinating artist; you can read more about him here.
Prices for pictures by Dutch artists can vary enormously. A telling contrast is that Christie's has a Jan van Goyen landscape estimated at $20k-$30k. Sotheby's has a slightly smaller Jan van Goyen landscape (above) estimated at fifty times as much, $1m - $1.5m. Van Goyen was prolific, and his pictures vary greatly both in intrinsic quality and state of preservation. The Sotheby's picture, which I saw in London, is outstanding; if you want a Van Goyen, you'll want that Van Goyen. It really is fifty times better. I also loved this tiny Ostade at the London preview. It has a substantial estimate of $500k-$800k, but it's another exceptional picture that is far superior to his more run-of-the-mill production.
The Christie's Renaissance sale is quite a mix, with a lot of pictures I don't care for. Some are in poor condition, like this Pontormo. The Lotto, which I saw in London, is a wreck and the head of St Catherine is ghastly. I disliked all of the Botticelli-ish pictures in the sale. But there are also some very fine things. This splendid Salvator Mundi is given to Jacopo de Barbari; I suspect it will do better than its estimated $400k-$600k. They have a particularly strong offering of early Netherlandish pictures, which are rather scarce. As well as the Rothschild Prayerbook, they have this lovely unattributed St Catherine estimated at $250k-$350k, inexplicably deaccessioned by the Met, a stunning Van Orley Virgin and Child that I admired when it was on loan in Minneapolis, and cheap at its estimate of $500k-$800k, another Virgin and Child by the Master of the Stern Virgin and Child, and a beautiful and well-preserved Provost Annunciation at $2m-$4m.
This is a fine and rare portrait by Amberger, but I find the estimate of $4m-$6m inexplicable. I suppose there must be some deep-pocketed collectors of early German paintings that they expect to vie for it. The obvious buyer should be the Thyssen in Madrid, which owns its pair. I understand that Thyssen specifically earmarked some of his pictures as inalienable, but permitted others to be sold to fund acquisitions. There are lots of second-rate Thyssen pictures that could justifiably be sold to reunite husband and wife, even if the estimate is steep.
Seventeenth century French paintings must be deeply unfashionable; some of the estimates seem weirdly low. I saw this Bourdon at Wildenstein a few years ago; it was previously in the Spencer collection, and it seems an amazing bargain if it sells within the $50k-$70k estimate. The attribution of this Laurent de la Hyre Virgin and Child is uncertain, but still seems cheap at $40k-$60k. A version of Sancerre's famous La Femme Voilée is estimated at $60-$80k and a Virgin and Child with St Anne formerly attributed to Bourdon and now to Louis Licherie de Beurie is an attractive Poussin-esque picture, worn and not great but a steal at $20k-$30k.
From the drawings sales, this Gericault is the stand-out lot from the Christie's sale (est. $150k-$250k). I'd love to buy it for the British Museum. Their outstanding collection of Renaissance drawings rather tails off by the nineteenth century. None of their Gericaults are equal to this.
Sotheby's lists this Bearded Old Man as 'Attributed to Rembrandt', but their estimate of $25k-$35k says that they don't believe it's a Rembrandt. Neither do I; absolutely in Rembrandt's style, but it's a laboured attempt to replicate the master's economical drawing technique. The arms are particularly awkward. My choice from the Sotheby's sale is this marvellous seventeenth century Florentine red chalk Study of a Man, estimated at just $15-20k. Much better quality than the Rembrandt-ish drawing.