Monday, 3 December 2018

Old Master Auctions

Sotheby's and Christie's dominate high-end art auctions, but Bonham's has some particularly interesting pictures this month. There are no multi-million pound masterpieces, but some good and intriguing mid-range pictures with enticing estimates. My favourite is a full-size contemporary copy of Poussin's The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea that they attribute to Le Brun. Not quite an original work of art, but the £25k-£35k estimate is maybe a hundred times less than what a Le Brun of this scale and quality might fetch, and a thousand times less than a Poussin. It's worth £25k just for the 1830s Smith & Son frame.

This Dutch still life is a bit of a problem picture. It's attributed to Pieter Claesz, although some scholars favour the much less esteemed Hendrick van Heemskirk. The odd thing is that the left hand part seems very high quality, but other elements are quite slovenly. It's a union of a £200k-£300k picture with a £2k-£3k picture. They compromised with an estimate of £20k-£30k. You just need to spend the savings on a tapestry to hide the bad bits.

My other favourites from Bonham's were a lovely Jan Asselijn is estimated at £12k-£18k, a Cavallino £20k-£30k and a newly-discovered Andrea Sacchi at £250k-£350k.

The highlight of this season is a picture I've wanted to see for a very long time: a masterpiece by the Master of St Veronica, an anonymous but enormously talented early Cologne artist. It's the best thing in the London sales, both very rare and imporant and very beautiful and moving. I love the idiosyncrasy of early German art, the jovial Christ delighted by his resurrection, transcendence made imminent. The estimate of £1.2m - £1.8m seems paltry. It's not the most 'commercial' picture, and the central figures are a bit abraded, but that's still very little for something so fabulous. It represents an imporant moment in art history that's poorly represented in many museums. The National Gallery ought to go for it, but I don't believe they will. The Getty and the Met are obvious contenders, plus maybe Cleveland or the Louvre. It's been widely published and known about, and it's an obvious gap in many collections. Museums should be ready to pounce, and I'm surprised a sale wasn't brokered before the auction. A £1.8m low estimate disrespects the artist's genius; isn't it enough that we've forgotten the poor chap's name? I really hope that later this week we'll hear that it's gone to a great museum.

Sotheby's also has a glorious early Jan Brueghel the elder (£1.8m-£2.5m; really nice little picture, but this shouldn't be more expensive than the Master of St Veronica!), a Rembrandt Head of Christ (£6m-£8m) and an interesting pair of pictures of beggars by Giordiano (£150k-£200k).

The best things aren't always the most valuable, and one of my favourites at Christie's is this Ecce Homo, vaguely described as 'Italo-Flemish seventeenth century', which is a technical art history term for "we're not quite sure". I don't know either, but I love it. It needs to be seen from below, the figures looking down at us. It's a very Roman image, reminiscent of Mantegna more than Flemish art. If I had space I'd certainly be bidding against the enticing estimate of just £5k-£8k.

Christie's has the Eric Albada Jelgersma collection of mainly Dutch and Flemish pictures. He had some fine pictures, but his taste is not mine. More appealing to me is this Antwerp school Lamentation with an unusually horrific scalped Christ (£250k-£350k). A lot of similar pictures were painted in Antwerp, and the quality is often really good. But I wonder how many people would want to live with that rather harrowing image. More conventionally popular is a magnificent English-period Van Dyck of a beautiful young Princess Mary (£5m-£8m). Another version is at Sotheby's, given to Van Dyck and studio, but not a patch on the Christie's masterpiece.

The other highlight of the season is a sale from Rugby school, which is all much to my taste. The old master drawings include some artists I especially like: Orsi, Cades, Testa, plus a rare Lucas van Leyden, a Correggio and a superb Jan Brueghel the elder. Giuseppe Cades is an eighteenth century Italian draughtsman who deserves to be better known. Three Bishop Saints above is estimated at £15k-£25k.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Contrasting Rubens portraits at London auctions

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Sotheby's and Christie's each offered Rubens portraits at their auctions last week. The Christie's picture, Clara Serena Rubens (above) had been recently deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and sold by Sotheby's in 2013 as the work of a follower. Back then it made $626,500 against an estimate of $20k-$30k. It's been promoted hard as a Rubens, including spells on loan to the Rubenshuis and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. A dealer described the estimate of £3m-£5m as low, and predicted that she would 'break records'. It didn't sell.

I saw it at the Rubenshuis, exhibited alongside certain works by Rubens, and didn't think it stood up. It's a really endearing image and beautiful in parts, but the ambiguously sculptural treatment of the bust seems wrong for an intimate portrait of his daughter, and the application of paint seemed quite different from the other Rubens in the exhibition I saw. I'm not a Rubens specialist, and I know that some thought it was right even after seeing the Rubenshuis show. But a lot of Rubens specialists weren't quoted in the catalogue and haven't committed a view either way. Scholars are cautious of criticising new attributions, which are often uncertain rather than plainly wrong. But I am uneasy about museums showing controversial works with full attributions just before they're sold.

The Rubens at Sotheby's, which I wrote about in my preview post, was unquestioned and made £5,416,500 against an estimate of £3m-£4m. The market gave its verdict on the relative merits of the two portraits. The wonderful portrait attributed to Dürer - my favourite in the Sotheby's sale - made £1,150,000, over a cautious £300k-£400k estimate. It's still good value for something so rare and so good. Last time I can recall a plausible Dürer offered at auction was the Portrait of Michael Wohlgemut from the Schäfer collection at Sotheby's in December 1992, where it was unsold against an estimate then of £600k-£800k.
 Image result for sotheby's liberale verona
Sotheby's had a lot of pictures to my taste. I've always liked the mysterious Jacobus Vrel, and I was pleased to see one of his best pictures sell for £838k (estimated £300k-£400k). Cassone panels are often disappointing because they get so damaged, kicked and scrubbed over the centuries. The Liberale da Verona Triumph of Chastity was one of the most beautiful and well-preserved to appear on the market, and deservedly made £1,330,000 (estimate £400k-£600k, detail above). I was more surprised to see four South Netherlandish panels from the early fifteenth century sell strongly for £2.65m (est £1m-£1.5m). They're enormously rare, but I thought not of the finest artistic quality. I preferred a really fine Adoration of the Magi by a follower of Van der Goes, which made just £250k (est £200k-£300k).

At Christie's an attractive Gerard David Holy Family made £4,846,250 (est £1.5m-£2.5m) and a major portrait by Ludovico Carracci that emerged in 2005 made £5,071,250 (est £3.5m-£5m).

In drawings, Turner's spectacular Lake of Lucerne made £2,050,000 at Sotheby's. I thought it would do better. That's less than half the Blue Rigi, which is a steep discount for a less sexy title. Van Goyen drawings are common, but an especially beautiful one sold for £68,750 against a £20k-£30k estimate. There's a strong market for the very best drawings. The very best drawing sold last week, in my view, was the incredible early Fuseli of The Faerie Queen that made £728,750 (est £150k-£250k), which is both a high price and a bargain.
Image result for tuscan madonna christie's thirteenth century

There were a couple of high prices in the day sales. At Sotheby's an attractive and commercial Netscher made £274k against £60k-£80k estimate. At Christie's a thirteenth century Tuscan Madonna and Child enthroned with angels (pictured) sold for £992,750 against a £30k-£50k estimate.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Auction bargains

The glitzy evening sales are a precious opportunity to see masterpieces that might not return to public view for a long time. There's usually a handful of optimistic attributions and bad-but-commercial pictures, too. The day sales are more of a mixed bag, but prices start really low and quality rises really quite high. I know that objectively £5k or £10k is a lot of money, but art has always been expensive, and collectors at every price point make sacrifices. Put off replacing the car (or cycle instead), choose cheaper holidays, plan to work a little longer, or just sell the kids. A lot of these pictures are within reach for many people.
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I like the early Netherlandish and early Germany pictures. Some of the studios turned out high quality pictures in some quantity. These Old Testament prophets from the Swabian school are great! Just £40k-£60k for the pair at Sotheby's. They have the same estimate on a beautiful Annunciation from the circle of the Master of the Housebook, just a foot and a half high. Look for pictures from the 'Antwerp School' for bargains. There are a few conventional names given to identifiable groups of pictures, but a lot of pictures from Antwerp studios are unidetified but often high quality. This St Jerome is particularly nice, with an excellent landscape, estimated at just £20k-£30k at Sotheby's. A little later is a large Martyrdom of St Sebastian (£25k-£35k at Christie's) by Cornelis van Haarlem, an artist of mixed quality, but rather under-rated in my view.
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Christie's says this is from the circle of Anthonis Mor. It's not the only attribution I disagree with, but wherever it's from this is a fine portrait (£10k-£15k). It stands up well displayed just off the main gallery at Christie's, among the evening sale highlights. Another anonymous picture is this fine Roman school Head of a Man, which will be worth much more than £7k-£10k if someone can identify the artist.
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Rubens's prolific studio produced a lot of good pictures. There's a huge price change between 'Rubens' and 'studio', so a big incentive to over-attribute. On the other hand, pictures given to the studio can be cheap. Christie's has a version of the Washington Daniel in the Lions' Den without Daniel, by a follower of Rubens (£25k-£35k). And let's face it, it's the lions we really love! Big kitty cats; Internet, do your thing.
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Do have a look at the catalogues; they're big sales with lots of interesting pictures. At the lower end, this Nicolò Giolfino St Roch is quite charming at £10k-£15k at Christie's, and Sotheby's has a Jean-Baptiste-Marie Huët portrait for £7k-£10k. A beautiful Ceruti still life of chestnuts is estimated at £40k-£60k at Sotheby's. I like it more than a lot of evening sale still lifes.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Summer auction highlights

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It's bronze-o-rama this month. Really great bronzes rarely come up for sale, but this month there are three in London. My favourite is by the greatest sculptor of small bronzes, Giambologna. The Dresden Mars (£3m-£5m, above) is a heart-stopping masterpiece. Exquisitely detailed and with beautiful patina, it's also a consummate summary of mannerism with its subtle and not-so-subtle distortions. The massive foreshortened hand is marvellously expressive with detailed veins and an exaggerated radius bone that looks almost like a ganglion cyst. The calf muscles are over-sized, and more distortions become evident when you study it. But the effect is artistic rather than awkward.

Sculptures are hard to display. They need protection from curious hands, but they can't really be appreciated in vitrines. Sculptures are often seen as the poor relations of paintings, and don't get the same curatorial attention. That's why auction viewings are so worthwhile. The auctioneers do a much better job of showing their wares, and you can really appreciate the quality of this masterpiece. It's a logical acquisition for the Getty, which has developed a choice collection of sculptures. I hope they get it, because they display their collection so well.

Christie's also leads with bronzes. There's a great group of Hercules overcoming Achelous by Tacca, an artist in Giambologna's studio. A gilt version of this is in the Wallace Collection, and comparing the two really emphasises the quality of the Christie's bronze. Estimate is 'on request', circa £5m. They also have a magnificent rediscovered masterpiece by Giradon, a large bronze of Louis XIV on Horseback (£7m-£10m).
Image result for durer man green background sotheby's
The picture that grabbed my attention was this outstanding Portrait of a Man against a green background, plausibly attributed to Dürer. I don't know if it's by him or one of his close followers like Schongauer, but whoever it's by, it is a masterpiece. Condition is clearly compromised; the background looks horrible. It might have been overpainted and then cleaned. But the face itself is well-preserved and fabulous quality. This kind of picture is rare outside Germany and the estimate of £300k-£400k is modest, reflecting its small size and the diminished impact from damage to the background. The excellent catalogue entry gives more background on disputes over its attribution, which is welcome. Continuing with the northern Renaissance, Sotheby's also has a rare picture by one of my favourite artists, Hans Baldung. The Holy Family with Five Angels (£2.5m-£3.5m) is rather worn in the key parts, but other elements are still finely preserved. And they almost never appear for sale. Hugo van der Goes is another rare and prized master. The Adoration of the Magi at Sotheby's is only by a follower, but I like it a lot. And over 2m wide, it's unusually large and is good value at the estimate of £200k-£300k.
 Image result for rubens venetian man sotheby's
Speaking of attribution disputes, Rubens was enormously prolific and pictures by him and his studio often appear at auction and there's sometimes a fine line between the master and his school. The best this time is a fine Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman at Sotheby's (£3m-£4m), which looks even better in the flesh, with an ambiguous sense of swagger and vulnerability. Christie's has a newly-attributed portrait with a slightly higher estimate (£3m-£5m), which I don't love. Christie's also has a fine large studio version of a lion's den, derived from the Washington Daniel in the Lion's Den, without the lions (£25k-£35k).
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At Christie's there's a fine large Zanobi Strozzi Last Judgment which represents Fra Angelico's beautiful style (£2-£4m) and a superb early Spanish masterpiece by Miguel Ximénez, also of the Last Judgment (£600k-£800k). My favourite is a small Virgin and Child in a Walled Garden by the Master of the Triburtine Sibyl (£400k-£600k, above).

Image result for A Wide Village Street in summer with carts, villagers and gentlefolk sotheby's
A tiny Jan Brueghel the elder, A Wide Village Street in summer with carts, villagers and gentlefolk (the title says it all) reminds me that he's a really great artist (£2.5m-£3.5m, Sotheby's). Not all his pictures rise to this level, and weaker ones appear at auction quite often. It's a beautiful and easily appreciated picture, but it's also a sophisticated image. Perspective is cleverly distorted; compare the trees on the left and the right. It's a trick used by Rubens, but on a tiny scale. When you see lots of pictures of this type you come to appreciate how hard it is to integrate those seemingly-random figures into a harmonious whole. It's a really great picture.

Sotheby's has a sleeper in reverse. This Ecce Homo is described as Venetian School, early sixteenth century, with an estimate of £30k-£50k. The catalogue note doesn't mention that it was previously offered in New York in 2009 with full attribution to Lorenzo Lotto, endorsed by Keith Christiansen of the Met, with estimate of $400k-$600k. It's still a fine, unusual picture. I wonder if it would have been better marketed without the initial Lotto attribution, encouraging the trade to bid it up as a sleeper.
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There's a dearth of great drawings at this week's sales, but each auction house has a few spectacular things. There's an overwhelming early Fuseli at Christie's, The Faerie Queen appears to Prince Arthur (£150k-£250k, above). The most fascinating is a twenty-foot panorama of London just after the Napoleonic Wars, by Pierre Prévost (£200k-£300k at Sotheby's).

These are the big-money highlights, though not so big compared to contemporary art. I'll write a separate post tomorrow about the day sales and antiquities sales, where there are some really good pictures with really modest estimates.