Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Old Master Paintings at Christie's

Saint Praxedis
Picture: Christie's 
Christie's Old Master and British Paintings sale this evening includes a Vermeer, but don't get too excited. It's an early picture, a copy of a minor Italian painting of St Praxides. For what it's worth, I'm convinced by the attribution, which has been controversial. But I don't love the picture, and the estimate of £6m - £8m reflects the name value of Vermeer rather than its inherent quality. I'm pleased, in a geeky train-spotter kind of way, that I've now seen all pictures plausibly attributed to Vermeer (and I've seen all except this and one in Braunschweig at least twice). Some of the best things are British (generally, of course, but in this auction too). There's a magnificent Reynolds, and above-average pictures by Cotes and Kauffman. And if Van Dyck may be considered an honourary Brit, his Head Study is very good.
The penitent Saint Justus kneeling before an altar - a predella panel
Picture: Christie's
A sensational version of the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds' name-picture has been consigned from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection. The primary version is in Birmingham, but this one is fantastic and reasonably estimated at £1m - £1.5m; it's my favourite of the high-end lots. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some good pictures in the Day Sale. A version of Wtewael's Perseus and Andromeda (£25k - £35k) and An Allegory of Unequal Love (£50k-£80k) from Bloemaert's circle are pictures of uncertain authorship but high quality with low estimates. Boeckhorst's A Grey Stallion in a Landscape is superb, comparable to Van Dyck's horse studies but estimated at merely £20k - £30k (or about a thousandth of a Jeff Koons...). A predella panel of The Penitent St Justus Kneeling Before an Altar (above) by the Master of the Castello Nativity is particularly unusual and, to me, attractive - but it's not everyone's taste. Still, £30k - £50k seems cheap for something so engaging and unusual.

Tronie of an old man
Picture: Christie's
This Jan Lievens (above) looks wrong to me, and the low-ish estimate is a hint that Christie's doesn't quite believe in it either. I adore Lievens' early head studies, and recently they've sold for high prices - multiples of this estimate. This one looks like a pastiche of Lievens, with excessive use of the brush handle to score lines in the paint. Really not great in my view. Likewise a Portrait of a Bearded Man given to Rubens, with an estimate of just £500k-£800k. That's cheap for a Rubens portrait, but too much for this one in my view. A so-so portrait from Holbein's workshop is also rather highly estimated at £200k-£300k. This sort of picture has done well at auction recently and might well sell for a high price, but a better, if smaller, female portrait from Holbein's school at Weiss for £350k looks better value to me.
Most of the high-estimate lots didn't greatly appeal to me. A good, typical Guardi is unexciting (certainly not at £8m - £10m), the unusual Canaletto nocturne isn't great (£3m - £4m), and there's the usual quota of boring-snoring Cranachs and Brueghels. A big Stomer carries a fairly modest estimate of £400k - £600k, but I think he's another artist over-rated by the market. The most interesting things are often hidden away in the day sales, and the best things aren't always the most expensive.

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