Monday, 6 July 2015

Old Master auction week

Picture: Sotheby's
The old master auction viewings are a great opportunity to see privately owned masterpieces. But I especially relish the chance to see more 'minor' pictures, which can be incredibly rewarding. Some people think money degrades art, as if it should exist on a higher plane. I think that's nonsense. Not only is the relationship inevitable, it's also fascinating to see how the market judges art. Some things are valuable because they are decorative, but it always astonishes me how museums tend to follow the same fads. And besides, looking at prices gives us all an opportunity to feel superior. We may not be billionaires, but if we were we'd have the good taste to buy better art. 

Among the lower-estimate lots, I love the anonymous Central Italian School Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (above). It's close to Perugino, but not by him. I have no idea who it is by, but what a wonderful picture. An absolute snip at £100k to £150k. That's what happens when a fine picture doesn't have a great label.

The northern mannerists have a branding problem too. The northern renaissance is anchored by great names - Van Eyck and Van der Weyden at one end, Bruegel and Bosch at the other. The golden age has the triumvirate of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. The northern mannerists, stretching across the low countries through into Bohemia, fall between the two. Splendid artists like Wtewael and Spranger just don't have the crowd appeal or name recognition of earlier and later masters. They're particularly poorly represented in British collections; we're so busy 'saving' yet more Turners and Constables that we never get around to them. There's a ravishing group at Sotheby's this week, with tiny little estimates.
Picture: Sotheby's
The deliciously sexy Diana and Callisto by Joseph Heintz the elder is estimated at £300k - £400k, which won't even cover the premium on a more fashionable name. Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hans Rottenhammer is just £70k - £100k and a large Cornelis van Haarlem Paris and Oenone is £300k - £400k. I'd give up any number of Constables and Gainsboroughs for any of them. But if I could take home one thing, I think I'd go for the little Wtewael Mars, Venus and Cupid. It's just 13cm by 10cm, a little worn and with some small losses, but utterly ravishing and worth its £800k - £1.2m estimate. Come on National Gallery, dig deep...

I like Cranach well enough, though I find his runaway popularity hard to understand. But The Mouth of Truth at Sotheby's has it all - a major large-scale picture, an interesting subject, beautiful image and really good quality. They must love getting consignments like this, which sell themselves. Given the high price of even mediocre Cranachs, this one ought really to do better than the £6m - £8m estimate. 
Picture: Arts Council England
Another picture that should sell itself is the wonderful Bol from Castle Howard (£2m - £3m). Bol isn't the biggest name from the Dutch golden age, but anyone can see the quality of this portrait. Great picture, charming subject, top provenance.  Overall the Sotheby's sale is extremely strong. There are a couple of ravishing Lawrences, a full length Batoni and a fine Fragonard too. The standard of cataloguing from both auction houses is really high.
Image result for wtewael rest christie's
Picture: Christie's
Christie's had its major consignment withdrawn at the last minute, and I really do feel for them; it leaves a huge hole in their evening sale. I'd love to have seen the two Rubens, and excellent works by Ostade and Teniers from the Beit collection. There are lots of other excellent things in the sale, but they are less to my taste than those at Sotheby's. I heard people raving about their Bonington, but it was off the wall for inspection when I called by. They have a fascinating early Spanish picture by Nicolas Frances, The Mass of St Gregory (£200k - £300k) and some fine Dutch pictures including this unusual figure scene by Jan van Goyen (£150k - £250k), which was on loan to the National Gallery in Washington for many years. They also have two Wtewaels, including The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (above, £200k - £400k). I thought the best things at Christie's were in their Exceptional Sale and 'Taste of the Royal Court', which includes some absolutely top-notch French decorative art.

Sotheby's Treasures sale includes a Sansovino from Castle Howard that really impressed me on a recent visit (cheap at £400k - £600k), this wonderful and really unusual sixteenth century Bavarian relief sculpture (£300k - £500k; hard to estimate and presumabaly hard to sell as it's such an unusual object, but it's really high quality, which you can't properly appreciate from the picture) and the world's most expensive cat toy (£200k - £300k).
Picture: Sotheby's
The day sales are for the lower-value lots, but both houses have some especially good things, some of which have tantalising low estimates. At Sotheby's there's a large Pieter Codde family portrait (£60k - £80k) that charmed me. I find the inclusion of Jan de Bray's early A Violin Player Accompanying two young singers in the day sale inexplicable, as is its teeny weeny estimate of £60k - £80k. Jan de Bray is a big name, it's a commercial subject and a really good picture. Perhaps there aren't many closely comparable sales to establish an estimate, but it deserves to fly. Solimena's Saint Augustine triumphing over heresy (£20k - £40k) and Giuseppe Bonito's The Immaculate Conception (£30k - £40k) are perhaps not to today's taste, but both are really cheaply estimated for such well-painted pictures. 

Christie's has the world's cheapest Sebastiano del Piombo (£50k - £100k). It's an absolute wreck in dreadful condition, but I thought its underlying quality shone through at the viewing. Still, not sure I could live with something so damaged. A picture I'd love to live with is this unusual Greuze portrait of an elegant lady (£20k - £30k), far removed from his usual run of servants with hang overs. A version of one of Boucher's pictures of putti is modestly attributed to Boucher and Studio, but most attractive and reasonably estimated at £40k - £60k. Another Boucher is this grisaille, which I think I've seen offered previously, now estimated at just £20k - £30k. It's not the most fashionable picture, nor typical of Boucher, but well painted and cheap at the estimate.

Sales run through this week. I'll try to find time to write about the dealer shows later in the week, and the old master drawings - some nice things, including a group of Menzels at Sotheby's and a Robert Adam design at Christie's. 


  1. Portrait of a Boy by Bol is described in the catalogue as a "hugely impressive depiction of a wealthy young boy, finely attired and at ease in an opulent interior, is surely Ferdinand Bol’s finest portrait. It is without any doubt his most original, for in it, he finally steps out of the shadow cast by his teacher, Rembrandt".

    Although Bol was a fine artist, I don't think this was his best portrait ever. Nonetheless I would still put my children into the labour market, if it would have helped pay the 5.2 million pounds required.

    1. Perhaps not, but it's a really wonderful picture. Despite occasional hyperbole, I think the quality of cataloguing is excellent too. You can tell when they're struggling; they add comparison pictures of modern art. The Picasso next to the El Greco in the Christie's catalogue was a sure sign that it was a dog!