Christie’s and Sotheby’s kick off Old Masters Week tonight, each with a relatively modest single-owner auction that will be followed by several big-ticket sales in the coming days. Christie’s is opening with Albrecht Durer: Masterpieces from a Private Collection, which includes a rare first edition print of the engraver’s iconic, crustacean-like Rhinoceros and even more valuable works like Knight, Death and the Devil (estimated from $500,000 to $700,000). Sotheby’s will start its series of sales with Property from the Estate of Giancarlo Baroni, an eclectic collection topped by The Entombment of Christ, a dramatic early panel by El Greco estimated from $1 million to $1.5 million (look for the artist’s mentor, Titian, painted in among the spectators).
Overall, the top lots at the Christie’s Old Masters Week sales are far larger than those at Sotheby’s. The crown jewel of the Christie’s sales is Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man With a Book, estimated from $12 million to $18 million, which will appear in the Renaissance auction on Jan. 30. That sale will also include Christie’s next biggest lots: Fra Bartolommeo’s The Madonna and Child (estimated at $10 million to $15 million) and Sandro Botticelli’s so-called Rockefeller Madonna (estimated at $5 million to $7 million). The top lot at Sotheby’s, Pompeo Batoni’s Susanna and the Elders, is estimated from $6 million to $9 million—just half of the Bronzino portrait’s estimated cost. It will appear in Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture sale on Jan. 31.
“You might want to see what happens after the sale,” said Christopher Apostle, head of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s, regarding the discrepancy between the two houses. “You can have an expensive lot and not do particularly well with it.” Mr. Apostle added that he often finds it “better to have a deeper sale” with more range and lower-priced lots. Last year at Christie’s, the Old Master work with the highest presale estimate (Hans Memling’s The Virgin Nursing the Christ Child, estimated at $8 million on the high end) did not sell at all.
“There are not many people that can buy a $12 million picture. There aren’t many people that can buy a $1 million picture; but there are more,” said Mr. Apostle. During last year’s Old Masters Week, Sotheby’s sales totaled about $70 million, while Christie’s brought in $52 million.
Regardless of how the price tag on Susanna and the Elders compares to that of the Bronzino, the painting is nothing to scoff at, according to Mr. Apostle, who called it a “masterpiece” that could “hang on any museum wall.”
“There aren’t a lot of Old Master paintings that become available at this level, and I suppose to some degree we’ve had the good fortune this year of getting maybe a slightly larger group of the very highest end of these pictures in our sale, but [Sotheby’s does] as well, it just sort of varies from year to year,” said Alan Wintermute, head of sale in the department of Old Master & early British paintings at Christie’s.
Mr. Wintermute attributed the high value of this year’s Old Masters Week auctions to a variety of factors. “These are particularly good sales,” he said. “Some of that is frankly just luck, things that appear at a certain moment or that we work on for a long period of time that come to fruition” in addition to the overall strength of the market.
In terms of long-term efforts paying off, The Embroiderer by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, estimated from $3 million to $5 million, is a prime example. “We’ve been dealing with the client over a period of some years now,” said Mr. Wintermute. “We really approached her some time ago. It wasn’t that she was reluctant to sell it, but it was a long process to make her feel comfortable that this was the right moment to do it and the right way to do it.” The painting will go up for auction in Old Masters Paintings Part I on Jan. 30 alongside other big lots like Giovanni Paolo Panini’s View of the Campidoglio, Rome, also estimated from $3 million to $5 million.
Both Mr.Wintermute and Mr. Apostle observed that collectors are seizing the opportunity to sell. “People are looking at this as a good moment to sell things that they’ve maybe been holding back on,” said Mr. Wintermute. Part of that, they noted, is the security that comes with buying artists with proven enduring value.
“We deal with people who have a long historic record of being valuable,” said Mr. Wintermute, citing artists like Chardin, Raphael and Botticelli. “These are artists who have stood the test of time for centuries, and so people I think have a sense of security in spending money, even pretty large sums of money, to acquire work by those artists.”
Click the slide show above to view the top lots at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The full schedules of their Old Master Week auctions are below:
Sotheby’s: “Property from the Estate of Giancarlo Baroni” (Jan. 29); “Old Masters Drawings” (Jan. 30); “Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture” (Jan. 31 – Feb. 1.); “Old Master and 19th Century European Paintings and Drawings, Including Porperty from the Estate of Giancarlo Baroni” (Feb. 1 – Feb. 2).
Christie’s: “Albrecht Durer: Masterpieces from a Private Collection” (Jan. 29); “Old Masters Paintings Part I” and “Renaissance” (Jan. 30); “Old Master & Early British Drawings & Watercolors Including an Important Canadian Collection and a Distinguished Private Collection” and “Old Master Paintings Part II” (Jan. 31).