Preview: Old Masters Week Sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s

  • “Maybe I’m in cloud cuckoo crazy land and I’m crazy, but I think most people are buying because they love the art and they plan to hold on to it,” said Christopher Apostle, head of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “Certainly people don’t want to make silly purchases, but I don’t think people are so motivated by investment as they are about the love of the art.” 

    It’s a refreshing sentiment given the motivations of many contemporary-art collectors, and another reason to enjoy the fanfare of Old Masters Week at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The sales start on Jan. 29, including the second Renaissance auction at Christie’s, which includes tapestry, terracotta, decorative art and furniture in addition to painting and sculpture. 

    “That was a very, very successful sale last year,” said Christie’s Old Masters co-chairman Nicholas Hall of the auction, in which 33 of 51 lots sold, for a sell-through rate of 65 percent by lot. The sale, which has grown to 75 lots this year, includes the two highest-estimated lots of the week at any auction house. Foremost is the Rothschild Prayer Book, a 250-page illuminated manuscript likely produced in Bruges that is estimated to sell for $12 million to $18 million. Mr. Hall spoke effusively about the book: “I would say without exaggeration—and it is very rare you can say this about anything—it is the single finest object in its category in private hands.”

    Mr. Hall expects the Renaissance sale, which also includes Jacopo Bassano’s Adoration of the Shephards (estimated between $8 million and $12 million), a portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Pontormo from the Johnson Collection and a Pietà by Giorgio Vasari (who described Pontormo as a complete neurotic in his Lives of the Artists), to attract lively international bidding.

    “In the case of the Renaissance pictures, I think there is a real sense that now is a moment, a really rather remarkable moment, in which there is an extraordinary renewal of interest in this period,” said Mr. Hall. “People feel that this may not be the highest of the high tide for this, but that interest has never been more intense and there are buyers from China, from Russia, from the United States, from Europe from Spain, from Italy, from South America all competing to buy in this market.”

    “Particularly Russian and Latin American collectors are really interested in this category,” continued Mr. Hall. This much was clear at the inaugural Renaissance sale, where, of the top three lots, two were purchased by Russians. The top lot, according to Mr. Hall, was bought by a Russian and underbid by a Russian. Similarly, Mr. Apostle mentioned “major, majors lots” going to Russian collectors.

    This year, Sotheby’s is introducing a selling exhibition, “Painting Passion: The Baroque in Italy,” as part of its Old Masters Week offerings. “With Old Masters, I want to make sure we try new and exciting things,” said Mr. Apostle. The private sale, curated by Scott Schaefer, a curator emeritus at the Getty, includes 17 works priced between $80,000 to nearly $4 million, which will be on view through Feb. 7. 

    Sotheby’s primary pubic sale, Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, on Jan. 30, is led by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Two girls on a bed playing with their dogs, estimated between $6 million to $8 million, followed by Jacob Ochtervelt’s A child and nurse in the foyer of an elegant townhouse, the parents beyond (1663), estimated between $3 million to $4 million. Mr. Apostle said he was particularly impressed by Summer: figures eating during a summer harvest by Pieter Breughel the Younger.

    “[He’s] an artist that people who don’t necessarily like Old Masters really do like,” said Mr. Apostle. “This picture, when I went to go see it, really sort of blew me away because so often you see the same composition over and over again, you know, you think, ‘Okay, it’s nice,’ but this picture is somehow quite a bit more special than a lot that I’ve seen.” The composition, he added, is derived from a painting by Breughel senior that hangs in the Met. 

    Mr. Apostle also highlighted A Merry Group Behind a Balustrade with a Violin and a Lute Player by Gerrit van Honthorst, the fourth-highest-estimated picture in the sale at $2 million to $3 million, which he called “a bit of a discovery.” Another version of the painting resides at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, but this one, out of view for about 100 years, is the principal work. “This picture that we have in our sale is actually absolutely the prime version of the composition and in fact one that has the provenance that the Lyon picture often was given,” he said.

    Additionally, Mr. Apostle said he personally loves the winter scene by Jan Josefsz. van Goyen. He is “an artist that I don’t always get excited about, Jan van Goyen,” said Mr. Apostle. “You have to see it in the flesh to understand how beautiful and atmospheric it is… It’s a picture that really revs my motor.”

    At Christie’s, the seductive Self-Portrait as a Lute Player by Artemisia Gentileschi (who is perhaps best known for her bloodier self-portraits as Judith), leads the Old Masters Paintings sale on Jan. 29 with an estimate of $3 million and $5 million. “She’s very come-hither, almost portraying herself as a courtesan,” said Mr. Hall. “I hate to use the word, but it really is an iconic picture.” Following that lot is Tiepolo’s painting of a gypsy girl dancing with several dogs, estimated between $2 million and $3 million.

    Like The Duet, the Gerrit van Honthorst painting that led Christie’s Old Master sale in June, many of the works hitting the block this week at both houses were looted by the Nazis and restituted to their original owners. The prayer book, which was seized from the Rothschild family in Austria during World War II, was restituted in late 1990s, while the third lot in Sotheby’s Important Old Master Paintings sale, a painted panel from a cassone, or Italian chest, was returned to the Rothschilds by the Monuments Men.

    The first six lots of the Renaissance sale at Christie’s are deaccessions from the Met, while another work comes from the Toledo Museum of Art. “They’re very good things as well,” Mr. Hall hastened to clarify. “It’s not like they’re clearing out the rubbish from their deep storage.” Other museums, said Mr. Hall, have expressed interest in buying items bound for the block. “We’ve had museum interest in this sale, so we’ll see if that translates, but something like the Gentileschi or the Cranach could be museum purchases.” At Sotheby’s, Mr. Apostle identified the Ochtervelt and the Boucher, which is the cover of its Courts of Europe sale, as “museum-quality” works, noting that the Museum of Fine Arts purchased a Fragonard during Old Masters Week last year. “These pictures are getting harder and harder to find, and for a museum…they have to stay attune to opportunities,” said Mr. Apostle.

    Despite the successes of Christie’s inaugural Renaissance sale, its top lot, a Bronzino portrait estimated between $12 million and $18 million, failed to sell. Mr. Hall attributed this partly to the fact that it resembled a Pontormo. “Had it been a sort of classic, late Bronzino, like the pictures in the Uffizi, it would have sold for $20 or $30 million.”

    Auctions are, of course, capricious beasts. No one expected the Pulzone portrait in the same sale, estimated at $2.5 million on the high end, to sell for more than $7 million with buyer’s premium. “This week with the top lots we do feel as confident as you can possibly be,” said Mr. Hall. “We’ve had really very serious interest in both the Bassano and the prayer book, which are both more highly valued than anything in the Sotheby’s sale.” 

    “Last year, the Sotheby’s sell-through rate was, like, 50 percent in their part one sale”—it was actually 58.4 percent—”so putting a lower value is no guarantee of success either,” said Mr. Hall. “I think in the end, it’s not really to do with the estimate, it’s to do with the object, and the appetite for that particular object, and where there’s real appetite, people will bid competitively and pay what has to be paid.”

    Click the slide show above to view the top lots at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The full schedules of their Old Master Week sales are below:

    Christie’s: “Renaissance” and “Old Master Paintings Part I” (Jan. 29); “Old Masters Paintings Part II” and “Old Master & Early British Drawings & Watercolors” (Jan. 30) and “Old Master Paintings Part II” (Jan. 31).

    Sotheby’s: “Painting Passion: The Baroque in Italy” (selling exhibition, Jan. 24 – Feb. 7); “Old Masters Drawings” (Jan. 29); “Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture” and “The Courts of Europe” (Jan. 30), “Old Master and 19th Century European Art” (Jan. 31).

    Correction, 3:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported a Sotheby’s sell-through rate via a quote from a specialist at Christie’s. The article has been edited to reflect the actual rate, which was 58.4 percent by lot.  

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