Titian and Botticelli Masterpieces Led the Classic Week in London

The results confirmed that we are in a buyers' market—specifically a market optimal for engaged collectors looking for works with interesting and well-documented stories.

A man on the auction rostrum while people are bidding on a Titian's painting
Henry Pettifer, Christie’s International Deputy Chairman of Old Masters, during the bidding for Titian’s early masterpiece Rest on the Flight into Egypt which realized £17,560,000 ($22,178,280), setting a new auction record for the artist. Christie’s

The art world never stops, and last week in London Christie’s and Sotheby’s continued their Summer Sales with the Classic auctions, which offered up some of the most exquisite lots of the season, including work by Old Masters and treasured antiques.

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Christie’s Evening Sales closed with an overall positive combined total of £50,788,420 ($64,145,774), between the Old Masters Part I Sale and The Exceptional Sale. Six lots sold above 1£ million and only three went unsold, with three additional pieces withdrawn before the auction. Arguably, the star lot of this auction was the highly anticipated and recently rediscovered early work by Titian, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which sold for £17,560,000 ($22,178,280) to a single bidder—a result that was within the estimate of £15-25 million and set a new auction record for the Venetian master.

The work’s well-documented story and provenance certainly contributed to the result. The first documented owner was the Venetian spice merchant Bartolomeo della Nave (1571/79-1632), one of the artist’s early supporters. In della Nave’s collection, there were no less than fifteen works by Titian. As Christie's catalog reports, that collection was later acquired en bloc by James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, and sent to England. Following Hamilton’s execution by parliament in 1649, the collection was sold to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656, as witnessed by a copper panel depicting The Archduke now at Museo del Prado. The work remained in the Imperial collection for generations, then was transferred to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna by 1781, where it was looted by French troops in 1809 for the Musée Napoléon.

When it came back to the market, Rest on the Flight into Egypt was acquired by the 4th Marquess of Bath in 1878 and the Longleat Trustees as a long-term investment and it was enjoyed for multiple generations until it made headlines in 1995 when it was stolen from Longleat. Seven years later, following the offer of a £100,000 reward for information leading to the painting’s safe return, it was found in 2002 in a carrier bag in Greater London, minus the frame, by art detective Charles Hill. And after this intriguing series of movements, the work reappeared on the market in London after 145 years.

Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s U.K., described the work in a statement as “one of the most poetic products of Titian’s youth.” The religious subjects are treated here with extreme humanism in the subjects’ silent exchange of expression and feelings. The tonal use of colors suggests how Titian mastery absorbed and further developed the ability of Venetian paintings to create a highly atmospheric background to complete these images with a different naturalism.

Depiction of the Holy family by Titian
Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (Pieve di Cadore circa 1485/90-1576 Venice), Rest on the Flight into Egypt; oil on canvas, laid on panel 18.1/4 x 24.3/4 in. (46 x 62.9 cm.); sold for £17,560,000. Courtesy Christie's

The dynamics surrounding this lot make clear how a (perfectly documented) story can lead to a multimillion-dollar result. However, this also shows that when it comes to Old Masters, the dynamics that connect symbolic value and economic value can be much more direct and intelligible than in other art markets. Although the condition was not the best and it was not the most significant of Titian’s oeuvre, the work came with a prestigious provenance that included the Longleat House in Wiltshire, historical records of its exciting story and in-depth studies and analyses, which validated its value to the prospective buyers.

Another important lot in the Christie’s Evening Sales was the Quentin Metsys (varyingly spelled Matsys, Massys or Messys) masterpiece The Madonna of the Cherries painted in 1520: also a recent rediscovery resulting from an attentive conservation treatment, the painting realized £10,660,000 ($13,463,580) from an £8-12 million estimate, setting a new world auction record for the artist. Again, a prestigious provenance likely drove the result. In 1615 Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert VII of Austria and Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia acquired it from Antwerp spice merchant Cornelis van der Geest (1577–1638), one of the finest art collectors of his time. However, all traces of the work were lost following its sale in 1668 until it resurfaced in Paris at a sale in 1920 with an altered composition (including the addition of a curtain across the window and landscape) that prevented its identification. For this reason, in 2015, it was offered at auction as a studio variant deriving from Metsys’s original. Only subsequent conservation interventions that removed the overpaint finally let scholars recognize it as an original Metsys work. The result follows a show at the National Gallery in London dedicated to Metsys, who is considered the father of the Antwerp school. This painting has had a long-lasting influence, with numerous copies and variants.

On the other hand, Christie’s The Exceptional Sale presented a more extravagant and eclectic range of rare masterpieces but, again, all with important provenances, ranging from Louis XVI, the Comtesse de Provence and Rothschild to justify their estimates. The sale was led by a Greek bronze head of Eros circa 2nd-1st Century B.C., a Hellenistic antiquity from the Sydney Lamon Collection that sold for more than two times the high estimate at £1,855,000 ($2,342,865). Another highlight was an Imperial Chinese clock from the Nezu Collection—an ormolu and paste-set automaton, musical and striking table clock made in Guangzhou workshops and dated to the Qianlong period (1736-1795)—that sold for £756,000 ($954,828). Other well-performing lots with historic provenances included a bureau mazarin by BVRB I from Buxted Park;  a pietra dura tabletop with the arms of the Cavalli; and a Louis XVI giltwood pliant from Versailles, which was acquired by the French State and will return to the château.

A man and a woman holding a painting by Botticelli featuring the Virgin Mary with the child
Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Botticelli, and Studio; The Virgin and Child. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

A good story of rediscovery and expert confirmations also contributed to the final sale of another highly anticipated lot of the week at Sotheby’s: the 15th-century painting attributed to Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin, and Child. Coming to auction covered by the third-party guarantee, it eventually sold after a single bid from the guarantor of £3.4 million, proving some collectors are taking advantage of opportunities to buy quickly in this market. The painting was the star of Sotheby’s Old Master & 19th Century Paintings Evening Auction, which as at Christie’s, didn’t see many fireworks and instead had six lots unsold and three withdrawn, resulting in a still satisfying final total of £12.4 million against a presale estimate of £11.5-17.7 million. As with the aforementioned work by Metsys, the Botticelli painting also came with a fully documented and prestigious provenance and exhibition history, as well as additional technical analysis that had contributed to its recent reattribution.

Ronald Light recorded the work with some of its known variants in his 1978 publication that examines Botticelli’s life and artistic development. His quite restrictive approach to the artist’s production, however, had only accepted a limited group of works as being by the painter himself and attributed most of the others to his workshop, as in this case. Following the scholar’s opinion, the painting was long considered just a studio production, but in 2012, further cleaning and examination with infrared reflectography brought about its reassessment. More specifically, the technical analysis revealed significant underdrawings with changes in the positions and contours of the Madonna and Child and the architecture behind them, with a freedom that suggested that the master himself played a leading role in the design and execution of the work. Several scholars were in favor of this reattribution, including Everett Fahy, a leading expert in the artist and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Initially documented in Alfred de Rothschild’s collection, the painting was then inherited by the daughter, Almina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon, who sold it at Christie’s in 1925, when it was acquired by renowned Old Master dealer family Colanghi. From there, the painting passed hands a few times, ending up in a Brazilian collection and then bringing it to Sotheby’s private sales, where it was sold in 2012 to the most recent consignee.

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Also in the Sotheby's sale was a painting of the Holy family by Henri Met de Bles and later modified by Sir Peter Paul Rubens that failed to find a buyer in its £600,000-800,000 range. Despite being presented as another painting recently rediscovered, the story that accompanied the piece might have been too murky to justify such a high estimate, without boasting a full Rubens attribution. As the catalog also reported “Rubens’s intervention in this work is solely to be found in the arrangement of the figural group depicting the Holy Family, notably the figures of the Christ Child and Infant St John,” which were initially executed by an anonymous figure painter working as a collaborator in Herri’s workshop or in a neighboring workshop. It is true that, as the specialists observed, Ruben’s intervention added a new sense of vitality and intimacy to the composition, making the interaction between the Virgin, the Christ Child and the Infant St John the central focus of the composition. The work was accompanied by a detailed overview and analysis of the reasons and value of Rubens’s habit of copying and adapting works by other masters. But it was not enough to persuade bidders to validate the estimate.

Overall, the Classic Week results confirmed that we are in a buyers’ market—specifically a market optimal for buyers looking for works with interesting and well-documented stories, not just specific artists’ names (important as the range of true masterpieces in the market is getting increasingly narrow). Amjad Rauf, International Head of Masterpiece and Private Sales at Christie’s, confirmed as much in a statement: “This highlights that our clients are very interested in the histories and stories of the works on offer.”

Sidenote as we highlight the importance of interesting stories in cementing an artwork’s value: starting on July 24, Bonhams is hosting their annual The Dog Sale, which as they describe explores “the portrayal of dogs in art and all the related objects produced in celebration of man’s best friend”. There’s sure to be a story for every audience and buyer in that one.

Titian and Botticelli Masterpieces Led the Classic Week in London