For its upcoming Classic Week sales, Christie’s will stage an online auction that brings together offerings across the contemporary art and Old Masters categories. Titled “Remastered: Contemporary Art and Old Masters ” the sale opens for bidding on Monday and will run through July 30.
Among the top lots is Portrait of Isabella of Aragon, a 16th-century painting by artists in the Leonardo da Vinci studio. At 16⅞ inches by 11 ¼ inches, the profile portrait of an Italian noblewoman is expected to achieve £200,000–£300,000 ($260,000–$380,000). The painting hails from the storied Rothschild family collection, with their ownership last recorded in the early 20th century. It was last sold by a Paris dealer in 1953, and the work comes to auction after residing in a private collection for over half a century.
As is typical of Old Master paintings, the work comes to market with an air of mystery. According to the work’s cataloguing, experts note the possibility that the Isabella of Aragon portrait may be related to another similar work formerly in the Rothschild collection that recently sold after being held privately since 1952. The other work, a portrait of a female Milanese court member, sold in a Sotheby’s London Old Masters evening sale in July 2018 for £550,000, more than doubling its low pre-sale estimate of £200,000.
Elsewhere in the sale, the postwar and contemporary team has secured a half-length portrait by Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose works draw on the style of 18th-century paintings, in particular ones by Spanish Old Masters. Also new to auction, Stars (2008)—which was gifted to the seller directly from the artist—will go up for sale with an estimate of £200,000–£300,000 ($260,000–$380,000).
Karl Hermanns, Christie’s Global Managing Director of the Classic Art Group in London, says “Remastered” follows four designated themes, one of which centers around portraits. The placement of the Leonardo studio portrait and the Borremans alongside one another represents an attempt to point out styles that span centuries. “The circle of Leonardo work is a very formal side view portrait, clearly posed and adorned with jewelry,” Hermanns said in an interview. At the time it was painted, portraiture was “reserved for the powerful and wealthy,” Hermanns continued, adding that today, photography has helped democratize images of people.
Additional pairings of works invoke universal themes foundational to Old Masters that artists have drawn on for centuries: the human condition, vanity, and faith. “It’s interesting to see how the subject of faith is presented in contemporary art, in a social environment that is much more secular than the religious context of history,” said Hermanns.
French painter Claire Tabouret is represented in the auction by a 2014 rendering of Fiat car company heir, Lapo Elkann, that stands at 78¾ inches by 57⅛ inches. It is expected to sell for £80,000–£120,000 ($100,534–$150,801). The work was featured in a Maurizio Cattelan–organized show in Turin in 2014, and it resonates with 16th-century paintings of elite sitters. In a much different vein, there’s Flemish Old Master Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s outdoor winter scene Adoration of the Magi, which carries an estimate of £200,000–£300,000 and is placed in juxtaposition with a George Condo painting.
With a renewed emphasis on digital programming in recent months, auction specialists are tasked with finding new ways to promote the Old Masters category. To do so, houses have often combined works of yesteryear with contemporary art paying homage to them for cross-category sales.
Recognizing the challenge in targeting two different collector bases, Hermanns notes there is more cross-over than one might imagine. “In the past, the stereotype was that classics collectors are quite academic and connoisseurial,” and contemporary art collectors as “more responsive to a marketing environment where artists are promoted as brands,” naming Gerard Richter, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as examples. Yet this is less true in the current market, according to Hermanns. “In a way, Old Masters artists are just as much brands as Warhol or Koons. If anything, Leonardo is the greatest artist brand of all.”
The rise of the hybrid auction suggests the division between traditional collecting categories is becoming less relevant to current day buyers. Across categories, Hermanns noted “there certainly is a segment of art collectors now that are trophy hunters, who want the best of the best.”
The sale is not the first of its kind at Christie’s. In 2018, the house sold Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in a contemporary art evening sale, paving the way for an Old Masters revamp. That same year, they staged “Sacred Noise,” a private exhibition that brought European religious painting to market alongside works by artists like Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko.
“The reason we are interested in working with contemporary art is to bring a new audience to the traditional fields of art,” Hermanns said.
The market has grown interested in contemporary riffs on old subjects. “Its in the Zietgiest, more references between old and new” said Hermanns, “and also between East and West, that is a new big picture strategy that we have been pursuing,” adding that the strategy extends to promoting old masters in Asia especially. “We’ve found a strong appetite for traditional art” Hermanns confirmed of the collector base in the region.
The Old Masters category has adapted to the drastic market shifts taking place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. When asked about how Old Masters collectors are responding to the new virtual era of buying and selling, Hermanns said, “There has been some resistance to the shift [away] from live auctions and traditional printed catalogues among some of our clients…. The lockdown has forced us to test the waters with e-commerce sales and additional digital promotion, and it has been very successful. It jumpstarted us into the future.”