Christie’s London has begun its hybrid Classic Week, a series of 12 auctions under the marquee of the Classic Art evening sale that took place today. The evening sale brought in a total of £21 million ($27.5 million) from 48 lots sold which realized a 74% sell-through rate. The sale made well above it’s £13.8 million pre-sale low estimate.
Christie’s top lot was a Rubens’ portrait from the painter’s Italian period in the early 15th century which sold to an anonymous buyer for £3.9 million ($5 million). The work is linked with Rubens’ time in Spain in the early 1600s, indicated by the dress of the female sitter and the timeline of Ruben’s commissions of court portraits for Spanish noble Vincenzo Gonzaga. Yet, it is still unclear to experts if the painting was completed in Italy or in Spain. The work later entered the collection of the British Hanmer family in the mid-19th century.
The identity of the painting’s subject is unknown and Christie’s experts say its possible Rubens made the unfinished painting in one sitting. “This is before he goes back to Antwerp and has a thriving studio and lots of assistants who are collaborating with him on large commissions” said Clementine Sinclair, Christie’s London Head of Old Masters Evening Sale in a press conference following the sale.
“Crucially, there is no question at all over the attribution,” said Sinclair. “The fact that we don’t know who the sitter is adds an element of mystery to it.”
Sotheby’s last tried to sell the painting in December 2009, where the work bought in at an estimate of £4 million to £6 million ($6.5 to $9.7 million). In 2011, a committee commissioned by the British government placed a delay on the work’s export license, barring it from exiting the country, in order to allow a U.K. museum or gallery the opportunity to raise £1 million to keep the painting in the country. The 2011 price tag would have been a substantial discount. December 2009 was also believed to be the first time the work had ever been publicly exhibited.
After a decade, the work came back to the market in Christie’s July 29 Classics sale carrying a guarantee, with the same pre-sale estimate it was issued in 2009. The work eventually hammered below its low estimate range.
Since the 2009 sale the work has been showcased on loan at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibition in Venice, and at the Rubens House in Belgium. Christie’s specialists note that between this second round at auction and its last sale, the work has seen heightened recognition. “It has a huge amount of academic support behind it now, said Sinclair. “Many more scholars have been able to examine it in person who hadn’t at the time of the 2009 sale.”
Another leading Old Masters work sold was a Burgundian portrait of a man holding a prayer book that placed with a buyer for £1.6 million ($2.1 million), which more than doubled its pre-sale low estimate of £400,000.
The sale realized a high result for a rediscovered marble relief depicting the Death of Lucretia by Italian Renaissance sculptor Antonio Lombardo believed to be from the early-sixteenth Century. Specialists confirmed the rare work was sourced just before the pandemic lockdown, with negotiations around the consignment fully remote. The consigner who acquired it from his father (who purchased the work in the 1950s) expected the house to price it around £10,000, according to Christie’s representatives. It ultimately went to a European buyer for a staggering £3.7 million ($4.8 million), realizing more than six times its low estimated value of £500,000.
Additionally, the auction proved buying demand to be strong for manuscripts. A sixteenth-century title, The Book of Hours attributed to the Bourges school went for £1.6 million ($2.1 million) against a low estimate of £400,000. Eugenio Donadoni, Director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Christie’s, confirmed The Gosepls of Queen Theutberga, which went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015 was the last historic manuscript to sell for more than £1 million at the house. A prayer book once owned by Mary Queen of Scotts sold for £311,250 ($404,220), landing within its estimate range. The book’s provenance lead the high result—the item remained in the English Hale family collection from the 18th to mid-20th century— the Hale estate sale then moved the manuscript to an American collection before its debut on the market at Christie’s.