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Thursday’s long-awaited Old Masters sale at Sotheby’s New York had been billed as potentially being the biggest sale of its kind ever with a pre-sale estimate, not including buyers’ premium, of $121.9 million–$142.8 million. But after three lots were withdrawn, including a highly-rated $20 million–$30 million Rembrandt, that estimate was reduced to $100 million–$110 million.
Nonetheless, the sale continued Sotheby’s New York winter Old Master sales steady upward trajectory, arguably at the expense of the London equivalents. Since 2017, totals from these sales have risen from $35.8 million to $69.7 million last year. Today’s sale—the first half of a two-part auction—totaled $114.5 million alone. The London winter Old Master sales (which play second fiddle to their higher-value summer auctions) show a reverse momentum, coming in at £36.5 million in 2018, £19.2 million in 2019, and £11.8 million in 2020.
The record to beat today was £85 million ($135 million including premium), set by Christie’s in London in July 2012, when 15 works sold for over £1 million ($1.4 million), including John Constable’s The Lock, which sold for £22 million ($30 million). Today’s sale fell somewhat short of that.
By the end, after a rollercoaster two hours, 13 of the 43 lots went unsold, but six artists’ records had been broken. These were headed by the showstopper Sandro Botticelli Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, estimated to fetch the second-highest auction price for an Old Master, at $80 million. In spite of some doubts about the painting, it went to a Russian buyer bidding through Sotheby’s Lilija Sitnika, a private client adviser in London representing people from Russia, for $92.2 million. The underbidder, said Sotheby’s, was bidding on behalf of a client from Asia, but they pulled out after a long pause, having made only one bid through the house’s London-based co-chairman of Old Master paintings, Alexander Bell.
Coming from the collection of the late Sheldon Solow, who bought it in 1982 for £810,000 ($1.3 million), there had been doubts related principally to the lack of support the painting earned from Everett Fahey, the leading Florentine renaissance expert who became director of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1986 and 2009.
Sitnika then went on, using the same paddle number, to win a panel painting of the death of Lucretia during a banquet by the 15th century Florentine Master of the Marradi that sold for a record $1 million, and to pay above estimate prices for two 19th century paintings at the end of the sale—Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s La Cascade de Terri, which sold for $600,800, double its estimate; and Antoinetta Brandeis’s View of the Piazza san Marco, for $441,000. They’re strange bedfellows for a Botticelli, one would think.
The big surprise of the sale was the withdrawal of Rembrandt’s small panel Abraham and the Angels just before it began. Estimated at $20 million–$30 million, it had a guarantee. Sotheby’s explained that “the painting was withdrawn following discussions with the consignor.” There had been no doubts about its authenticity and its provenance, which was recorded from Rembrandt’s lifetime—only the price, which seemed high for a minuscule painting.
Before the sale, the owner was widely reported to be Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee, Mark Fisch, who bought it in 2005 together with the late Alfred Bader from dealer Otto Naumann for an estimated $5 million. Whilst with Fisch it was much admired by the painter, Lucian Freud, who was painting the owner’s portrait. Fisch is reputed to have an impressive collection of Old Master and contemporary art and has never needed to sell. But gossip in the trade had it that he was selling not only because his real estate business might be feeling the pinch, but that he is facing a costly divorce.
It was not surprising that he went to Sotheby’s as Naumann now works there as senior vice president and director of client development and has been involved in the Rembrandt market at the top end. In 2009 when Steve Wynn paid the auction record $33.3 million for Rembrandt’s Man with Arms Akimbo at Christie’s (a price since far exceeded on the private market) Naumann the dealer said he was prepared to pay more for it than Wynn but as Christie’s would not extend credit terms he had to let it go. In 2012, he tried to sell it for Wynn at Maastricht for $47 million, but couldn’t.
At Sotheby’s, Naumann would have been party to the agreement which secured Fisch an unspecified guarantee for the sale of Abraham and the Angels. If, as is probable, it was withdrawn because the guarantee could not be off-loaded onto a third party, the painting could now be handled by Sotheby’s private sales division, though that could not be confirmed immediately.
Also guaranteed was an early, 15th century Northern Renaissance tempera painting on linen, The Descent from the Cross by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (estimated at $3 million–$5 million). Fully attributed works by van der Goes are extremely rare. Indeed, a painting of the Virgin surrounded by saints that was only attributed to him by Christie’s made a record-breaking $9 million in 2017, even though it appeared to be an unfinished work. The Sotheby’s work carried the same estimate at $3 million-$5 million and had been in the same private New York collection since 1951, when it was rediscovered by the art historian Max Friedlander. But, even though fully catalogued, it only attracted one bid, presumably from the guarantor, on the low estimate to sell for $3.35 million.
A selection of four Dutch and Flemish works were being sold by an anonymous East Coast American Trust which had bought them in the 1990s from London dealers Richard Green and Johnny van Haeften. Willem Claesz. Heda’s still life of a banqueting tabletop with overturned tazza and oysters had been acquired by Green in 1991 for $1.4 million, and probably sold to the trust for something closer to today’s low estimate of $2.5 million. But it was perhaps too monochromatic to appeal to today’s buyers and went unsold. Two lively Dutch flower still-lifes did better for the trust. One, by Rachel Ruysch, fell just short of a record but above estimate for $2.2 million, while another, by Willem van Aelst, sold on the lower estimate, but for a record $1.2 million.
Another seller of multiple works was the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo, New York, with six works carrying a $2 million low estimate, only four of which sold but for $3.2 million including premium. The gallery has a long track record in deaccessioning; (who could forget its $18 million sale of antiquities in 2007?), so there was no surprise here. Leading its disposals this time was a rare terracotta Relief of the Madonna and Child by the Renaissance artist, Luca Della Robbia, which was estimated to double his auction record at $700,000 to $1 million, and duly surpassed that selling for $2 million.
Then the sale had its fair share of profit-taking efforts. A painting of an eagle owl capturing a chicken by the Dutch Golden Age bird painter Dirk Valkenburg, that was bought in Paris in 2015 for Euros 66,000, was back with a $250,000 low estimate but attracted no bids. A Brueghelesque composition called Children’s Games by Martin van Cleve the Elder, purchased in France in 2019 for €97,000 by a Belgian collector, sold for a satisfying $625,000, against an estimate of $300,000. Elsewhere, a Rembrandtesqe portrait of a young man, possibly a self-portrait by Aert de Gelder, was back at auction with an $800,000 low estimate, having been bought in Germany in 2019 for €115,000. It returned to the block, this time bringing in an even more satisfying $927,500. A longer-term mark-up was seen when an elegant portrait of a young woman by Frans Pourbus the Elder, last sold at auction in 1978 for $20,000, found a buyer at a quadruple estimate record $478,800.
The biggest mark-up was sought for a recently fully attributed portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford. This was the painting’s fourth appearance at auction in sixteen years, previously catalogued as ‘studio of’ or ‘follower of’ van Dyck. On the last occasion it sold for £15,000. But after layers of overpaint had been removed, it was given the thumbs up as the real thing and an estimate of $700,000 to $1 million by Sotheby’s.
The seller was described by Sotheby’s as ‘an English Private Collection’ that had acquired the work at that auction. Dealers thought that must be James Stunt, a voracious collector of historic British portraits who has fallen on hard times following expensive divorce proceedings from his wife, Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone. The painting, however, did not attract any bids and went unsold.
One other notable record was established for the Rubens-influenced painter Gerard Seghers, whose life-size depiction of Mary Magdalene sold for a double estimate $746,000.
“It was not aimed at the trade; the estimates were too high for that,” said London-based dealer, Jonathan Green after the sale. “There was no trade buying; it was a retail exercise.” But, while it had its disappointments, it did prove that the Old Master market has plenty of life in it.”