The report is is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
While Christie’s does not stage Old Master paintings sales in New York in January, it does still go head-to-head with Sotheby’s for drawings. But the record shows them trailing. In 2019, it was $15 million to $2.7 million in favor of Sotheby’s, and again in 2020, $15.1 million (including a $11.7 million Mantegna) at Sotheby’s compared to $5.4 million at Christie’s.
Last week, Christie’s opened the latest round with a comfortable $3.9 million for a sale that was estimated at $2.3 million- $3.4 million (Prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)
This included a $724,000 to $1.1 million collection formed by the late Cornelia Bessie, an art book publisher, which sold for $1.5 million. Bessie’s main focus was on 18th century French artists. Topping the bill was a red chalk drawing of a seated young woman by Fragonard which Bessie had been given by her mother, art dealer Kate Schaeffer, in 1982. The gift realised a double estimate $1.1 million. A further 13 Fragonards— all made for Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso– were from the collection of American patrons Nina R. and Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. and all sold, mostly above estimate for prices up to $56,253 each. Another top lot from the Bessie collection was crisply colored pastel portrait of Philip Cramer, also a publisher, by Jean-Etienne Liotard, which sold above estimate for $810,000.
The big surprise in Christie’s sale came from an unidentified source in the form of a seemingly unfinished double-sided work by the British romantic, Samuel Palmer, the subject of a major forgery scandal in the 1970s in which the National Gallery in Washington amongst others was fooled by the subsequently famous forger, Tom Keating. With a flower covered cottage on one side and a family group on the other, the recently discovered work had been confirmed as authentic by Colin Harrison, an expert curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford who is updating the artist’s catalogue raisonné. Sotheby’s estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 was based on the assumption it was a late work, but two bidders at least thought it was early, a factor which would make the work much more valuable, and it eventually sold to a British private collector for $100,000.
The next day, Sotheby’s star lot from its multi-owner sale was to have been an early working drawing by van Dyck of an old man holding a bundle, “The Healing of the Paralytic,” with an estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million. The drawing was last at auction in 1986 when it sold for a hammer price of £82,000 ($123,000), possibly a record for a drawing of the time. The buyer then was dealer William Acquavella, who was bidding for a private collector thought to be based in Texas, as the drawing went straight away to be exhibited at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. However, the new price was said by dealers to be too high– aimed only at the top van Dyck collectors. Van Dyck’s record for a work on paper is $280,000 for a drawing sold by Christie’s in 2019. In fact, no interest was registered before the sale at the record estimate level and, rather than watch it buy in, the collector agreed to withdraw the work from the sale.
This reduced the pre-sale estimate to $2.6 million-$3.9 million, leaving a classic Swiss lakeview by J.M.W. Turner pitched at $700,000 to $1 million as the lead lot. This painting was last at auction in 2007 when it sold at Sotheby’s London for £356,000 ($719,000) as part of the Ullens collection. Switzerland-based philanthropists Guy and Myriam Ullens were selling their fabled Turner collection to raise funds to create the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Now, having changed hands in the interim, it was sold by an English collector just above the high estimate to a U.S. collector for $1.3 million.
U.S. collectors continued to dominate the sale. A further choice work by a British artist, Death of Ezekiel’s Wife, by the eccentric William Blake, sold to another U.S. collector for a double estimate $289,8000. This collector, bidding online with paddle number 193, also paid a triple estimate $63,000 for a drawing of a girl’s head by Francois Boucher, an above estimate $25,200 for an unusual drawing by Ingres, and an intriguing study of horse-riding putti by the mysteriously named Master of the Blue Wash. American old masters collectors David and Louise Carter purchased it in 1975 when it was attributed to Stefano della Bella for $4,500. Now demoted, it only had an estimate of $2,000-$3,000, but buyers clearly could not get Stefano out of their heads and it sold for $25,200.
A third U.S. collector, bidding through London-based expert, George Gordon, produced the shock of the auction– a record $315,000, or over 30 times the $6,000 to $8,000 estimate for a drawing by Italian baroque artist Guercino for his painting, Apollo Flaying Marsyas. The 8-inch square ink and wash drawing is thought to be one of only two known studies for this painting, the other being in the British Royal collection. How the drawing came to be in the collection of David Carter, a director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts who died in 2014, and his wife, Louise who died last year and who were the designated sellers, is not revealed by the catalogue.
The fourth major U.S. acquisition was made by an unnamed institution (not the Getty I am assured), for a view of a teeming regatta at the mouth of the Grand Canal in Venice by Francesco Guardi. Last on the market in 1920, it is one of the largest Guardi sheets to survive and is comparable to works, some from the same sketchbook, in the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Estimated at $600,000 to $80,000, it sold for a record $1.2 million, including the premium.
One European collector favoring the Dutch and German schools disrupted the American dominance, buying three of the top ten lots by Jan Brueghel the Younger (a double estimate record $201,600), Hendrick Goltzius (an above estimate $113,400) and Hendrick Avercamp (a below estimate $75,600).
Sotheby’s followed up in the afternoon with the sale of John O’Brien’s collection of Italian drawings, titled “From Taddeo to Tiepolo.” Here, the take up was good with 112 of 133 lots, or 84% was sold for $1.8 million including premium, just scraping the low estimate of $1.5 million without the premium.
Private collectors claimed the top lots lead by an impressive double-sided sheet of studies for the Frangipani Chapel by Taddeo Zuccaro at a mid-estimate $228,800. A European collector claimed two studies by Giovani Battista Tiepolo, one of a boy at a quadruple estimate $151,200, and a New York collector paid a record $100,800 for a rare and large study for a painting in the Duomo of Naples by Corrado Giquinto.
The trade didn’t get much of a look in, apart from London dealer, Stephen Ongpin, who captured an oil on paper of the Holy Family by Castiglione below estimate for $40,320. Ongpin bought 6 other lots from this collection including works by Salvator Rosa and Giovani Battista Tiepolo, an artist he devoted a scholarly exhibition to in his London gallery in 2017.
“Considering how few people were actually able to view these sales, perhaps the most important artworks to view physically because of the potentially fragile conditions, the sales did extremely well,” observed Ongpin, who could not be there because of pandemic travel restrictions, but was fortunate to have an assistant based in New York.
Unlike the New York paintings sales, though, which have increased, the $11 million total for this series between the two houses (despite being above the $6.4 million-$9.4 million estimate) is a bit of a come down from the $20 million-plus sales of the last two winters in New York.