Auctions USA

Alma-Tadema stuns with records for Moses and Cleopatra

The 19th-century painter’s canvases reach prices normally seen for Picasso or Van Gogh, in an otherwise lacklustre sale

Alma-Tadema's sullen Cleopatra sold for $26m

NEW YORK. It takes a lot to gob-smack the art world, but the unforeseen record price of $35m for The Finding of Moses (1905) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema sold by Sotheby’s New York in November did exactly that. Prices of $50m to $100m plus for a Picasso, Pollock, Rothko or Van Gogh elicit a shrug, but $35m for an Alma-Tadema? That’s nuts!

It wasn’t a fluke. On Thursday, Sotheby’s New York offered a follow-up by the Victorian artist —The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1880-83) (est $ 3m-5m). Unlike the Technicolor glamour of the Moses, it is executed in a richly dark, heavy palette typical of the artist early works. The composition is dominated by a velvet-shrouded barge through which a transfixed Antony stares at the sullen, slouching Egyptian queen who wears a leopard-skin cape and an expression of a cranky limo-trapped Hollywood star evading pesky paparazzi. Well-received at its Grosvenor Gallery debut in 1882 and subsequently owned then forgotten by the distinguished old master collector Sir Joseph Robinson, Cleopatra resurfaced in a 1958 Royal Academy show of the Robinson collection, only to be disposed by Robinson’s daughter Princess Labia at Sotheby’s London in 1962 for the then not inconsiderable sum of £2,000. Steadily rising in price throughout the ensuing decades, the picture last appeared at auction at Christies in 1993, selling for £879,500 (estimated £280,000-£320,000; $1.3m).

Sotheby’s presented the picture with exceptional care and thoroughness, its cataloguing citing both the specific antiquities used by Alma-Tadema to lend a patina of authenticity and the painter serving as subsequent inspiration for the Hollywood film. The auction house cleverly illustrated the latter at the pre-sale exhibition, where Alma-Tadema vied for visitor attention with Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon, with a continuous screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934).

The auction houses’ efforts paid off brilliantly. From the start, bidding was brisk and rapid, two phone bidders ferociously battled with a passion, one emerging victorious at $26m ($29m with buyer’s premium), the second-highest price for the artist.

The Alma-Tadema moment was a sharp contrast to the lack-luster mood of the rest of the sale. Of the 66 lots offered, just over half (34) went unsold, and many that did sell went for far below estimate. Three classical subjects by Albert Moore, a far greater painter than his contemporary Alma-Tadema, elicited meager responses. A pair of exquisite large sketches of Greek maidens clad in sunflower-yellow draperies preparatory to his painting Topaz (1879) were absolute steals at $110,000 each ($134,500 including premium, est $150,000-$200,00) while the early, re-discovered and rather awkward A Marble Bench found no takers at $42,500 (est $40,000-$60,000).

As usual, the majority of the offered pictures were French. None of the eight Bouguereaus were particularly exciting, but auctioneer Ben Dollar managed to squeeze out the winning, reserve-reaching bid of $1.15m ($1.37m with premium; the second-highest price of the day) for the best of them: Les Oranges, an Italian peasant Madonna accompanied by a pink-cheeked blonde toddler and a rather large infant.

A more unsettling view of childhood was supplied by Les Saltimbanques, cautiously catalogued as by Fernand Pelez and Studio. Pelez is little-known today as his favored subjects of street people on the margins of French society are almost defiantly uncommercial in their unsettling, unsentimental realism, closer in spirit to the photographs of Louis Heine and Diane Arbus than to anything by Pelez’s brush-wielding contemporaries. (A typically unsparing canvas of three filthy homeless children sleeping in a doorway was sold by Claude Aguttes in March for €12,750; $17,971).

Sotheby’s canvas, depicting the sullen ennui of joyless sideshow performers incapable of faking customer-attracting enthusiasm, was a rather summarily and flatly rendered reduction of (or study for) Pelez’ most famous work in the Petit Palais, Paris. Estimated at $200,000-$300,000, it sold to an American collector for $410,000 ($494,500) a record for the artist.

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