Restituted Dutch old master makes record $8.1m

Larger-than-life Cornelis painting had been appropriated by East German secret police

NEW YORK. It takes a lot to stun old master market watchers, but even those who love Dutch mannerism were taken aback with Christie’s New York sale on 15 April of Hercules and Achelous, 1590, by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem for a record $8.1m (£4.1m). The larger-than-life-size canvas of the lionskin-clad hero wrestling an enormous brown bull is one of Christie’s most recent consignments of restituted art, but unusually, this one comes not from a Holocaust heir, but from a victim of the East German Stasi state police.

The work was acquired by the parents of the current owner, an unnamed member of the Potschien family of art dealers, in 1925. The painting passed to him in 1976, and was subsequently confiscated by the Stasi in 1984, because of his alleged failure to pay his taxes. It was placed in the Bode Museum in Berlin, transferring to the Gemäldegalerie after reunification in 1990.

The same year, members of the Potschien family began legal proceedings, claiming the work had been taken unlawfully, arguing that the heir, who has learning difficulties, had been duped. The case began in 2003, and in November 2007 the court found in the claimant’s favour and the work was returned.

Though Cornelis (1562-1638) was a prolific painter, his finest paintings—large canvases with monumentally muscular figures—were all executed before 1600, after which his palette lightens and his once-buff figures seemed to have all quit their gyms, becoming pink and soft.

Such latter works by Cornelis are relatively common, but examples of his earliest, strongest style—most splendidly represented in the Fall of the Titans, 1588, in the Copenhagen Museum and Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon, also 1588, in the National Gallery, London—are unobtainable. Signed and dated 1590, the Christie’s Hercules seems to have been in the Amsterdam collection of Jacob Rauwert, who also owned two other masterpieces of Cornelis’s early style, the almost pornographically bloody Two Followers of Cadmus… and the Fall of the Titans, which realised a stunning 445 guilders in the Rauwert sale in 1612, where the Hercules brought 103 guilders and the Two Followers of Cadmus… brought only 75 guilders.

The most sought after Dutch mannerist paintings today are the small, jewel-like copper panels by Joachim Wtewael, which routinely sell for several million dollars, but what is a big Dutch mannerist celebration of livestock worth? Christie’s boldly estimated it at $1m-$1.5m (“even then I thought that was on the high side,” said Christie’s specialist Nicholas Hall), but bidding quickly escalated.

Though dealers and two museums (one American, one European) were in the running, the bids came down to two warring phones. The winning bidder—paying a record price not just for the artist but for any Dutch mannerist painting—was described by Christie’s as a “private European collector”. The rest of the sale performed patchily, totalling $48m (est “in excess of” $35m), but only 58% sold by lot.

Paul Jeromack

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