Auctions Market USA

Surprising records set at New York’s Old Master sales

Christie’s dominated the auctions selling a total of $88.4m, while a deaccessioned painting from the Met sold for 20 times above estimate at Sotheby’s

Deaccessioned by the Met and listed in the auction catalogue as by a “Follower of Peter Paul Rubens”, Portrait of a Young Girl, Possibly Clara Serena Rubens (1611-1623), the Artist's Daughter, sold for $626,500 (est $20,000-$30,000)

Christie’s dominated the January Old Master week in New York with a fistful of record-setting paintings and drawings. Their 30 January paintings sale was led by Fra Bartolommeo’s early tondo of the Madonna and Child which sold for $ $13m (est $10m-$15m) followed by the “Rockefeller” Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist by Botticelli which brought $10.4m (est $5m-$7m). The latter had been on offer privately over the past five years but found no takers at half the price. Scipione Pulzone’s Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni in sparkling armor attracted lively phone-bidder interest, selling for $7.6m (est $1.5m-$2.5m). The most beautiful picture of the day was also one of the (relatively) cheapest, despite being a record price: The Annunciation altarpiece by Annibale Carracci (with the possible assist of his cousin Ludovico) sold to an astute private collector for $3.4m (est $1.5m-$2.5m).

The next day, Christie’s had their best-ever New York Old Master drawings auction, buttressed by a notable group of 18th- and 19th-century drawings from “A distinguished private collection” (believed to be the Metropolitan Museum trustee Henry Kravis). An American collector made a few notable purchases, including a record $2.4m (est $400,000-$600,000) for Thomas Gainsborough’s pastel Portrait of Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough. The collector’s most remarkable buy was a shimmering, perfectly preserved sheet of A wooded landscape by Claude Lorrain, which brought a stunning $6.1m (est $500,000-$800,000), a record for any work by the artist. After the sale I received the following Facebook note from a curator friend: “$6m for the Claude! Sweet Jesus! Of course, I watched Arnault or Pinault in November pay $16m for a Warhol multiple on paper, which rather puts things in perspective.”

Among the 16 Old Master pictures deacessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Sotheby’s sale on 31 January was a grimy panel Portrait of a Young Girl, Possibly Clara Serena Rubens (1611-1623). Donated to the Met in 1960 (as an autograph Rubens portrait of his daughter) it was downgraded by Julius Held, the leading authority on the artist as “not by Rubens” and banished to storage. It was published as “Copy after Rubens, possibly XVII Century” in Walter Liedtke’s 1984 catalogue of the Met’s Flemish paintings, which noted that the picture “strongly resembles the younger subject of a similarly informal portrait” in the Liechtenstein collection. By comparison, the Met’s version has a “somewhat inconsistent execution. The drapery, for example, is less fluidly described than the hair, and the modeling of the head, although generally convincing, is oddly unsuccessful in the shadowy area to the right.” Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it sold to an anonymous bidder for $626,500 with premium.

While a number of the most promoted pictures in Sotheby’s sale failed to find buyers, notably Pietro Testa’s Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx (est $3m-$5m) and Paulus Bors Seated Nude Bathing by a Stove (est. $700,000-$1m), the auction was brightened by a number of stellar lots—and prices. Many thought the $6m-$9m estimate on Pompeo Batoni’s luscious Susanna and the Elders was too high, but it brought the second-highest price of the week at a record $11.4m to an anonymous phone bidder.

The stats

Christie’s New York, Old Master Paintings Part 1, 30 January

Total: $19,944,750

30 lots sold, 41 lots offered

73% sold by lot, 87% sold by value

Christie’s New York, Renaissance Sale, 30 January

Total: $42,646,850

33 lots sold, 51 lots offered

65% sold by lot, 68% sold by value

Christie’s New York, Old Master Drawings, 31 January

Total: $16,544,625

164 lots offered, 117 lots sold

71% sold by lot, 97% sold by value

Sotheby’s New York, Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, 31 January-1 February

Total: $58,230,315

404 lots offered, 236 lots sold

58% sold by lot, 60% sold by value

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