Art market

A solid return of the Old Masters market, with the Dutch living up to their full potential

But heavy disappointment for collector Basia Johnson as recently acquired works failed to sell



On 11 December Sotheby’s had a solid though unspectacular sale based on a strong collection of Dutch pictures and a masterpiece by Cranach which totalled £10,214,305. On 13 December Christie’s on the other hand, had their best Old Master sale since 1991, totalling £18,827,950, with a very respectable seventy-one percent sold in a 400 lot sale.

The North Americans were again in evidence at both but Italian bidding was noticeably absent. According to Charles Beddington of Christie’s, “The sale was seen in the West End as a very strong return of the Old Master market. It is many years since the winter Old Master sales figures have been higher than the Impressionist ones”.

This was despite the fact that two of their star lots flopped. Filippo Lippi’s Saint John the Evangelist (consigned by Mrs Johnson, estimate £1.6-2.2 million) had to be withdrawn pending investigations into its export from Italy, and Mrs Johnson’s Leonardo drapery study failed to sell. This may have been because it had been on the market too recently; furthermore when Mrs Johnson bought it in Monaco in 1989, she was the only bidder. It is one of a group of sixteen drawings produced in Verrocchio’s workshop and there are doubts over its firm attribution to Leonardo.

Although it is Dutch pictures that have stood up best to the recession, Christie’s sale offered few of these (although those it did have sold extremely well). This proved that if you can bring top quality Flemish and Italian pictures to the rostrum, the market will snap them up. The Raphael drawing, a study for the head and hand of an apostle, from the Johnson Collection went for £5,281,500, last sold from the Duke of Devonshire’s collection in 1984 for £3,564,000. This is not a good return in mere investment terms. It goes to an unidentified private collector.

In a sale that was strong in vedute paintings, the undoubted masterpiece was Michele Marieschi’s “The courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, Venice” which doubled its estimate to make a new world record for the artist at £1,541,500. It was purchased by the London-based Mercedes heir, Gert Rudolf Flick. This was three times the price of the only Canaletto in the sale a “View of the Redentore” which showed none of Marieschi’s virtuoso treatment of light and shade but still sold well at £705,500 to London dealer, Simon Dickinson. A major work by the Bellottos, both Bernardo and Lorenzo, of the Capitol in Rome, carried too high a reserve in view of the uncertainty as to how much of it was by Bernardo and how much by the less desirable Lorenzo, and was bought in at £380,000. A classic Vanvitelli of the Darsena in Naples, the architecture and the rigging of the boats recorded in meticulous detail, doubled its estimate to £429,500. None of the underbidders seemed to have any enthusiasm for a panoramic view of Rome by Vanvitelli which followed slightly later in the sale. This formed a companion to a view of the Borghetto near Rome by Hendrik van Lint and the two were offered as a single lot but went unsold at £28,000.

Mrs Johnson’s “Madonna and Child” by Giovanni Bellini sold substantially below estimate at £826,500. This did not seem a huge price, although possibly the addition of the donor in the foreground by a workshop assistant may have affected its value.

Despite the presence of many Italian dealers, Italian works which appealed only to the specialist Italian market did not fare too well, confirming that the home market has not fully recovered. Among those unsold were two important allegorical genre paintings by the north Italian artist, Todeschini, bought in at £85,000; a Madonna and Child with saints, formerly the altarpiece from a church in Ferrara by Scarsellino, and a mannerist Madonna and Child by Michele Tosini.

The Flemish pictures were of mixed quality. Jacob Jordaens’s ravishing, “Four Doctors of the Church” sold within estimate at £771,500, despite the marvellous quality of its painting, Rubensian in the richness of tones and fluidity of handling. It was a very large picture and a difficult subject matter. A tiny jewel-like painting by Van Orley of the risen Christ soared above estimate to £360,000. The demand for top quality northern European cabinet pictures was also reflected in the £463,500 paid for Joseph Heintz’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”. The painting was of unmistakeable quality and will clean beautifully. It sold to New York dealer Bob Haboldt.

There were, however, no takers for the middling works, showing yet again that the market wants only quality. A wooden portrait of Susanne Fourment, given optimistically to Rubens, and a painting of the feast of St Martin by an unidentified artist after Martin Van Cleve and reworked by Rubens both went unsold, as did Susannah and the Elders by Jan Massys. This had not cleaned well since its last appearance in the rooms in 1984 and carried too high a reserve, failing to sell at £230,000. A large and important altarpiece by Marcellus Coffermans of the Assumption of the Virgin executed for the Spanish market could find no takers at £50,000.

The genuine discovery in the Christie’s sale, a missing version by El Greco of Saint Francis and Brother Leo (lot 129) in meditation, romped home at £1,486.500, doubling its conservative low estimate.

Sotheby’s had fewer big names than Christie’s but their painting by Lucas Cranach the elder of the Judgement of Paris was one the most exciting works in the December sales. Painted with jewel-like detail down to the fairy-tale castle perched on a distant mountain and in immaculate condition, it was finally purchased for £1,981,500 by a private European collector, making a new world record for Cranach. The Cranachs, father and son, turned out so many studio works that anything autographed by Cranach the Elder is in high demand. Its quality showed up two poor studio works late in the sale, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, unsold at £35,000, and a Virgin and Child, sold at £54,300.

The strength of this sale lay in the Dutch and Flemish works. Paintings from two private Swiss collections, that of the banker Ernst Gutzwiller and Fritz Frey of Bürgenstock, brought a very good batch of fresh works to the market. Dealers and collectors from Northern Europe and North America were out in force but there was a continuing lack of strong interest from Italian and French buyers. Despite this, the sale achieved the highest percentage of sales, 69.5, since the 1980s.

The high prices achieved for the top Dutch works were close to prices paid in 1988 and 1989 and helped boost the middle range paintings. Osias Beert’s exquisite, understated still life of oysters, sweetmeats and dried fruit was one of the highest priced Dutch works. It was beautifully painted, with its restricted palette tones, the cream and beige tones of the sweetmeats echoing those of the oysters. It went for £529,500 to a private collector, represented by Peter Mitchell of London.

Another restrained but meticulously depicted still life of flowers and shells by Balthasar van der Ast, with its Vanitas theme of the transience of life fetched £529,500, this time to a New York dealer, Otto Nauman. Maria van Oosterwyck’s glowing but unharmonious still life, a violent grouping of clashing reds, pinks and yellows doubled its estimate to make £254,500. This may reflect the rarity of her work.

Of the other important Dutch still lifes, it was only the “Pronk” by Jan Davidsz de Heem which did not perform well. A little on the dull side, its cluttered composition lacked the vigour and technical mastery of the “Pronk” still life by Christiaan Luyckx, reaching only £43,000—well below estimate—compared to the latter’s £166,300.

Dutch works in the middle price range also sold strongly, many making over their high estimate especially those which were pretty and decorative. Michael Sweerts’s vulnerable portrait of a young maidservant doubled its estimate to fetch £210,500, while an equally attractive scene by Jacobus Vrel of two women talking by a doorway soared from an estimate of £20-30,000 to £106,000. According to Alexander Proud of Sotheby’s the sale confirmed recent trends: “The market wants good attractive Dutch and Flemish paintings which are easy on the eye and do not pose any problems of attributions”. Johnny Van Haeften, London’s leading Dutch Old Master dealer said, “The impression given by the salerooms is not trickling down through the trade. We are selling, but each deal is very hard work and the market has gone a bit soft. A lot of the private buyers you saw in the saleroom are not coming into the gallery. They still think they will find a bargain at auction when actually it is often the other way round”.

There were one or two other paintings on which dealers were clearly willing to take a punt. A Virgin and Child by a Spanish follower of Rogier van der Weyden made £133,500 against an estimate of £30-40,000. It was a very early version after a painting in the Prado and it is known by whom it was commissioned. A view of San Francesco della Vigna by a follower of Canaletto soared to £76,300 from an estimate of £6-8,000 and a very dirty but clearly beautiful gold ground painting of angels making music made £29,900 against an estimate of £6-8,000.

At Phillips, 10 December, the newly attributed Caravaggio, “A young boy peeling fruit” flopped spectacularly when not a single person bid for it. Clearly no one in the trade was prepared to take a gamble on a work over which two of the leading Caravaggio experts Mina Gregori and Sir Denis Mahon had reserved judgement. The painting did, however, sell the morning after the sale; Phillips have not revealed either the purchaser or the price. According to Ferdinando Peretti of the Walpole Gallery the reserve on the painting may have been in the region of £500,000 but after the sale the purchase price could have been as low as £3-400,000. If the work is only a copy after the original by an unknown artist this would still be a very steep price. Brueghel the Younger’s “Le Retour de la Kermesse” however fulfilled its potential, selling £793,500 to London dealer Richard Green.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A solid return of the Old Masters market'