Sotheby's Old Master sale of '98 one for the books, trouncing Christie's with £30.9 million in proceeds

The old favourites - Italian views and Dutch landscapes - make record-breaking totals



A return to the good old days of the late 80s was the unanimous verdict on Sotheby’s Old Master sale held in London on 3 and 4 December. Dealers and auctioneers were equally delighted with its record-breaking total of £30.9 million. Christie’s sale of 4 December could not compete in the volume of good pictures and totalled £12.9 million. Nine paintings in the combined sales made over a million pounds.

As always, it was Italian view paintings and Dutch landscapes and still lifes that topped the charts. Sunny postcard scenes by Canaletto, Bellotto and his ilk are comparable to the Impressionists: instantly recognisable, they are superb examples of craftsmanship and require little intellectual effort on the part of unsophisticated collectors. Two superb pairs of Canalettos carried off the top prices at Sotheby’s. The larger pair, “Venice, the Molo from the Bacino” and “The Grand Canal” fetched £5.06 million. The second pair, a view of the Piazza San Marco and of the Rialto Bridge had not been on the market since 1919. Also in excellent condition, they made £3.85 million, to an anonymous buyer.

A collection of forty mainly Dutch paintings, formed by a German industrialist and politician Günter Henle and his wife Liese from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, went a long way to boosting Sotheby’s total. One of the finest examples of Salomon van Ruysdael’s river landscapes made £2.3 million (estimate £500,000-700,000) purchased by Richard Green.

Christie’s had a high buy-in rate among their Dutch paintings. As one dealer put it, these works, which included a dull De Heem with a dead fish, a Van Goyen river scene and a Jan van Os flower painting were either “over cleaned, over-exposed or over-estimated”.

There were few good French works in either sale. The word is that French dealers are consigning more paintings to New York to avoid paying VAT. Christie’s had a minor Poussin of Narcissus, unknown since 1874 and here authenticated by Sir Denis Mahon. Not a vast money-spinner, it is exactly the sort of work which adds spice and frisson to a sale through its academic interest as a rediscovery. A lovely composition of a delicate, half-naked youth it will clean and restore well and doubled its estimate to make £199,500.

Christie’s most important Italian Primitive, the Madonna of Humility by the Florentine Master of the Carrand Tondo sold for its low estimate at £419,500. It had the added advantage of coming from two of the most famous English collections, that of Walter Davenport Bromley and Samuel Courtauld.

The Sienese artist, Taddeo di Bartolo’s first securely dated work could be had for only £397,500 at Sotheby’s. This very large altarpiece over four metres in length depicts the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints in Gothic shaped panels. Both paintings highlight how inexpensive early Italian paintings have become compared to the soaring prices for Italian vedute and seventeenth-century Dutch paintings.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Buzzing with collectors'