Tonight's evening auction at Christie's in London has probably renewed some faith in the Old Master paintings market after a fairly dire sale at Sotheby's last night.
Christie's sale was a more valuable—and altogether better quality. Estimated to make between £36.7m and £56.1m (revised down from £40.4m and £62.1m, after three lots were withdrawn before the auction) the sale totalled £37.3m (£45m with fees) from 59 lots—four of which were guaranteed by third parties. The sell through rate was 78% by lot, and according to the analysts ArtTactic, the average hammer price was £811,457.
One of the works to be withdrawn was Van Dyck's glowering portrait of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (around 1639-40) estimated at £3m to £5m. Perhaps the shaky results at Sotheby's last night gave the vendor, the Duke of Grafton, cold feet.
Seven artist records were set, for Bernardo Bellotto, Adriaen van de Velde, Francesco Tironi, Gregorio di Cecco da Lucca, the Master of Sterbini Diptych, Georges de La Tour and Marco Ricci.
"Christie's has the much better sale this time—Sotheby's had a lot of things that were overpriced and weren't top of the tree of their type and the market has become very picky," Harry Smith of the international advisory Gurr Johns told The Art Newspaper before the sale. "I don't think you should write off the Old Master market on the basis of last night—Christie's have bad sales sometimes too, it's just the swing of things."
Clementine Sinclair, head of the Old Master paintings evening sale at Christie's, says: "This is a bigger sale than we would normally have, and I think that's partly due to the fact we didn't hold an Old Masters evening sale last July, so there was some pent-up demand of collectors wanting to sell."
The star lot of Christie's sale was Bernardo Bellotto's View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi, an enormous, ambitious canvas painted in around 1745-47 when the artist was in his mid-20s. The nephew of Canaletto, he was quite the precocious talent. But Bellotto was more interested in the grit of the views he depicted than his uncle; just look at the attention paid to the crumbling brickwork of the somewhat ugly tower in the centre which dominates the composition. This is not a chintzy, picture-perfect veduta—and it is more interesting for it. First sold by James Christie on Pall Mall in 1771, the work had been on long term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh since 1973. The seller this evening had bought it in the early 1970s from the dealer Cyril Humphris, who bought it for £315,000 from Christie's in 1971 and also arranged the loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. The painting's pair, Verona from the Ponte Nuova looking upstream with the Castel San Pietro, hangs in Powis Castle, a National Trust property in Wales.
Tonight, bidding for the Bellotto opened at £7.5m, and it sold through Henry Pettifer, the Old Masters department's international director, to a phone bidder for £9m (£10.5m with fees), quite a way under the £12m to £18m estimate but still a record for the artist. It was introduced with a VR video of the surface of the painting. "I’ve not seen that at auction before," says Matthew Landrus, a supernumerary fellow at Wolfson College and faculty of history at the University of Oxford. He adds: "I think £9m is an impressive hammer price for that painting."
Smith says: "The Bellotto is great because of its size—you just don't find Canalettos or Bellottos on that scale any more. I'm so old I remember it selling at Christie's in 1971. The striking composition with the crumbling tower right in the centre makes it memorable, whereas I don't remember the Canalettos sold back in the 70s."
The London-based dealer Johnny van Haeften also remembers the Bellotto when it sold in 1971—he was working at Christie's at the time. He predicted some "fireworks" tonight and agrees the Bellotto is "a great example".
There was more competitive bidding for the 17th century female painter Artemisia Gentileschi's depiction of Venus and Cupid (around 1620s to 1630s). It went for £2m (£2.4m with fees), double the top estimate, after some lengthy competition between London and New York bidders. This was the second highest price ever paid for a Gentileschi at auction, following the €4.8m (with fees) paid for Lucretia at Artcurial in Paris in 2019. In Landrus's view, the Venus and Cupid painting is "obviously extremely important, quite rare, and an excellent painting. The minimum estimate of £600,000 was ridiculously low."
There was also a second highest price set for a work by another female painter, Angelica Kauffman. Her Group portrait of Lady Elizabeth Smith-Stanley, Countess of Derby (1753-1797), with her infant son Edward, later 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851), and her half-sister, Lady Augusta Campbell (1760-1831) playing the harp sold for £450,000 (£562,500 with fees), just below the £500,000 to £800,000 estimate. Landrus describes Kauffman as "a very important painter, and an impressive painting that sold at a relatively low price."
The exquisitely painted The Music Lesson by the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Van Mieris, The Elder, attracted much interest before the sale, according to Christie's Clementine Sinclair. "It depicts the artist and his new wife and was probably a marriage painting," Sinclair says. She adds it has only recently reemerged from the English private collection in which it was hidden for nearly a century. The woman's enormous mouche, or beauty spot, is quite distracting and adds a peculiar edge to an otherwise cloyingly romantic scene. Estimated at £700,000 to £1m, it sold to Sinclair's phone bidder for £2.9m (£3.5m with fees), the second highest price ever paid for a work by the artist.
In December, Christie's set a new record for a work by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem, when the enormous A banquet still life sold for £5.6m (with fees). Tonight a smaller banqueting scene by de Heem, restituted to the heirs of Jacob Lierens in 2019, sold for £2.9m (£3.1m with fees), just under the £3m to £5m estimate.
The 17th century French painter Georges de La Tour is an artist that comes up very rarely at auction. Last year, his A Girl Blowing on a Brazier (La Fillette au braisier) sold at Lempertz in Germany for a record €3.6m (€4.3m with fees)—the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold at a German auction house. It was bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Tonight, de La Tour's image of Saint Andrew, one of the last paintings by the artist still in private hands, beat Girl Blowing on a Brazier's record, selling for £3.7m (£4.2m with fees, est. £4m to £6m). "This was literally one of the very last pictures by de La Tour in private hands," Pettifer said after the sale. "I think the [recent high] prices are a reflection of his mega-importance and rarity."
Reflecting after the Sotheby's auction last night, van Haeften says: "It really showed that the trade are the backbone at these sales. Last night, there was barely any trade bidding. Perhaps that's because most dealers have been through a lean period of fewer sales due to the pandemic, so they're not buying as much. But also, if you cannot travel to view the sales, dealers are less inclined to bid on works worth £100,000 or £300,000 or more. It's not worth the risk."