A healthier start of the year has characterised the very first series of high-profile Old Masters auctions in NY, a few days ago. The week was obviously dominated by Sotheby’s since Christie’s has now moved its American ‘Classic Week’ to mid-April: a rough 80% increase has marked the difference from January 2017 (even though that one was a much smaller evening sale), with an overall solid $54,5m achieved, to which contributed the auction dedicated to the collection of legendary NY-based dealer, collector and connoisseur Otto Naumann.
A solid start for Old Masters in NYC: perhaps good old Leo has something to do with it?
With his gallery lease coming to an end and the idea of retirement probably materialising for the first time in his head – even though one may argue that a dealer never really retires – Mr Naumann assembled a rather precious group of works which were offered to a global audience’s appetite on January 31st. The works perfectly represented the dealer’s great ability to focus on secondary names and give them a proper market appeal (see results achieved by Giovanni Bilivert, Bartholomeus van der Helst and Denys Calvaert) as well as his distinct passion for unfinished paintings and rarer media (i.e., oil on glass – the beautiful portrait by Giacomo Ceruti was a perfect example). Italian Old Masters stood out, with the impressive Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Giovanni Baglione selling for $471,000 (with fees) and becoming the top lot. A brilliant painter and a renowned writer/critic, Baglione was presumably Caravaggio’s fiercest rival in early 17th century Rome, and competition between the two became so bitter that ended in a notorious lawsuit caused by Caravaggio’s alleged attempts to discredit Baglione’s public image by circulating defamatory poems and writings. Often (and unfairly) seen as a mere follower of Caravaggio’s style, Baglione was instead able to develop a personal, very characteristic language as the treatment of chiaroscuro in this picture – which so boldly shapes the figure of the young Saint John – clearly demonstrates.
The following night it was the turn of Sotheby’s broader evening sale. Out 73 lots offered, 18 did not sell and the result was very satisfactory ($48,3m, with fees). Again, celebrated Italian Old Masters played a major role, with Canaletto’s pair of Venice views (Churches of the Redentore and San Giacomo; Venice, the Prisons and the Bridge of Sighs) climbing to $4,1m – buyer’s premium included.
However, aesthetically speaking it was the exquisite Portrait of Monsignor Cristoforo Segni, Maggiordomo to Pope Innocent X that caught the attention. Painted by Velázquez in around 1650, on the occasion of the artist’s second sojourn in Rome, and completed by his Italian colleague Pietro Martire Neri, it belongs to a series of official portraits – the most famous of which is undoubtdely the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, kept in the Galleria Doria Pamphilij – that quickly confirmed the artist’s reputation as an authentic genius of his time in the Eternal City as well. It in fact helped Veláquez gain universal admiration thanks to his unparalled ability to provide his portraits with an astonishing likeness and psychological intensity of expression. Equally, the chromatic brilliance, dominated by the intense, thick, creamy whites, gives this portrait volume and robustness. Unknown to the public until recently (hidden within the same collection since mid-19th century, from which it emerged to be included in the major exhibition on the artist at the Grand Palais in 2015), it came to auction with a guarantee and managed to raise interest from two different bidders who in the end pushed the selling price slightly above the $4m threshold (again, considering fees).
During the week, Old Master drawings performed well overall. Asian bidders were particularly active and results definitely benefited from this, at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s (for the latter, this was the only scheduled auction). Sotheby’s offered a new body of works coming from the distinguished collection of Saretta and Howard Barnet, which has been disseminated in various sales recently. The top lot was a very rare landscape composition by English artist Samuel Palmer (circa 1831) that went to a competitive NY-based collector who managed to defeat the specialised, London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin by submitting the winning bid of $2,4m (with fees). At Christie’s, the scene was taken by the delicate Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen, with a Steamer produced by J.M.W. Turner in 1828 and coming from another remarkable collection, that one of Texan Montgomery Ritchie, which stopped the bidding activity a little bit higher than $1m (fees included). With everybody in the industry already turning their head towards Maastricht and the upcoming TEFAF’s 2018 edition, it was reassuring to see such a response from the market. Whether this was still a positive consequence of Leonardo’s longa manus and the Salvator Mundi’s sale of last year or rather a new (hopefully lasting) trend, it will have to be seen…