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  • Old Master auctions, London – Sotheby’s on December 7th; Christie’s & Bonhams on December 8th

    Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian, and workshop

    Portrait of two Boys, said to be members of the Pesaro family

    Signed with initials lower left: T F
    Oil on canvas,
    91.5 x 77 cm.; 36 x 30 1/4 in.

    Photo credit: Sotheby’s

    The December 2016 Old Masters Week in London will definitely not be remembered for smashing any groundbreaking art market records but in a time when even the presence of Old Masters within the international auction calendar has been questioned, such outcomes work as much-needed healing balms.

    A convinced – and perhaps relieved – applause closed the Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale the night of Wednesday the 7th: a well-balanced auction that performed solidly and consistently. Of great help were undoubtedly the estimates provided which, in light of the rather disappointing figures of previous months (many had probably still in mind their weak July sale), had been sensibly adjusted this time round. Furthermore, provenance of several pieces from four prestigious collections (Marquess of Lothian, the Forbes Collection, the Rutter Collection and the Von Lenbach Collection) proved equally key.

    In the end, only 7 out of the 41 lots catalogued did not find a buyer (with an additional one withdrawn beforehand), 80% of sold lots exceeded their high estimate and the grand total was £14,835,500 – fees included.

    All the highlights managed to sell well: the Return from the Kermesse by Pieter Brueghel the Younger for £2,577,500 (with fees), being initially estimated between £2,000,000 and 3,000,000 (the same composition had been auctioned at Sotheby’s NY in 2011, achieving $ 4,562,500); Portrait of Two Boys by Titian and his workshop for £2,108,750 (with fees; estimate was £1,000,000 to 1,500,000); the extremely rare Flagellation, a 1441 tempera and gold on panel by the Master of the Osservanza, only recently identified with the Sienese painter Sano di Pietro, which raised to £1,388,750 (with fees) from an estimate of £400,000 and 600,000 and finally Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of an Architect for £416,750 (with fees; its initial estimate had been set between £200,000 and 300,000).

    Elsewhere, two little 17th Century Dutch gems caught our attention and were fiercely disputed: a 1649 River Landscape by Jacob van Ruysdael (a nocturne, fairly uncommon for the artist), sold for £512,750 (with fees; estimate £30,000 to 40,000) and our ‘painting of the week’: the exquisite The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Roelandt Savery. Produced between 1603 and 1616, this small, delicate oil on panel representing the Saint surrounded and tempted by a vast array of fantastic creatures – a clear tribute to Hieronymus Bosch – reached £440,750 (with fees) from an estimate of £60,000 to 80,000.

    Christie’s followed on the 8th and it turned out to be an evening of surprises and mixed feelings: the auction had not started yet and then the audience had already enough to vividly speculate about, given that the two star lots featured in the catalogue had just been withdrawn – The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer and a sketch by Goya, A Woman with two Boys by a Fountain.

    However, as it later became clearer the reasons behind such a decision could not be more opposite. Whereas the canvas by Landseer representing an imposing Scottish stag (estimate was on request) is in fact being negotiated with the National Gallery of Scotland privately, the Goya (carrying an estimate between £4,000,000 and 6,000,000) was simply unable to register any significant bid.

    An additional casualty was Bernando Bellotto’s The Courtyard of the Fortress of Königstein with the Magdalenenburg, which did not manage to go beyond £1,700,000 in the room, rather below the estimate provided (£2,000,000 – 3,000,000).

    With Sotheby’s, Christie’s shared the same number of unsold lots (7 out of 39, plus the two withdrawn mentioned above) and overall the sale totalled a slightly smaller amount: £12,224,500 – fees included. Among the remaining highlights, a reassuring response came especially from Jacob Jordaens’ The Holy Family with an Angel, sold for £1,805,000 (with fees) which flew well-above its original estimate (£500,000-800,000) and was contended between the notorious dealer Johnny van Haeften and a telephone bidder, who in the end succeeded.

    Furthermore, other lots that had caught our eye were the exceptionally well-preserved Entombment by Battista Zelotti (£581,000 with fees, starting from an estimate between £500,000-700,000); Antonio Joli’s Westminster Bridge, London (£749,000, with fees; estimate £200,000-300,000) and John Constable’s Beaching a Boat, Brighton (£665,000, estimate set at £500,000-800,000).

    Interesting to note, small-sized 16th Century Franco-Flemish portraits all performed stunningly – a market niche that certainly came out reinvigorated by the results of François Clouet’s delicate Portrait of King Charles IX of France (1500-1574) which went for £749,000 (with fees, estimate was £400,000-600,000); Corneille de la Haye/de Lyon’s Portrait of a Merchant (£665,000 with fees, estimate at £300,000-400,000) and Jean Decourt’s Portrait of a Lady, with its richly-detailed embroidery and splendid jewellery (£785,000 with fees; estimate £400,000-600,000).

    Lastly, also on Thursday the 8th but in the afternoon at Bonhams there was a legitimate moment of collective excitement when another small sketch by John Constable – Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage, almost totally unknown previously, kept within the same US collection for decades and now believed to represent the preliminary stage of a finished painting (Landscape: Boys Fishing) – set the new world auction record for a small sketch by the artist, achieving £869,000 (with fees, original estimate at £200,000 and 300,000).


    To conclude, this 2016 has left the general impression of a patchy as well as unstable market, but it is no doubt that these late Fall auction results have allowed to end the year on a reassuring good note. From the next relevant event (Sotheby’s NY Master Paintings, on January 25th) on, we will see whether the trend will stay positive so to cast a brighter light on the segment.

    Author: |Date: December 12, 2016