The consistent banter of “once in a lifetime” type opportunities that are used to describe star lots at the major Old Master painting auctions can lead to one taking comments from Christie’s and Sotheby’s with a grain of salt. In the case of some of the spectacular successes during last week’s sales in London however, overzealous sales talk ends up sounding a lot more matter of factl.
Take Sotheby’s striking self-portrait of the ailing, yet ever proud Anthony Van Dyck, completed during the final months of his life in 1640. This piece ended up surpassing the most optimistic of expectations, selling for £15,098,250 GBP through a joint purchase by collector-magnate Alfred Bader and longtime dealer Phillip Mould. There’s no doubt that the acclaim surrounding it was deserved-here was a vintage example of the great portraitist’s mature style, which had also not been on the market for some 300 years.
Nevertheless leading up to the sale, OMNP never would have thought that such incredulity would have led to a bidding war between nine collectors that pushed the picture above and beyond its high estimate of £2-3 million. Mould called described it “the most important 17th-Century British portrait to come on the market in the last two decades. It was an opportunity we could not miss.” But what about that hideous frame of gold laurels?
It’s hard to think that such an outstanding result would not be the major story of the week, yet there were more to come-the biggest by way of “Head of a Muse,” a preparatory sketch by Raphael used for a fresco at the Vatican ended up going for £29,161,250 at Christies. Save for Pieter Paul Ruben’s “Massacre of the Innocents”, that is the highest price paid for any Old Master work ever. (“Massacre of the Innocents,” sold for £49,506,648 at Sotheby’s in 2002)
Debating whether such a rare and high quality work would be “a sucker buy” at such a price is a bit crass, but Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal made a valid point about this sale, which came by way of a heated standoff between veteran dealer Luca Baroni and an anonymous bidder.
“The Raphael was only set to sell for up to $24 million. That means either the bidders got carried away or decided the artworks were worth more than the market specialists at Christie’s predicted. Whatever the reason, the winning bidders will have to defend those record prices if they ever decide to try and resell the works in the future.”
Perhaps this is a good example of how prices in the Old Masters market can be dictated by standards of the connoisseur. Surely, the anonymous bidder who bought the piece would have had to exercise some of their own, especially considering how only two years ago, a Raphael painting of Lorenzo d’ Medici sold for £18.5 million GBP, then a record price for the artist.
Aside from its rare appearance to the market (the first time in 150 years) this piece was particularly valued for its art historical importance. It played a part in one of the central works of Raphael’s career, his series of four frescoes in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura, the reception area of the papal apartments which were commissioned by none other than Pope Julius II (the great patron of the Renaissance for which Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).
It’s relationship to such a regal locale probably played a huge part in its desirability, as the figure for which the sketch was made hardly resembles the finished product, which resides in the artist’s depiction of Parnassus-a sacred mountain in Greek mythology that was cherished by Apollo and the home of the Muses.
A couple of other major lots produced both record breaking and head scratching results. With all of the frothy commotion for the creme de la creme, the £20,201,250 paid for Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man, Arms Akimbo” seemed like a relatively fair, if not unspectacular price paid for a picture that hailed from the Baroque master’s mature period. The somber tones and melancholy feel in his portraits make for moving art history but they doesn’t necessarily into rabid collecting interest. “St. James the Greater,” the highly touted centerpiece of Sotheby’s New York Old Master sale in January 2007, incorporated a similar palette and ended up achieving a respectable $25.8 million but failed to exceed its high estimate.
Numbers notwithstanding, “Portrait of a Man, Arms Akimbo” surely got the short end of the stick in being upstaged by Christie’s catalogue description of Domenichino’s “St. John the Evangelist,” which was lauded as “one of the most important Baroque paintings to be presented at auction in a generation,” and sold for £9,225,250.
To be sure, Domenichino was an important Bolognese artist of the Baroque era, who ended up carrying the torch passed on from earlier Italian greats like Raphael and Annibale Carracci. This picture’s composition was furthermore lauded for its influence on the style of the great landscape painter Nicholas Poussin, who trained in Domenichino’s studio. For our money’s worth however, OMNP would consider ponying up the extra £11 million for the Rembrandt to be a no-brain decision.
If there was a sale to advertise Old Masters as a hedge like investment, this would be the one. The ego-tripping of the select few who are able to arbitrate the value of priceless works like the ones mentioned here may lead to inflated praise of the market.
While the sales totals for the week at Christie’s were astounding- it’s sale of Old Master paintings on Tuesday, December 8th brought in £68,380,250, the highest amount ever for an Old Masters auction, there was still a major divide in collecting interest for the overall market, as 35 percent of the lots failed to sell. Nevertheless, events like these prove that the Old Masters market can be actually benefit from the recession, as the wealthy seek stable assets to park their money in.
Click on images from the gallery above for a look at some other lots of note from last weeks sales.