BY BLAIR LEAKE
January’s Old Master paintings sales in New York were dominated by Sotheby’s. During the Thursday morning sale, rare and spectacular paintings on offer included the infamous Portrait of a Woman Called “La Belle Ferronnière” (Lot 181), a dramatic ‘The Contnience of Scipio” by Il Baciccio(Lot 177), and a highly anticipated restituted work, “Jupiter and Antiope” (lot 167) by Hendrik Goltzius. The level of enthusiasm in the sales room was felt immediately, as the first 3 lots doubled their estimates. Within the first fifty lots, only 10 buy-ins occurred causing the NY Times art critic Souren Melikian to declare it a clear indication of ‘buyers’ eagerness’ and ‘Sotheby’s specialists talent at putting the probable value on the works on offer.’ All in all, the Sotheby’s sales achieved an enviable $53.37 million.
Given these statistics, several highlights from the sale further illustrate the quality of works on offer: two expressive oil sketch studies of a man on the same sheet painted by Anthony van Dyck (lots 170 and 176). This powerful document of van Dyck’s skill attests to his masterful brushwork and interest in facial psychology and buyers recognized the value and rarity of such a prize work- which was estimated at $5-7million and purchased for $7.25 million.
Also noteworthy, was the beautiful “St. Dorothy” (lot 204) by Francesco de Zurbarán, a vertical portrait of an attractive young woman attired in a brightly colored red satin dress holding a basket of apples. With an estimate of $3-5 million, “St. Dorothy” fetched a confident $4.22 million. Old Masters expert, Dr. Beverly Schreiber Jacoby of BSJ Fine Art described the work as a star lot that was easy on the eyes, and noted that it appealed to a broad group of admirers, while tapping into the strong market for Spanish paintings.
One could not miss the controversial Leonardo da Vinci copy Portrait of a Woman Called “La Belle Ferronnière” (Lot 181) which sold at Sotheby’s for $1.5 million-tripling its high estimate. The painting shows a young woman in three-quarter profile with wide, acute eyes and a sly smile. This well-publicized work is property of the Hahn Family and was the subject of an infamous 1920s legal battle over its attribution that involved the infamous art dealer Joseph Duveen. “This picture is not by Leonardo, I’m certain of that,” said George Wachter, Worldwide Director of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department. “But he is such a potent name that there are people who want to touch anything that has to do with him.”
Meanwhile Christie’s Old Masters and 19th Century Paintings and Drawings sale offered notable works across various departments and finished with a respectable $39.5 million sale. Combining multiple departments into a single sale may have been detrimental as it underscored the dearth of quality works. Souren Melikian echoed this sentiment sharply and complained that “The need to fill their catalogues with a minimum number of lots had apparently persuaded the departmental heads to accept too many second division works and to estimate them at levels more appropriate for gems.
Two examples underscore this point: the impressive 20 foot oil on canvas landscape, “Le Pont sur le Torrent” (lot 33), by Hubert Robert which was once housed in the grand Hearst Castle was estimated at $2-3million but its challenging scale left it unclaimed. Another, Lucas Cranach’s Bachus at the Wine Vat (lot 6), was ambitiously estimated at $2.5-3.5 million but its complex imagery proved too testing.
Beyond the misguided sales format, Christie’s claimed several tour de force. Highlights from the sale included wonderful French works such as Louis Léopold Boilly’s “La Bassée” ( lot 37), a impressive black chalk and brown ink and wash drawing by Claude Loraine (lot 137), and an important oil on canvas “The Watchful Doe” (lot 31) by Jean-Baptiste Oudry.
Two records prices were set: most notably “Diana and Callisto,” a spectacular neoclassical composition featuring statuesque beauties in coral colored tunics by 18th-century Italian painter, Gaetano Gandolfi. Estimated for $800,000- 1,200,000, this well documented painting realized $4 million. Another record setting work was Louis Léopold Boilly’s detailed description of an enchanting crowd, La Bassée (lot 37), which sold for $4.5 million.
Overall, the sale cleared a solid $39.5 million suggesting an up-beat market eager to indulge in Old Master gems.