At Sotheby’s Old Master sale in London, a river of bliss and a harrowing of hell
Sotheby’s 57-lot sale of Old Master & British paintings sale in July, which pulled in more than £39.3 million, saw a record-breaking price for a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, but a whopping 20 of the lots failed to sell.
The sale opened with a Harrowing of Hell that had been given to the delightfully idiosyncratic Herri Met de Bles, but is now Leiden School, circa 1530 – an augury of the evening, it fell flat at £65,000 against a £70,000-90,000 estimate. The Corneille de Lyon Portrait of a Gentleman (above), which according to the catalogue “is the prime version of Corneille’s three portraits of a gentleman identified as René de Batarnay, Comte du Bouchage,” saw considerable interest and made a healthy £190,000 (£233,000 with fees), against a £120,000-180,000 estimate. Pre-sale estimates do not include the fees/buyer’s premiums that are added to the winning bids/hammer prices.
The Brueghel Winter Landscape with Skaters sold for $2.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York in January 2007; it’s one of ten to twelve known versions, but despite being “beautifully preserved,” it hammered below it £1 million low estimate for £900,000 (£1,085,000 with fees or $1,674,264 – a substantial devaluation over the past eight years). This was followed by a Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger stiff half-length portrait of Henry VIII, one of nine works from Castle Howard (the photogenic country house featured in Brideshead Revisited), estimated at £800,000-1,200,000, it hammered at £800,000 (£965,000 with fees).
Next up, Cranach’s The Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth) (above), subject of a pre-sale video and said to be “amongst his most important works remaining in private hands today,” saw healthy bidding that took it to a hammer just over its £8 million high estimate for £8.2 million (£9,333,000 with fees).
One telephone bidder energized the sale room and captured the Bol portrait (above) and the Heda still life (below). Each was estimated at £2-3 million and bidding for each started at £1.3 million. The Bol, another Castle Howard painting “only ever seen on the open market once before in its history,” was the subject of great interest and saw bidding soar over it’s £3 million to hammer for £4.5 million (£5,189,000 with fees). The Heda hammered smack in the middle of its estimate, making £2.5 million (£2,949,000 with fees).
After several more lots tanked, including the Fragonard (above), the Bellotto did find a new home, though the hammer price of £2.15 million (£2,557,000 with fees), was below the low estimate (and amazingly, the painting almost hammered for only £1.8 million).
Interest in the Tiepolo family portrait (above) was also less than enthusiastic with the painting finally hammering at £2.4 million (£2,837,000 with fees), a hair under the pre-sale estimate. This was followed by Workshop of Gentile Bellini double portrait (which I find uninteresting) that whipped past its £500,000 high estimate to make £800,000 (£965,000 with fees), and a handsome, previously unpublished Domenico Beccafumi Holy Family, which had been in the same family collection for more than 150 years. It easily surpassed its £700,000 high estimate to make £900,000 (£1,085,000 with fees).
The Fede Galizia (above) of 1607, “the earliest extant Italian still life that can be securely dated,” according to the catalogue entry, was also a salesroom favorite, hammering for £1.3 million (£1,565,000 with fees). The painting is notable for being the artist’s “only signed and dated still life and the likely prototype for a series of replicas and versions.”
Several other works followed and failed including Ambrosius Benson’s Crucifixion and Adriaen Isenbrant’s triptych of The Adoration of the Magi – this did not impact the dampen the enthusiasm for another early 16th century work by the Nuremburg Master (below), which managed to hit its low estimate of £250,000 (£305,000 with fees); but the following work from the same period, a Cranach-like Lucretia by the Monogramist I.W., which sold for $425,000 at Sotehby’s Old Master sale in New York in January 2013, fell flat.
With the current exhibition of works by Joachim Wtewael at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I was particularly curious to see how this small and pleasing Mars, Venus and Cupid would do. The oil on copper opened at £500,000 and settled at the low end of its £800,000-1,200,000 estimate, netting £800,000 ($965,000 with fees), making it perhaps the most expensive work per centimeter in the sale.
The large-scale, full-length portraits of John, the 3rd Baron Monson and his wife Elizabeth Capell, lady Monson were being sold by the Monson family. The 3rd Baron commissioned his portrait from Italian painter Pompeo Batoni mid-way through the Baron’s four-year-long Grand Tour, according to the auction house’s video. The portrait of Lady Monson was executed four years later by the noted English painter George Romney when the newly married Lady Capell was 25. Both portraits have been in the family for more than 240 years the video tells us. And neither sold.
The sale did end on a high note with the final lot, John Martin’s cinematic 1841 painting The Celestial City and the River of Bliss, sold within its £2-3 million estimate for £2.3 million (£2,725,000 with fees), but Sotheby’s had to go through what the aptly titled opening lot called the Harrowing on Hell to get there.