Bellotto and Brueghels Bomb at Christie’s Old Master sale in London
Christie’s Old Master & British painting July 2015 evening sale in London kicked off amid controversy with the withdrawal of six paintings from Russborough House in Ireland, and suffered some major losses when the star lot, a Bellotto of Dresden (below), and three of four heavily promoted works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger failed to sell (below). Seven of the evening’s works came from the Cunningham Collection, of which three failed to find buyers including an Italianate scene by Nicolaes Berchem, a Jan van Goyen dune landscape with figures, and a de Heem still life. The sale grossed £18,993,500, less than half the £39+ million achieved at Sotheby’s the night before, and 18 works went unsold. As Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina tweeted (below), Christie’s has trailed Sotheby’s in Old Master sales for the past three years.
The sale began with an early Giovanni di Paolo (above) followed by a nicely executed Sano di Pietro (below), embellished with refined punch work (I am, however, still not convinced he is the Osservanza Master). Lot 3, a work by Nicolás Francés (below) that failed to sell this past January at Christie’s in New York, and at roughly the same estimate ($300,000-500,000), sold well below its low estimate of £200,000, hammering for £150,000 (£182,500 with fees). Lot 6, a Studio of Quentin Metsys Madonna of the Cherries lit up the salesroom and shot past its £80,000 high estimate to hammer for £210,000 (£254,500 with fees), but that level of excitement proved fleeting. It was a workmanlike effort to get to the final lot.
An endearing pairing of Jan Brueghel the Elder tondos (in matching, outlandish frames), sold at the low end of its pre-sale estimate. According to the lot notes:
This beautifully preserved pair of panels, which have never before been published, were painted at the outset of Jan Breughel the Elder’s Antwerp career, after a seven year sojourn spent in Italy. He travelled there as a young man of twenty-one in 1589, working first in Naples, then in Rome, under the patronage of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna, and finally in Milan for Cardinal Federico Borromeo. He had returned to Antwerp by October 1596 and the following year registered as a master in the Antwerp guild of painters.
According to the catalogue, “this panel [by Wtewael] stands alone as his only recorded treatment of the Flight into Egypt.” The final paragraph of the entry states:
The work is listed in the catalogue raisonné by Anne Lowenthal, 1986, under catalogue number A29 as ‘having disappeared in November 1963 from owner’s home’. This entry was based on an advertisement in Apollo Magazine, 81, May 1965, p. 409. Christie’s has obtained a certificate from the Art Loss Register confirming that the work is not listed on the Art Loss Register database and the Art Loss Register are not aware of any claims in respect of the work.
There’s great lyricism to the composition and the execution of the figures, so no surprise that it hammered at the top of its £200,000-400,000 estimate – £400,000 (£482,500 with fees).
Then the bevy of Brueghels that bombed began with The Wedding Feast (above). A Jacob Jordaens Hermes entertained by Calypso, kicked some life back into the sale, moving well past it £800,000 to hammer at £1 million (£1,202,500 with fees). Following a good cleaning, this painting should really sing. The aggressive estimate on the Richard Parkes Bonington (below) did not deter the handful of interested bidders and finally hammered at £2.15 million (£2,490,500 with fees), a record at auction for the artist.
And then a Birdtrap, one of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s most frequently produced compositions, came and went unsold. A large El Greco of Christ on the Cross, which had been “in the same Spanish noble collection since 1772” and only resurfaced last year proved another bright spot, soaring past its £1.5 million high estimate to hammer for £2.1 million (£2,484,500 with fees). The Giulio Cesare Procaccini (below), “which has been part of the same Spanish noble collection for nearly three centuries,” was touted in the catalogue as one of the “most important works [of] his extant oeuvre.” That’s a bit much – there are more lyrical, tightly composed and eloquent works by the artist. However, there are several splendid passages so no surprise that it found a new home after all these centuries.
The next Brueghel (above) was sold at Sotheby’s in London on July 7, 2005 for £2,248,000, so its failure marks a notable devaluation. But it was the Bellotto that proved the big heartbreaker of the evening. The auctioneer opened at £5.5 million and “bidding” climbed at £500,000 increments until it hit £7.5 million. He called out that number several times, swept the room with his gaze, before declaring the work unsold.