Major Flop at Christie’s Old Masters Sale in London
The event was clogged with works more appropriate for a day sale, including one by the perpetually annoying Master of the Female Half-lengths, a Virgin and Child (didn’t sell), Guilio Cesare Procaccini’s Christ baptising Mary Magdalene supported by the Archangels Michael and Raphael (didn’t sell), and a Nicolas Poussin Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (didn’t sell), among the many clunkers.
Among the early lots, Christie’s made a big deal about this Lamentation that had originally been given to Cornelis van Cleve.
However, in a dedicated article, the auction house determined it was likely a picture from the workshop of his father Joos, similar to a work in the Louvre (below).
The catalogue notes state:
This picture provides fascinating new insights into the creative process and workshop practice in the studio of Joos van Cleve. Called the ‘Leonardo of the North’ in a recent exhibition (Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Leonardo des Nordens: Joos van Cleve, March-June 2011), Joos van Cleve was, along with Jan Gossaert and Bernard van Orley, the foremost Northern painter of his day. Active in the thriving city of Antwerp where he is first documented in 1511, he developed a distinctive and highly successful style, combining technical accomplishment in oil, inherited from the early-Netherlandish painting tradition, as well as a rich palette indebted to northern Italian, especially Venetian models.
The painting, estimated at £150,000-200,000, sold for a hammer price of £140,000 (£170,500 with premium).
After a Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi fragment from the life of St. Anthony of Padua and a Follower of Robert Campin Virgin and Child in an apse with two musical angels failed to sell, the first of several retreads was slated to come up – including this small Hans Memling tondo format Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child that last appeared in January 2012 sale in New York where it carried an aggressive $6-8 million estimate, and failed to sell. This time the estimate was £2.5-3.5 million ($3,780,000 – $5,292,000), but it was withdrawn.
According to the lots notes about the Memling, “From time to time, Christie’s may offer a lot which it owns in whole or in part. This is such a lot.” That means Christie’s got stuck with it after the failed 2012 effort. The essay opens with the following:
This exceptionally well-preserved tondo, depicting a graceful Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child set before a gilded background, has long been recognised as a work by the leading artist in Bruges during the last third of the 15th century, Hans Memling. Since its most recent appearance in public at the Memling exhibition in Rome in 2014-15, a light cleaning has allowed for an even greater appreciation of its immaculate surface. It is one of the last great devotional works by Memling still remaining in private hands.
According to Apollo: “At a sombre post-sale press conference, Christie’s Henry Pettifer and James Bruce-Gardyne revealed that Hans Memling’s The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child had sold privately before the sale for an undisclosed price ‘above the high estimate’ of £2.5–3.5m.”Of the Hoffman Hare, the sale catalogue notes:
Inspired by Dürer’s magnificent Hare of 1502, today in the Albertina … the present work can be seen as a paragon of the Dürer Renaissance. One of Hoffmann’s largest drawings and greatest masterpieces, it is not a direct copy but an inventive adaptation and variation which is trying to beat Dürer at his own game. The hare depicted in the present work is in fact not the same as the one drawn by Dürer and is shown in a slightly different position. According to Tony Brown, who we thank for his help, both animals are adult brown hares (Lepus europaeus). The one in the present work, with smaller ears, may be slightly younger than the one represented in the Albertina watercolour. Hoffmann represents the hare among plants while in the Albertina drawing the background is left blank.
Hoffmann’s skill at depicting plants and animals is wonderfully apparent in the present watercolour. Each element is individualised and the artist excels equally at representing beautiful flowers in full bloom, lively insects, a lizard and a frog as well as faded, diseased, or pest-eaten foliage. Cobwebs and a faded dandelion and even a tick attached to the hare’s fur are drawn with extraordinary detail.
I like Hoffman, but am not moved by this work. Apparently I was not alone, because it tanked at £3.9 million.
This was followed by a dark streak – lot 16, Francesco di Giorgio Martini Death of Virginia just made it at a hammer price of £115,000 against a low estimate of £150,000, followed by lot 17, a Jacopo del Conte portrait, lot 18 Mirabello Cavalori Raising of Lazarus, lot 19 an Alessandro Allori portrait, and lot 20 a Prospero Fontana portrait, all of which bombed.
They caught a break when one of Pieter Brueghel’s most frequently produced image – The Birdtrap – made it’s £1 million low estimate (£1,202,500 with premium), the highest price for a work at the sale. Lot 31, Pietro Testa’s Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl presenting the Golden Bough to Charon showed surprising life by selling all above it’s £500,000 high estimate, hammering for £620,000 (746,500 with premium).
Another retread is a big (more than four by six feet) The Destruction of the Palace of Armida by Coypel.
This painting appeared at Christie’s in July 2012 with a £500,000 – £700,000 estimate, but bidding stopped at £400,000 and it failed to sell. This time is managed to surpass it £300,000 high estimate to hammer for £420,000 (£506,500 with premium).
All in all, this was a painful experience for just about everyone involved.