Christies Plays Yenta for Old Masters and Youngish Collectors

Christie’s two-session sale of Old Master paintings on April 15 made a total of $48,070,670, topping its high estimate of $45.3 million. Of the 227 lots offered, 132 found buyers, a sale rate of only 58 percent by lot, but a healthy 84 percent by dollar value. According to Nicholas Hall, international department co-head (with Richard Knight) of Old Master pictures at the auction house, many lots attracted interest from “youngish” (read: under 40) American collectors as well as from older contemporary art collectors who bought in the 1970s but are now priced out of that market. There was also considerable European buying, spurred in part by the low dollar, as well as much museum interest.  

The auction’s top lot was a recently restituted work: the magnificent Mannerist painting Hercules and Achelous by Cornelis Van Haarlem, which the East German secret police seized from its owner in 1985 after accusing him of tax evasion. The painting, which was returned to the owner last November, depicts a moment at the height of the struggle between Hercules and the river god Achelous — a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The painting went to a European buyer for $8,105,000 (est. $1.5–2 million), an auction record for the artist.

A stunning portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleve (the sister of Henry VIIIs fourth wife, Anne) fetched the second highest price ever paid for a Lucas Cranach the Elder work when it sold for to an anonymous buyer for $7,657,000 (est. $4–6 million). The painting is unusual in that most of Cranach’s portraits are of anonymous sitters who cannot be identified. “The Cranach market is hot right now,” said Hall. “It attracts crossover buyers, who are drawn by the artist’s sharp-edged, pared-down, weird modern aesthetic.” A retrospective of the artist’s work, which debuted at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt and is now on view at the Royal Academy in London through June 8, has undoubtedly stimulated interest in his work. However, the collectors who showed pre-sale interest in the painting, according to Hall, “were traditional Old Masters buyers.” The painting came from the collection of the late Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., who was president of Steuben Glass and a major patron of the arts.

Thomas Gainsborough
s A Wooded Landscape with a Herdsman, Cows and Sheep Near a Pool (c. 1786) topped the artist’s previous auction record by nearly $2 million, selling to a European buyer for $5,753,000 (est. $5–7 million). The work, which was executed in Gainsborough’s late-romantic style, was last sold by Christie’s London in January 1999, when it made $2,092,500.

To sell a rare pair of portraits by Jacques-Louis David that were reunited in 1995 by James Fairfax, the Australian media baron and collector, Christie’s used the strategy of a parcel lot — common for wine sales — whereby the buyer of a portrait of Ramel de Nogaret (est. $4–6 million) would be offered a portrait of his wife, Madame de Nogaret (est. $2–3 million), without competitive bidding, at the reserve price. Nogaret, a close friend of David’s who delivered the oration at the painter’s funeral, was the French finance minister from 1796 to 1799 and is known as “the father of the French franc.” An anonymous U.S. collector bought the for $7,209,000 (est. $4–6 million), a record auction price for David, but turned down the portrait of Madame Nogaret, priced at $1.8 million. The painting was then offered for auction, but was bought in after not eliciting a single bid. Christie’s reported, however, that the Nogarets were reunited immediately after the sale, with Madame presumably going for a lower price. The pair is one of only three known portrait duos by the artist; the other two are in the Louvre.  

Three other paintings sold for well above their estimates and set artist records: Esaias van de Veldes An Elegant Company in a Garden (1614) went to the British trade for $2,953,000 (est. $700–900,000); Veroneses Allegory of the City of Venice Adoring the Madonna and Child, earned $2,505,000 from a U.S. collector; and Nicholas Tourniers A Musician, Identified as Saint Genesius fetched $409,000 (est. $70–100,000) from a European dealer.