Christie's took a different approach than usual for its Old Masters sale on Wednesday, breaking out works by French artists into their own "Art of France" sale immediately following the venerable sale and following that up with a wine pairing — an additional auction of French vintages, that is. The morning sale brought in $34.3 million, the afternoon auction added another $10 million to the total, and the wine topped things off with another $1.2 million. The buy-in rates are telling, however: while a respectable 42 of 59 lots sold at the first Old master sale (71 percent by lot and 70 percent by value), only slightly over half of the "Art of France" sale found buyers, with 57 percent sold by lot and only 52 percent sold by value. The wine portion, in which 96 percent of lots sold, showed that buyers aren't willing to pay the top prices they once were for the best Bordeaux. The sell-through rate by value was 91 percent.
The painting expected to bring the highest price of the day, a tondo of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus by the 15th-century Dutch painter Hans Memling, failed to sell (est. $6-8 million). As a result, the top lot was Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's "The Arrival of Henry III at the Villa Contarini," which set a record for the artist at auction when it sold for $5.9 million (est. $4-6 million). The painting depicts the arrival of the newly crowned king of France to the Italian country estate in 1574, ascending the steps of the villa as the Contarini family and other village onlookers greet him. The work, commissioned in 1744, was originally just a sketch for a larger fresco that Tiepolo did on the wall of Federico Contarini's villa. However, when the 19th-century owners of the villa, Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, tried to move the fresco from Italy to their townhouse in Paris, it was badly damaged. Now the oil sketch stands as the more complete work.
A portrait by Frans Hals greatly outperformed its $700,000-1 million estimate, possibly because its longtime home was over the fireplace in Elizabeth Taylor's Bel Air mansion and was the only Old Master in the film star's estate. After a long bidding war, the hammer finally came down at $2.1 million. The painting had previously been attributed to a follower of Hals, but in 2011 was upgraded by scholars and conservators to an autograph work by the Dutch master himself.
The National Gallery of Art in Washington added a Thomas de Keyser painting to its collection at the auction, courtesy of the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund. The museum's bidder only came away with the lot after pushing the price up three times above the $300,000-500,000 estimate. "Portrait of a Gentleman, Bust-Length, in a Brown Doublet and Ruff," an octagonal work on copper by one of Rembrandt's best-known rivals in Amsterdam, hammered down just below $1.5 million. Though the exact date of the painting is unknown, the stiff, intricate collar on the sitter suggests it is from sometime between 1615-1635. The work's most recent owner was Gerard d'Aquin, who made a name for himself as the art buyer for William Randolph Hearst.
Later, at the "Art of France" sale, the highest-estimated lot — Jean Honoré Fragonard 's "The Good Mother" (est. $5-7 million) — was bought in. The highest total came from another lot by Fragonard, a pair of large paintings entitled "Le Jour (Day)" and "La Nuit (Night)" (probably late 18th century). The two decorative canvases show a group of putti frolicking in the clouds during the day and laying down to sleep at night. After 50 years in a private collection without being shown to the public, the paintings were scooped up by an American collector for $3.7 million, just topping the auction house's $2-3 million estimate. The Fragonard diptych was the only lot in the French auction to top the $1 million mark. However, a trompe-l'oeil painting by Louis-Léopard Boilly of a cat peeking out of the back of an old, tattered canvas fooled Christie's appraisers — it was only estimated to sell for $150,000-250,000, but brought in $842,500.
The day's finale was a classy affair of mostly wine professionals sipping on Krug and munching on caviar as they lifted their paddles for the modestly priced lots at the special wines of France auction. The top-estimated Bordeaux mostly went to Asian buyers who were bidding online. A lot consisting of a dozen bottles of 1982 Château Pétrus — one of the best vintages of Bordeaux in the last 30 years — sold for $58,000 (est. $42,000-65,000). Three different lots tied for the second-highest priced, all selling for $46,000 — a dozen bottles of 2000 Pétrus, a dozen bottles of 1982 Château Lafite-Rothschild (no longer the favored child among Bordeaux, it seems), and an assortment of 12 bottles of Burgundy from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti region.