True masterpieces gathered in sufficient numbers mysteriously play each other up. The July auctions in London of Old Masters spectacularly verified the phenomenon, long known to professionals.
There is no need for shared stylistic characteristics. A landscape painted by John Constable in the 1820s and a religious scene by the 14th-century Sienese master Pietro Lorenzetti are as far apart as possible. Yet on July 3, both rose to world auction records at Christie’s, as did four other, equally different works. Remarkably enough, the Constable and the Lorenzetti were not separated just by an aesthetic gulf. Their state of preservation greatly differed, as did the degree of publicity each had received.
The Lock, 1824, is one of a series of paintings of the landscape that surrounded Constable’s home in Suffolk. Exhibited to public acclaim in the artist’s lifetime, the masterpiece has been admired right up to our day. In 1990 Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the great art collectors of the last century, carried away the prize after a furious bidding match at Sotheby’s. At £10.8 million ($21.1 million), The Lock established a record for the artist. To much public outcry, the collector’s widow put the painting—which had been lent to the Spanish state for the last 13 years—on the block. Christie’s set the lower end of the estimate at a steep £20 million ($31.4 million). The beautiful Constable exceeded that mark only slightly, at £22.4 million ($35.2 million).
It might have risen higher had not a third party financed the “guarantee” given to the consignor. In plain English, a guarantor pledges to pay the reserve price if no one else does and may take part in the bidding, openly or via an agent. He is entitled to share with the auction house any slice of the price exceeding the reserve, thus operating as a dealer in search of instant profit. Even the greenest newcomers to the market now realize that in such a procedure the odds are stacked against them, and on July 3 the practice proved counterproductive.
By contrast, the Lorenzetti was a discovery, and no artificial effort was made to hike the price. Christ Between Saint Paul and Saint Peter, unpublished prior to the Christie’s sale, gives the impression of having been cropped at the lower edge. On the other hand, the paint surface did not undergo any 20th-century restorations and is probably superbly preserved beneath the grime. This prospect, added to the novelty of the work by a rare master, helped send the panel to a record £5.1 million ($8 million), more than three times the high estimate of £1.5 million ($2.4 million).
Discovery, rarity, and sheer splendor also had a tremendous impact on the response to a panel by the most famous Dutch painter of church interiors, Pieter Saenredam. The view of a village church at Assendelft had been known since its appearance at a Haarlem sale in 1784. Signed “P. Saenredam,” it was identified without difficulty. On the block in 1800, the painting was inadvertently offered as the work of “J. Saenredam.” When it resurfaced at Christie’s London in 1898, it was catalogued as the work of “P. Saenredam.” Literally speaking, this is correct, but in auction house conventional language, indicating an artist’s first name by printing the initial means that the experts are unsure about the authorship of the picture.
No attention was paid to the panel while it remained in the hands of the same family until 2011. That year it was consigned to Christie’s, which dispatched the painting to its South Kensington branch reserved for minor auctions. In the catalogue of a sale scheduled on December 9, 2011, the picture was given to a “Follower of Saenredam,” meaning that in the expert’s opinion, it had been painted in the artist’s manner at some later point.
According to a dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Christie’s staff began to suspect that they had missed something when they saw small clusters of distinguished professionals scrutinizing the picture, on which they had slapped an estimate of £3,000 to £5,000 ($4,700–7,800). The painting was withdrawn from the sale and reappeared on July 3 in Christie’s main rooms with the full honors of a six-page essay. The entry began: “The View of the Church at Assendelft before its demolition in 1897 is an extraordinary and highly significant addition to the oeuvre of the most important architectural painter in seventeenth-century Holland—Pieter Saenredam.” Fewer than 60 pictures by Saenredam are known, and of these only five are not church interiors, the catalogue proudly adds. The modest village view with a subdued yellow glow dazzled the room and climbed to a world-record £3.7 million ($5.9 million), more than six times the high estimate of £600,000 ($941,000).
Another painting, similarly described as “unpublished and previously unknown,” also sold for a record price. Joachim Wtewael’s Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, signed and dated 1610, brought £4.6 million ($7.3 million). Strictly speaking, the Wtewael was neither “unknown” nor “unpublished.” In 1796 the rare work by the Dutch artist was sold as part of the collection of Jacob van der Lely, mayor of Delft, as the Christie’s catalogue notes. Its later history is well known. However, the picture was illustrated only this year. Its appearance caused a sensation, and the glamorous context of the Christie’s sale made the small oil-on-copper work, only 71?4 by 53?8 inches, doubly irresistible.
The feel-good mood generated by the presence of many top-level works benefited all categories, including still lifes represented by masters who have risen to prominence in relatively recent times. While long admired by connoisseurs, Balthasar van der Ast, who settled in Delft in 1632, had not achieved the kind of fame that results in gigantic prices. When his stunning still life of exotic seashells and flowers came up at Sotheby’s London in 1996, it made £529,500 ($877,000). On July 3, the painting rose to £2.6 million ($4.1 million), setting an auction record for the artist.
One factor in the making of this large price is the greater attention nowadays paid to rarity. Unlike the master’s usual pictures of flowers gathered in dense bunches, here the blossoms are associated with seashells. Only one other still life by Van der Ast offers a related composition. At the viewing, Christie’s set up a table vitrine under the still life with shells and flowers matching those in the picture, thus highlighting the painter’s accuracy. The comparison revealed the extraordinary freshness of the color scheme, with an almost surreal effect, as if the objects had been extracted from the image.
Another factor played a role in sending the price to a record level. In the past 15 years, Van der Ast’s picture was featured in major exhibitions of North European still lifes (at museums including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the National Gallery, London). This raised the general awareness of the importance of still life painting as a whole and of this exceptionally rare one in particular.
Three other admirable still lifes included in the Christie’s sale underlined the greatness of 17th-century art in Europe. Two of these rank among the most beautiful pictures painted by Adriaen Coorte, an enigmatic artist active in Middelburg during the last two decades of the 17th century and the opening years of the 18th century. The Dutch painter was rescued from oblivion in 1958 when a show of just 21 still lifes was put together at the Dordrechts Museum by the director Laurens Bol. Very little was known about the artist then, and not much has emerged since. Intriguingly, Coorte’s name is not to be found among the members of any of the guilds to which professional painters had to belong to be allowed to sell their art.
When works of the caliber seen on July 3 come up at lengthy intervals, they do not just stir connoisseurs. They also remind them that the mystery surrounding Coorte’s highly idiosyncratic oeuvre remains unresolved. His minimalist compositions are nearly always seen in an intense chiaroscuro. The works are mostly small and painted on paper laid on canvas or board. At Christie’s, a composition of asparagus tied in a bundle and laid beside a branch of red currants set a world record for Coorte at £2.3 million ($3.6 million). In a typical auction quirk, his still life of apricots and peaches, comparable in size, failed to match the record price at £1.8 million ($2.8 million), even though it was every bit as beautiful.
A large still life by Juan de Zurbarán offered the Spanish version of fruits and vegetables seen in strong light from an invisible source against a backdrop of deep darkness. Works by the painter from Seville, who died in 1649 at age 29, are hardly ever seen at auction. A world record was established for the artist at £2.7 million ($4.3 million).
The exceptional concentration of top-quality paintings at Christie’s did not just lead to new world records. It raised the overall price level that evening. One of the most remarkable paintings in the group consigned by the Dutch collectors Pieter and Olga Dreesmann was a marine painted by Willem van de Velde the Younger in the 1660s or 1670s. In the view of Dutch fishing boats and an English man-o’-war in the distance, the rendition of light filtered by a cloud-filled sky achieves a rare degree of subtlety. The dazzling seascape realized a huge £4.1 million ($6.4 million).
At Sotheby’s on July 4, a considerably larger marine by Van de Velde came up. The Surrender of the Royal Prince During the Four Days’ Battle, 1st–4th June 1666 does not remotely compare to the view of a calm at sea for sheer beauty. But it is roughly twice the size of the picture sold at Christie’s and renders in minute detail the vessels involved in the naval battle in which the English flagship surrendered to the Dutch fleet. In addition, the history of the painting can be followed from 1763, when it was sold in Amsterdam, to its auction appearance at Christie’s London in June 1976. All this gave the picture considerable art historical importance; hence the large price, £5.3 million ($8.3 million).
The concentration of Old Masters considered to be of great historical significance had the same kind of impact on the Sotheby’s sale as did works of pure beauty the day before at Christie’s. The experts dwelled with relish on what they called Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “last surviving intact multi-panelled altarpiece.” It is arguably one of the German master’s most remarkable religious works. Not least, it remained until 1947 in the chapel of the family that had commissioned it around 1511. Known as The Feilitzsch Altarpiece after its donor(s), Jobst von Feilitzsch or his sons, the monumental work is so important that Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of Germany, jumped at the chance to buy it after the Feilitzsch descendants parted with the work.
The central panel depicting Mary with Saint Anne and the infant Jesus regrettably suffers from excessive cleanings, but the importance of the triptych to the history of German Renaissance art rescued the Cranach from failure. It managed to fetch £4.3 million ($6.7 million), a figure scarcely above the low estimate of £4 million ($6.3 million) yet still a huge price for an altarpiece of which the main panel is hardly “intact.”
The feeling that now is not the moment to pass on large, substantial paintings with familiar-sounding names pinned on them similarly allowed Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent to attract one bid matching the reserve. Based on Brueghel the Elder’s original of 1559, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, in Vienna, the subject was dealt with by Brueghel the Younger in four other versions. On May 31, 1989, the consignor bought the jocular scene for $2.7 million. This year the picture sold for £4.5 million ($7.1 million), just under the low end of the estimate—£4 million ($6.3 million)—before charges, which may sound disappointing. But this is actually a real feat for a work that is neither original nor even particularly well painted.
Where exceeding rarity combined with superb condition, the bidders’ enthusiasm knew no limit. Orazio Borgianni’s Christ Among the Doctors was thought to be by Caravaggio until the art historian Federico Zeri convincingly ascribed it to Borgianni in 1956. First exhibited as such in a 1971 show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, it was more recently featured in the important 2005–06 exhibition “Caravaggio and Europe: The International Caravaggesque Movement from Caravaggio to Mattia Preti,” which traveled from the Palazzo Reale in Milan to the Lichtenstein Museum in Vienna. At £3.4 million ($5.3 million), the Borgianni set a record for the artist that multiplied the high estimate of £600,000 ($941,000) five times. It may be a while before another Borgianni turns up to beat this record.
Let us not overstate the case. Even in a brilliant context, important pictures graced with exalted names and long out of the market are not necessarily assured of faring well. The star lot in the July 4 sale was Guido Reni’s David with the Head of Goliath. Closely resembling a variant of the Louvre picture that specialists place in 1605 or 1606, the Sotheby’s picture was discovered only in 1985. The monumental canvas (847?8 by 571?8 inches) then elicited an enthusiastic response, reflected in the world-record £3.1 million ($3.8 million) it fetched at Sotheby’s London on April 3, 1985. Within a year, the Reni was paraded in a show that opened at the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna and went on to the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A long-term loan to the National Gallery, in London, from 1986 to 1991 added to the aura of the Reni, which Sotheby’s plausibly estimated this year to be worth £3 million to £5 million ($4.7–7.8 million). There was a snag, however. After its 1985 sale, the Reni was cleaned with excessive zeal. The color became lighter and the picture lost its mystery. Despite scores of publications by the best historians, the Reni dropped unwanted.
This failure comes as a cautionary tale with multiple lessons for prospective buyers of Old Master paintings. Do not recklessly overclean great paintings, and do not assume that the admiration experienced by one generation, goaded by the surprise of discovery, will necessarily be felt by the next. Above all, do not expect big names to trigger the same knee-jerk reaction at Old Masters sales as they do at, say, 20th-century ones. Collectors in the field tend to scrutinize the works on offer and make their own judgment instead of meekly reading the auction catalogue entries that sing their praises.
Old Masters represent the last area in which sublime paintings can still be acquired. But to do that you must, among other things, be able to assess the validity of the attribution and the condition. Not least, you must be able to measure how the picture compares with the artist’s best work. Only those well equipped to avoid the many pitfalls of this field will be able to navigate it unscathed.
To see images of some of the works discussed in this article, click on the slideshow.
This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Art+Auction.