Old Masters at Christie’s and Sotheby’s



On 29 January 2013, eve of its major auction of Old Masters in New York, Christie’s held a historic sale reserved exclusively for prints by the German Renaissance master Albrecht DÜRER. This stunning collection comprised 62 prints with estimates ranging from $3,000 to $600,000 and brought Christie’s the sum of over $4.9 million not including buyer’s premium against a total estimate of $5 million.
The auction certainly met all expectations in terms of proceeds, and it also set the scene for a new world record with the sale of The Rhinoceros for $720,000. This woodcut, executed in 1515, was based on a written description of the animal. It is therefore an imaginary depiction by the artist and is considered as one of the most influential animal pictures in art history. The hammer price achieved by The Rhinoceros exceeded the total of $480,000 amassed by three woodcuts (The Apocalypse/The Large Passion/The Life of the Virgin) sold on 25 January 2001 by Sotheby’s New York.

The following day, highlights of Christie’s auction included a Renaissance sale (sale total of $36.1 million, or $42.6 million including buyer’s premium) and the Part 1 of the Old Masters sale (sale total of $17million, or $19.9 million including buyer’s premium), generating $56 million for 55 lots.

A run on Madonnas
The highlight of this Renaissance auction was the Madonna and Child by Bartolomeo DELLA PORTA (better known as Fra Bartolommeo, 1472-1517), a tondo of great tenderness, and the only work in this auction to reach a hammer price of $11.5 million (not including buyer’s premium). This was also a new world record for a work by this artist. It followed hot on the heels of another Madonna and Child, this time by Sandro BOTTICELLI: The Rockefeller Madonna: Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist (46.3 x 36.8 cm). This work has a long history in auction rooms: it first went under the hammer in 1887 (Christie’s London) and was last sold in 1992 (Christie’s New York). The aficionado who bought this delicate Madonna in 1992 surely never imagined that its price would soar by 2,000% 10 years later! It went under the hammer for $9.25 million on 30 January 2013, compared to $400,000 in 1992.

A third Madonna (The Virgin and Child with infant Saint John the Baptist sleeping) also achieved one of the highest sale prices in this Renaissance auction, this time by Lucas II CRANACH. It depicts Christ as a baby putting a white grape in his mouth: a symbol of redemption. The Virgin tenderly rests her face against her son’s head while the infant Saint John the Baptist sleeps in her lap. This is one of the most interesting painting by Cranach that has ever come to auction. It sold for $1.5 million (its low estimate), almost the same price as a sculpture by Jeff KOONS in an edition of three (Moustache, 2003, $1.5 million, Christie’s London, 30 January 2009).

A few new records
Unexpected: One of the most surprising results was achieved by the Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni by Scipione PULZONE IL GAETANO. This artist had never exceeded before the $250,000 threshold in the sales room, but in New York the price of this work soared to $7.5 million, more than doubling the high estimate of $2.5 million.

La Demoiselle d’honneur sold for $2.2 million on 29 January at Sotheby’s, achieving four times its estimate. This was a new record and the first million-dollar plus sale for Eva GONZALES, whose sale prices are now on a par with those of Berthe MORISOT.

Predictable: La Brodeuse by Jean-Baptiste Siméon CHARDIN, sold on the same day during the Part 1 of the Old Masters sale. The eagerly-awaited sale of this genre painting measuring less than 20 cm (Embroiderer, 19 cm x 16.5 cm) is a very well-known rarity, and is the most important work by Chardin to be brought under the hammer in the last 25 years. It lived up to its promise, selling for $3.5 million (estimate $3-$5 million).

The 18th century masterpiece Suzanne et les vieillards by Pompeo Girolamo BATONI achieved $10.1 million on 31 January at Sotheby’s. This record price was not unexpected as this was the most beautiful Batoni work ever to come to auction. It smashed Batoni’s previous record of $2.17 million for his Portrait of Count Kirill Grigorjewitsch Razumovsky achieved at Sotheby’s London on 9 July 2008.

Again on 31 January, the superb Christ Blessing by Hans MEMLING set a new record for this extraordinary artist. This small oil on panel (34.4 cm x 31.7 cm) shattered the estimate, finally selling for $3.6 million.

One to watch…
The next sales of Old Masters will take place in April. Three months before it goes under the hammer, there is already excitement about a work by Charles LEBRUN expected to be the highlight of the sale at Christie’s in Paris on 15 April 2013. This work, Le Sacrifice de Polyxène, was painted in 1647, when Charles LeBrun was officially appointed « first painter » to King Louis XIV.
Works by this prestigious artist are rarely put up for auction (only 15 paintings have been auctioned in the last 25 years). Le Sacrifice de Polyxène is something of a novelty despite its age, and its quality and history make it attractive to collectors.

The painting was found by accident at the Ritz in the Place Vendôme in Paris. The hotel has now decided to put the masterpiece up for sale with an estimated price of €300,000 – €500,000. However, it is not expected that this superb work with its romantic history will beat the artist’s record, achieved 15 years ago with Suzanne devant ses juges justifiée par le témoignage du jeune Daniel, which sold for the equivalent of $549,000 at Beaussant-Lefèvre in Paris.