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Volatile market evident at Christie's Sculpture and Works of Art sales '97 with bids few and far between

Too few collectors, and too specialised, to guarantee success even for masterpieces

London

Neither Sotheby’s nor Christie’s Sculpture and Works of Art sales on 11 and 12 December were able to compete with the exceptional sales held last July when Christie’s offered objects from the Bute collection and Sotheby’s had their outstanding British Rail Pension Fund sale. Between them they produced only a dozen exciting objects this time and in both sales several of the top lots failed to sell reflecting the volatile market for these important but often highly academic objects. Dealers, especially in the medieval art in which Sotheby’s sale was especially strong, have not had an easy year. The Germans, who are traditionally important buyers, are suffering from a weak economy and the younger generation are tending to buy contemporary art. On 10 December Christie’s had the more successful sale totalling £1.244 million and on 12 December Sotheby’s totalled £977,231.

The sale at Christie’s was dominated by three lots consigned by Mrs Johnson. All had been sold to her by dealer, Danny Katz, at the top of the market in the late 1980s, but they failed to excite any interest at auction. The moral: even if you buy top quality objects from a reputable dealer, in a highly specialised market you cannot put them into auction a few years later and expect to get your money back.

Mrs Johnson’s marble bust of Christ by Cancinni was purchased for its reserve of £221,500 by dealer Danny Katz. In 1988 he paid a then world record price for a piece of Renaissance sculpture when he bought the same object for £825,000 at Sotheby’s. Mrs Johnson will almost certainly have made a massive loss on the piece.

Interviewed after the sale, Danny Katz commented, “We got the piece for an absolute steal; there was not another bid in the room. Originally commissioned for Santa Maria Novella, it is one of the masterpieces of Florentine sculpture. I shall certainly be asking a six-figure sum for it and shall offer it to the City of Florence”.

Another piece consigned by Mrs Johnson, a carved marble relief of Dido by Antonio Lombardo believed to be from Alfonso d’Este’s ducal palace at Ferrara, was brought in at Christie’s for £100,000. The marble relief created quite a stir in 1988 when it was sold by a Dorset auctioneer, Henry Duke & Son for £270,000 hammer to Danny Katz.

When it appeared at Duke’s it was a discovery and had never been on the market before. That it had been found locally and was being sold locally added to the excitement. While a highly important object, it is very mannered and contorted and not of immediate appeal.

Also consigned by Mrs Johnson was a pair of sixteenth-century English, bronze, heraldic beasts. These had been bought at Sotheby’s by Danny Katz for £300,000 in 1987 and were bought in at £110,000.

The fate of Mrs Johnson’s objects highlights the pitfalls of trying to sell such rarified objects at auction. Governments and museums cannot make decisions or raise the funds in sufficient time and she would have been better advised to have negotiated a private sale.

A Renaissance bronze by the Dutch artist Willem Danielsz van Tetrode, who spent many years in Italy, fared better, making comfortably more than its estimate at Christie’s. It also was purchased by the dealer Danny Katz, for £276,500, on behalf of a European collector. Fifteen and a half inches high, it is a superbly modelled masculine figure and a very desirable collectors’ item.

Danny Katz then carried off the third highest lot for £73,000, a pair of immensely grand bronze andirons nearly four feet high which had come from a Rothschild house, château de Ferrières. Attributed to Tiziano Aspetti and closely related to a pair of andirons by Niccolò Roccatagliata in the Bargello, they were very good value when compared to the single andiron by Roccatagliata which fetched £76,300 in the Bute sale last July (however, the Bute one had a better patina).

At Sotheby’s the star bronzes failed to sell. A pair of lions attacking a bull and a horse respectively by Antonio Susini after models by Giambologna, were bought in at £100,000. They were superbly modelled, the animals writhing in agony under the onslaught of the lions whose teeth are tearing into their flesh. The bull had a later rockwork base and also a more greeny-brown patina instead of the golden red patina of the horse. According to Sotheby’s the castings were a pair and not matched, as some of the trade suspected, and the patina of the bull model had been altered to match the later base.

Two very rare limewood busts of an apostle and a female saint by one of the greatest masters of woodcarving, Tilman Riemenschneider, also failed to sell at Sotheby’s. The models had been painted later but came with a full restorer’s report and it would not have been difficult to remove the paint. A very early ivory relief from Amalfi of the Crucifixion which showed strong stylistic links with Byzantine art also failed to sell.

It was the more decorative objects which succeeded: a set of twelve sixteenth-century Limoges enamel plaques, each decorated with a detailed scene illustrating one of the months of the year, was the top lot, fetching £144,500 and a rare terra-cotta of the Crucifixion by Clodion made well over estimate. It was a superb piece of virtuoso modelling, the sense of drama rendered by the swooning Virgin and billowing robes of St John at the foot of the cross. A swaying, ivory, Gothic Madonna, with the Christ Child reaching out to touch a dove, and a glorious deep orange patina doubled estimate to fetch £47,500.

Correction

A marble relief of Dido by Antonio Lombardo was not purchased by Danny Katz at Henry Duke & Son in 1988 as stated in the February issue of The Art Newspaper p.33 but by Thomas Agnew and Sons. The sale price was £275,000. It was subsequently sold to Mrs Basia Johnson by Danny Katz in association with Thomas Agnew and Sons.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A volatile market'