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Strong demand for Old Master paintings from private collectors boosted prices in summer sales

Rediscovered Rembrandt made £6.9 million

In a field where supply is ever dwindling and freshness to the market counts for everything, a rash of new discoveries combined with low estimates resulted in very lively bidding and packed salerooms in the London Old Master paintings sales in July.

Sotheby’s undoubtedly had the cream of the paintings, and its sale total more than doubled that of Christie’s, which did not even hold a part II session. However, there was surprisingly strong demand for the best offerings at both auction houses, with private collectors carrying off most of the top lots.

By keeping estimates low, the salerooms have enticed collectors to part with their money. This will boost confidence and, following a fairly disastrous Maastricht fair which took place in the middle of the Iraqi conflict, will rebound to the benefit of the entire trade. Even if the dealers did not carry off the top lots, they should be delighted with the prices fetched.

Sotheby’s Rembrandt self-portrait, rediscovered under layers of over-painting, had the spectators standing shoulder to shoulder behind banks of television cameras at Sotheby’s sale on 10 July. Recent prices for Rembrandt include the $40 million being asked by the New York dealer, Otto Naumann, for a “Portrait of Minerva”, and £19.8 million paid for the “Portrait of an old woman, aged 63” at Christie’s in 2000 by the dealer Robert Noortman. Both paintings are still on the market, so the £4/6 million estimate seemed reasonable and the work finally sold on the telephone to the Las Vegas resort tycoon and art collector Steve Wynn for £6.9 million ($11.3 million). He announced that the painting would go on display in the Wynn Collection in Las Vegas. It was underbid by Joseph Hackmey, a Tel Aviv collector who generally is active in the Modern art field; this was his first public foray into Old Masters. There were several other underbidders, including Robert Noortman. He already has two unsold Rembrandts in stock and he dropped out at £4.5 million. There are only three self-portraits remaining in private hands, but the painting’s chequered past kept the price down; however, it is in fact in excellent condition and largely intact in its original form.

Other rediscoveries

Sotheby’s offered another major discovery, the so-called “Montalto Madonna” by Annibale Carracci, dating from 1596-98, which sold for £789,600 ($1.289 million). This is an incredibly famous image known through dozens of contemporary copies and engravings. The vendor had inherited it, and brought it into Sotheby’s wrapped in an old dog blanket. The painting still carried the Colonna inventory number on the reverse, which corresponds to the 1783 inventory of the collection in which it is listed.

Sotheby’s was able to trace the painting’s provenance right back to its original owner, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti-Montalto, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was the original. Painted on copper and in marvellous condition, it sold in the room to London dealer, Niall Hobhouse. He was bidding for the City of Bologna, Annibale’s birthplace, and sitting beside him in the saleroom was Signora Marina Deserti, the Deputy Minister for Culture in Bologna. An anonymous donor helped with the acquisition.

The New York dealer Vance Jordan paid £2.3 million ($3.8 million) for a superb pair of paintings by Vernet, depicting “Calm” and “Storm”. Again, these were very reasonably estimated at £1.2/1.6 million. Mr Jordan bought them on behalf of a client. He described them as, “The most sensational Vernets ever to come on the market,” and said he would have paid substantially more for them if necessary. Although fairly late in Vernet’s career, as they dated from 1773, the paintings were of fabulous quality and one had never been relined. They had originally been painted for the King of Poland. When the King failed to pay for them they were acquired by the British general, Clive of India, and had come down through a branch of the family, which was selling them to pay death duties.

Another rediscovery was a painting of The birth of the Virgin by the rare Spanish Mannerist, Luis de Morales. With the Spanish economy currently very strong, this was hotly contested over the telephone and sold well over estimate for £588,000, ($960,000).

Record for Nattier

Nattier’s simmering portrait of Madame de Pompadour, as Diana, goddess of the hunt, complete with an immaculate 18th-century coiffure, had only recently been identified, even though it is a remarkable likeness of this famous royal mistress. It was in fact the first Royal commission of Madame de Pompadour and was published as such by Xavier Salmon in the 1999-2000 catalogue of the Nattier exhibition. A wonderfully sexy portrait, it sold in the room to a private collector for £476,000 ($777,140) a world record for the artist. “The judgement of Paris”, a new addition to Procaccini’s œuvre and something of a rarity, since it was a mythological picture, also sold for well over its estimate at £330,400 ($539,430).

Two of the best Vanvitellis to be seen on the market in recent years soared over estimate to fetch £2.02 million ($3.3 million) and £1.9 million ($3.1 million). They were a panoramic view of the apse of St Peter’s, with the city of Rome spread out beyond, and a bustling view of the Darsena at Naples, both painted in 1712.

Unusually in Vanvitelli’s œuvre, an inscription links them to a specific patron, a Frenchman named Michel-Ange de La Chasse, who was the French consul to Rome. The works sold on the telephone to the same anonymous buyer, which many believed to be Richard Green. Another Vanvitelli, a Venetian view, at Christie’s this time, also stormed past its estimate to make £1.5 million ($2.4 million) again to an anonymous buyer. These prices bear witness to the continuing rising market for vedute painting, it is no longer just Canaletto but his predecessors and followers which command huge respect and prices.

The market for Dutch pictures has been riding high over the last five years with very big price rises for the most desirable works but interestingly this round of sales had very few major Dutch works. No doubt recent collectors felt unconfident about consigning works to the market at such uncertain times. However a superb painting of the “Squadron of Admiral Maerten Harpertsz” by the marine artist Simon de Vlieger, surprised everyone by storming past its £100/150,000 estimate to make a new record for the artist at £878,850 ($1.4 million), to a European collector despite the fact that according to Alexander Bell of Sotheby’s, “The market for Dutch pictures is now slightly off its peak of two years ago.”

The tiny, rediscovered, double-sided gold ground panel of the Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina, a major addition to his œuvre, is, like the Carracci, returning home and was bought within estimate at Christie’s for £251,650 ($410,693) by the Museo Regionale de Messina.

Bonhams triumphed with Stubbs’ “A dark bay thoroughbred in a landscape”, yet another rediscovery which turned up in a country house probate valuation. It made £1.9 million, way over its £400/600,000 estimate, selling to Ray Waterhouse of Fine Art Brokers for an American collector who has not even seen the painting.

The overriding message from these sales is that following a dismal six months of trade, both American and European collectors are back in the market for things of real quality. The real challenge to the salerooms is to continue to feed that demand and find new works of great quality.

Old Master Pictures,

Christie’s 9 July, 2003

Sold by lot 69%

Sold by value 83%

Total £9,356, 215 ($15,269,342)

Old Master Paintings,

Sotheby’s 10 July, 2003

Sold by lot 70.97%

Sold by value 94.58%

Total £20,647,200 ($33,709,713)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Strong demand from private collectors boosted prices'