London Old Master catalogues online

June 15 2015

Image of London Old Master catalogues online

Pictures: Sotheby's and Christie's

Great excitement here at AHN - the summer Old Master picture catalogues have gone online, and there are many treats on offer. Both auction houses have put together strong sales.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Christie's have put their sales back a couple of days. Traditionally, the Christie's evening sale has been on the Tuesday of Old Master week. Now it is on the Thursday, with the day sale is on Friday (formerly Wednesday). Perhaps the intention is to leave more time for viewing, now that the London 'Old Master week' is slightly more established as a concept, with other dealers taking part. But I suppose there's a risk with the day sale being on a Friday that some buyers will already be either exhausted or sated. Sotheby's stay with the usual dates - evening sale on the Wednesday, and day sale on the Thursday.

What follows is my pick of the lots.

Christie's top lot is an epic Bellotto of Dresden, at £8m-£12m. There's a Gainsborough three quarter length portrait of Sir Richard Brooke at £2m-£3m. I particularly like an English School 1567 full-length portrait on panel of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, which is cheap at £150k-£250k.

The meat of Christie's sale comes from the collection of the late philanthropist, Sir Alfred Beit, who bought the magnificent Russborough House in Ireland in 1952, and then left it to a charitable trust along with a stellar collection of paintings. Sadly, the paintings were the target of IRA thieves more than once, and have not been displayed for some years. The charitable foundation is now selling a number of pictures, including two important works by Rubens; a study for Venus Supplicating Jupiter, estimated at £1.2m-£1.8m (which should surely outperform its estimate), and the below portrait head estimated at £2m-£3m. The latter is described sometimes as a study, but it's too finished for a study, and the head doesn't appear as one of the frequent 'extras' you see in Rubens' multi-figured compositions. Some suggest it's a portrait of a friend or collector, which is probably right.  

There has been a hoo-ha in Ireland about the sale of the pictures from Russborough. First, that they should be sold at all (why not spend some money instead on strengthening security, so that the works can be displayed?), and secondly that they have been able to leave Ireland without some form of attempt to keep them in the country. More on this here in the New York Times.

You can see the rest of the Christie's evening sale here.

Sotheby's evening sale is probably the stronger of the two. The catalogue is an impressive production - in depth and scholarly. Regular readers will remember that Sotheby's are selling some good pictures from the Castle Howard collection. Of course, it's a shame of course that these things have to be sold, but there we are - Castle Howard is merely the latest in a long line of stately homes that have to strip the walls the keep the roof on (like Russborough in fact). If it was me, I think I'd rather keep the art - how about you?

Anyway, I was interested to be able to zoom into the rare half-length portrait of Henry VIII as an older man, complete with staff (top). The portrait type is derived from Holbein's original in Rome, which shows the king as a younger man. Here, the head type is re-used - as was common practice - and you can clearly see the pencil tracings used to lay out the details of the face. The detail in the rest of the costume is good, but not perhaps up to Holbein quality. So it's correctly catalogued I think as 'Workshop of Holbein'. The estimate is £800,000-£1,200,000. The price compares to a recent 'Workshop' Henry VIII that sold at Christie's in July 2011 at £657k. The Castle Howard isn't the same celebrated composition as the Christie's picture, but it's in better condition. 

Of course, we don't know for sure if Holbein had a studio - there is documentation to attest to assistants - but it seems likely that he adhered to the conventions of the day. I suspect that somewhere out there is a 'prime' Holbein original of this type. 

Also from Castle Howard is a full-length portrait by Ferdinand Bol, thought to be the artist's son. The estimate is £2m-£3m.

Sotheby's highest estimated pic is a Cranach the elder of 'The Mouth of Truth' at £6m-£8m.

Sotheby's also has: a Bellotto, this time of Venice, at £2.5m-£3.5m; a full-length Batoni at £2m-£3m; a full-length Romney at £1m-£2m;a  newly discovered Gainsborough landscape at £300k-£500k (cheap); and a John Martin at £2m-£3m.

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