London Old Master sales

July 5 2017

Video: Sotheby's

Sorry again for the dearth of news - I've been away, mainly filming for series 2 of Britain's Lost Masterpieces in Rome and Florence. The latter meant my first ever visit (I'm ashamed to say) to the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace; wow - what treasures! More on that later.

But first a few thoughts on the London Old Master sales, which I viewed quickly yesterday. Both Christie's and Sotheby's have some seriously impressive pictures on offer. The myth that 'supply' is a problem in the Old Master market has again been disproved, with proper museum quality pictures on offer. The most obvious are of course the £15m-£25m Turner of Ehrenbreitstein at Sotheby's (for which see the amazing animation above) and the mega Guardi at Christie's (no whizzy videos for this though - Christie's marketing department, where are you?). 

Regular readers will know that as a Van Dyck anorak I'm biased, but I was very taken with the newly discovered Van Dyck of St Sebastian at Christies. I've known of this painting for some years, and there can be little doubt that it's 'right' - indeed, I think it's even better than the supposed 'prime' version in the Louvre. The estimate, at £1.2m-£1.8m, strikes me as quite reasonable. This is a picture which could quite easily have existed in a major museum for centuries - imagine what the estimate would be if, say, it was being sold from the Louvre.

Another new Van Dyck is at Christie's; an oil on paper head study (from Van Dyck's first Antwerp period) of an old man. This is lot 1 of the evening sale, and seems again to be reasonably priced at £60k-£80k. Like many of these pictures, it has at some point been extended and turned into a more 'finished' picture. But the condition is good overall, and it's a strong image.

Van Dyck also appears at Sotheby's, with a rare grisaille, of the engraver Jean-Baptiste Barbé, estimated at £200k-£300k. Genuine Van Dyck grisailles are rare things, and lots of studio copies and later imitations turn up for sale. This one is certainly autograph, and in good state too. 

Sotheby's has a portrait I've been hoping to see for many years; Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the great radical politician Charles James Fox. Years ago I used to work for the Labour MP Tony Banks, who ran the works of art committee in the House of Commons, and was passionate about all things Fox. A Lawrence portrait of Fox was always on his wish-list, and would have been snapped up by him for the Commons collection. When it was painted, the consensus of the day was that Lawrence's portrait was not a success - but I think it's excellent, and this example, in excellent condition, is as fine a demonstration of Lawrence's early technique as you'll find. The estimate is £150k-£200k.

A pricier and more flamboyant British 18thC portrait is Joseph Wright of Derby's Three Eldest Children of Richard Arkwright with a Kite. This (at Sotheby's) is priced at £2m-£3m, and could quite easily have come from Tate Britain. The most intriguing portrait of the week is also at Sotheby's; a depiction of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary, painted by Jan Sanders Van Hemessen (£400k-£600k). There's also a Jan Lievens portrait of a man in profile in fantastically good condition, cheap at £300k-£500k. I must congratulate Sotheby's for putting up good explanatory labels for each lot - not just the artist, title and estimate. It all helps break down the barriers for new collectors I think.

The drawings sales are full of enticing bargains by the big names. I loved the Guercino head study at Sotheby's (£12k-£15k). It's heretical to say it, but I think Guercino was a better draughtsman than a painter. Also interesting is the Liotard portrait of a Lady; this had some condition issues in the borders of the paper, but still seems good value at £10k-£15k. There are also a number of early Turner drawings and watercolours in the low thousands - it seems amazing to me that there is still this price disparity for works by artists like Turner. The centrepiece of Sotheby's drawing sale is a £2.5m-£3.5m view of the Coronation of a Venetian Doge by Canaletto

Christie's drawing sale has a self-portrait drawing by Sir Joshua Reynolds, priced this time at £100k-£150k. It was up for sale a few years ago at (I recall) £200k-£300k, but didn't sell. It is slightly 'rubbed', but otherwise still does the business. Reynolds did it when he was just seventeen. Turner features in the Christie's sale with this £500k-£700k view of Norham Castle.

There's plenty more to write about, but my train is just pulling into London. As a mark of my dedication to you, AHNers, I've been writing this a la Jeremy Corbyn, sitting on the floor, resting against a bin. That's British trains for you, and I'm afraid it must explain the lack of photos in this post. There's no wifi either. I'm  hoping to catch Bonhams sale this morning (their view ended at 4.30pm yesterday!). Also, I wrote a piece for The Art Newspaper on the sales, but for some reason this is not yet online, and only in the printed version. There are some other videos about the sales, which I'll post shortly.

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