New York Old Master sales

January 16 2023

Video: Sotheby's

There are some fine pictures on offer at the New York Old Master sales. And not least because this year Christie's have moved their sales back to January to coincide with Sotheby's sales, having experimented with a Classic Week sale later in the Spring since 2016. (Very long-suffering readers may remember I wasn't convinced by the idea back then. Though, as is often the case these days, I'm embarrassed to see how I wrote about it). 

Sotheby's have their usual Old Master part I & II sales, but also two dedicated collection sales (both 26th Jan): the Fisch Davidson collection, and the Theiline Scheumann collection. Sotheby's David Pollack discusses the latter in the above video. David is good at these, they should let him do more. 

The Fisch Davidson sale includes the $25m-$35m Rubens of Salome and the head of John the Baptist, and a $4m-$6m Orazio Gentileschi of the Penitent Magdalene. It looks to me as if the entire sale has been guaranteed, at over $50m. If that guarantee has been underwritten by the auction house, and not a third party, itrepresents quite an investment by Sotheby's, as well as faith in the market; none of the estimates are what I would call 'enticing', they're all serious prices. The Rubens is labelled as a 'premium lot', which means if you want to bid on it, you have go through extra hoops to demonstrate you've got the cash.

In Sotheby's regular Old Master sale (26th Jan) they have a newly discovered late Titian, Ecce Homo, ($1.5m-$2m) which is unfinished and gives a great glimpse into Titian's technique towards the end of his life. If you're interested in the market for British art, there's two reassuringly expensive portraits to keep an eye on: a $200-$300k Peter Lely and a $400k-$600k Joshua Reynolds. By the way, it's 300 years since Reynolds was born. 

The picture I'd most covet at Sotheby's is their previously unknown study of an old man by Van Dyck (above, $2m-$3m). It's from early in Van Dyck's career, about 1618-20, and relates to his series of pictures of St Jerome, in particular an example at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Painted in oil on canvas, later laid onto panel, the study is an extraordinary example of Van Dyck's genius in handling oil paint, even at the age of 18, as well as his sensitivity to his subjects. In the finished picture of St Jerome, the same sitter appears with no less attention to detail, in terms of his age and the folds of his skin, but is nonetheless given the spiritual inner strength one would expect in such an important biblical figure. In the newly discovered study, however, we see merely an old man; dignified, yes, but pathetic too, as Van Dyck's brush explores unsparingly the details of his body. Incidentally, AHN has played a role in the emergence of this painting; over a decade ago, the painting's late owner, Albert Roberts, responded to an article I'd written on here about Van Dyck connoisseurship, and asked what I thought of his picture, which he'd bought in a minor auction for $600. I told him I thought it looked like a Van Dyck! And over the following years helped him get it established as such, including in an article in The Burlington Magazine by the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes. 

Sotheby's has some great 18th Century pastels in their drawing sale, including a basket of apples by Liotard estimated at $1.2m-$1.8m.

At Christie's (25th Jan), there's a $2.5m-$3.5m) Pieter Brueghel the Younger, a previously unknown Christ crowned with Thorns by Leonardo's pupil Marco D'Oggiono, and an impressive pair of portraits by Goya at $15m-$20m. A lost landscape by Watteau which surfaced in Paris at auction as just 'Ecole Francaise', despite having belonged to the Wildensteins as a known Watteau (and looted by Nazis during the war) is estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m, and testament to how even well known paintings can lose their attribution. If you're after a potential bargain, keep an eye on their J. E. Safra collection sale, which includes works like this Turner of The Splugen Pass estimated at $1.5m-$2m, but all being offered without reserve. So you never know... For some reason, the catalogue for Christie's day/online sale of Old Masters has not yet been published. Sotheby's part II is here

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