Goya, Hans Memling and Chardin, late January in New York


Goya, Hans Memling and Chardin… late January in New York  

Christie’s and Sotheby’s Old Master sales are one of the jewels of the auction market. They offer a chance to see and acquire rare works and outstanding signatures at prices that are often more reasonable than those achieved by masters of contemporary art.
Last year, at the end of January, the two auction houses garnered nearly $80 m in hammer prices for their traditional late January Old Master sales in New York. These prices were lower than those generated by the stars of contemporary art today (contemporary art made a total of over $114 m two weeks after the Old Master sales of January 2012) but Old Master sales in 2013 could surprise us, given the catalogues: there are numerous masterpieces, and no fewer than 24 that look set to go above the million-mark (compared with 17 million-plus bids during the same sales in 2012). On 30 and 31 January, over 500 works in this category will be on offer in Part I and Part II of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with a few records into the bargain.

Part I of Sotheby’s promises to be spectacular, not only because it consists of a well-packed sale of over 400 lots, but above all because it contains some unlikely treasures, including an oil on panel by Hans MEMLING that has stayed in the same family for 150 years, and is now emerging from obscurity thanks to this sale. Christ Blessing is a work measuring 34.4 x 31.7 cm, offered at between $1 and $1.5 m. The estimate is deliberately cautious for the 15th century Flemish master, because even though occasions to bid for him are extremely rare (five sales in 25 years), no work has yet been knocked down for a million.
Another exceptional piece, expected to obtain a world record, is an 18th century masterpiece by Pompeo Girolamo BATONI, Susanna and the Elders. This Biblical episode is one of the most fertile in the history of art, inspiring hundreds of artists including Tintoretto (Jacopo ROBUSTI), Jacob JORDAENS, REMBRANDT VAN RIJN, Peter Paul RUBENS and Annibale CARRACCI, Batoni’s teacher. Susanna and the Elders is one of the prize pieces of these January auctions: a rarity by one of the greatest Italian masters of the 18th century, who absorbed the best of influences from Nicolas POUSSIN and RAPHAEL, and himself influenced Jacques Louis DAVID later. Not only are Batoni’s works hardly legion in the salerooms (on average two or three each year; six in a good year) but importantly, this is the first time that such a fine work of his is up for auction. This accounts for the estimate of $6 to $9 m, even though the artist has never yet made it up to $3m (his current record is $2.17 m for Portrait of Count Kirill Grigorjewitsch Razumovsky, Sotheby’s London, 9 July 2008).
Another highly sought-after lot, a late work by Goya (Francisco José DE GOYA Y LUCIENTES), is a romantic portrait of the artist’s grandson, Mariano Goya. Estimated between $6 and $8 m, young Mariano would become the most valuable portrait by Goya sold at auction, as the price of the artist’s finest in this genre oscillates between $1 and $4 m at most.

Part I of Christie’s is limited to 43 works, including paintings by Carracci, Jean-Baptiste Siméon CHARDIN, François BOUCHER, Jean-Antoine WATTEAU, Panini, Dirck HALS, Anthonius VAN DYCK, Salomon VAN RUYSDAEL and Francisco DE ZURBARAN.
The high point of the sale, an embroiderer at work painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin between 1733 and 1735, and coming from a private American collection, is estimated at between $3 and $5 million. The Embroiderer (a version of which is now in the National Museum of Stockholm) is one of Chardin’s most popular works, which explains such a high estimate for such a small picture. This genre scene measuring less than 20 centimetres is very simply the most iconic and important work by Chardin to be auctioned for 25 years. Christie’s is expecting a world record for the French artist, who earned the admiration of great modern painters like Paul CÉZANNE and Henri MATISSE.
Among its other flagship, Christie’s has unearthed two works by Giovanni Paolo PANINI, including a View of the Campidoglio, Rome, offered within the same estimate bracket as Chardin’s embroiderer ($3-5 m). Proposing two paintings on such a scale by Panini in the same sale smacks of chance or a tour de force – especially since it is nearly seven years since such an important work by the artist turned up at auction. The last lot of this calibre was presented in July 2005, when it went for the equivalent of $3.5 m at Sotheby’s London (a View of St Peter’s Basilica/Rome, a View of the Piazza).
In selling these pictures by Chardin and Panini on 30 January, Christie’s will be scooping up $15 million in three hammer strokes. The auction house is staging Part II the next day with more than 100 lots in more affordable price ranges than at the prestige sale. Estimates on 31 January are no higher than $250,000 and only four works are expected to go above $100,000 (including Two Boys singing by the Flemish artist Abraham BLOEMAERT, a still life by Jan VAN HUYSUM and a highly constructed mythological scene by the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista II PITTONI, Scipio paying homage to Mars). 80% of the works in Part II are estimated at between $10,000 and $50,000 on average, and there is a selection of works at less than $10,000, including a portrait of a girl attributed to Sebastian DE HERRERA BARNUEVO (estimated between $8,000 and $12,000) and a fine still life with fruit and oysters by David Cornelisz. DE HEEM (low estimate: $8,000: Grapes, a lemon, oysters, a chestnut, blackberries and other citrus fruits on a stone ledge with butterflies, a fly, a bee and ants).

The works on offer at Christie’s and Sotheby’s at the end of January do not compete with top-price Old Masters like Rubens, Raphael, Pontormo, Rembrandt or Giovanni Antonio CANAL. But scarce commodities nevertheless promise some fierce bidding battles up to and beyond the million mark, while a number of historical works will be acquired by keen collectors for a few thousand dollars.