London sales of Old Master paintings – Good results



As 7-figure bids become commonplace in the speculative and volatile contemporary segment of the art market, bidding for less publicised older works is still buoyant. The Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales of Old Master Paintings on 8 and 9 July 2008 generated new records with rare masterpieces from private collections.

At Christie’s, the offer of works that were thought lost attracted ardent bidding from collectors: drawings by Francisco José DE GOYA Y LUCIENTES that had disappeared off the map for 130 years and a major work by Jean-Antoine WATTEAU that had not been seen for 160 years were the star lots of the sale!
The Goya works were part of an album of 105 drawings last sold at Drouot on 2 April 1877. Not all of them sold on 8 July, but Christie’s recorded three of the four auction records for drawings by the artist. At £2m, the lively ink drawing entitled Bajan Riñendo or Vision de Bajar Riñendo set a new record for a work on paper by the Spanish master.

Christie’s posted a second record breaking result with La surprise, a major painting by Jean Antoine Watteau dated 1718 and out of sight since 1848. It was thought to have been destroyed or at best lost. The piece had been discovered in July 2007 at a private home in the UK when a Christie’s valuer spotted the work in the corner of a room. Before its sale, the small masterpiece – hardly larger than a sheet of A4 (36.3 x 28.2 cm) – was exhibited in New York in April before returning to London at the start of July. It depicts a typically gallant scene and reflects the artist’s taste for comedia dell’arte: a young man engages a somewhat astonished lady in a passionate embrace watched with an air of complicity by a musician and a curious dog, symbol of fidelity. Apart from the work’s exceptional quality, its chance discovery contributed to a mood of furious bidding that pushed La Surprise to the dizzy price of £11 million, triple its estimated value. This record dwarfs the previous record set in December 2000 when Watteau’s Le Conteur – depicting artists from the Commedia dell’Arte in a landscape – fetched £2.2 million at Christie’s.

For Sotheby’s the Old Masters week generated £59.5m ($117.3m), an exceptional result, up 87% vs. July 2006. It was the second highest revenue figure the auction house has ever generated on the Old Master’s segment. Remember that in July 2002 Sotheby’s set the all-time record in the segment when it sold the sublime Massacre des innocents (c.1608-1609) by Peter Paul RUBENS for £45 million, the highest price ever paid for an Old Master and one of the highest prices ever paid for an art work in general!
At its prestigious London sale on 9 July this year, Sotheby’s generated no less than 19 new records. Among the artists active in the 16th and 17th centuries, new records were set for Jan I BRUEGHEL (1568-1625) with The Edge of a Village with Figures dancing on the Bank of a Rive, a masterpiece dated 1616 that fetched £3.1m; Aert I VAN DER NEER with a winter landscape which sold for £2.4m; Guido RENI with a superb Martyre de Saint Appoline which fetched £1.6m; Jacopo ROBUSTI whose light / dark portrait of an elderly man fetched £1,4m, and Frans I VAN MIERIS whose pipe-smoking soldier sold for £1.15m.
However the highest bid of the entire session was generated by Frans I HALS‘ half-length portrait of Samuel Ampzing painted in 1635 which went under the hammer at £4.15m, four times initial estimates and the artist’s second highest ever recorded auction price. The work is a brilliant realist portrait in which the subject seems caught “in the moment” and appears to invite us to participate in his interrupted reading.