The Top 10 Old Master sales in Paris


It’s Top 10 Friday! Every other Friday, Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week, let’s discover the 10 best sales ever achieved in Paris in the small Old Masters market.

Whether it is a Canaletto worth more than $10 million, a rarity of the late Gothic period sold for ten times its estimate (Master of the Karlsruhe Passion) or Italian, Flemish and Chinese masterpieces, France offers very diverse works of art in terms of style and provenance.

In this market segment based on rare works of art, it is not uncommon for the state to exercise its pre-emption rights at auction. In France, the state has the first option to buy and acquire a work by replacing the highest bid. In this Top 10, the French state exercised this right twice to acquire works for the Louvre.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Giovanni Antonio CANAL (1697-1768) 13 721 400 Le Retour du Bucentaure le jour de l’Ascension 15/12/1993 Ader-Tajan Paris
2 Francesco GUARDI (1712-1793) 7 127 985 La place Saint-Marc avec la basilique et le campanile 07/03/2017 Christie’s Paris
3 Quan GU (Attrib.) (XVIII) 6 234 535 Cinq Cent Luohan 09/06/2015 Christie’s Paris
4 Jean DE CAMBRAI (c.1374-1438) 5 653 185 Pleurants provenant du cortège funéraire du tombeau de Jean de France (1340-1416), duc de Berry 15/06/2016 Christie’s Paris
5 Antonio CANOVA (1757-1822) 5 134 320 Joachim Murat 28/11/2017 Christie’s Paris
6 KARLSRUHE MAITRE DE LA PASSION DE (XV) 4 827 600 La Flagellation du Christ 09/12/1998 Cornette de Saint-Cyr Paris
7 Giovanni Battista TIEPOLO (1696-1770) 4 587 775 Figure d’homme au manteau de fourrure 17/12/2014 Pierre Bergé & Associés Paris
8 Frans I HALS (1580-1666) 4 536 910 Portrait d’homme tenant un livre 24/02/2009 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé Paris
9 Edmé BOUCHARDON (1698-1762) 3 765 599 Charles Frédéric de la Tour du Pin, Marquis du Gouvernet. Buste 11/06/2012 Claude Aguttes Paris
10 Gerrit Adriaensz BERCKHEYDE (1638-1698) 3 691 850 Vue de l’église Saint-Bavon de Haarlem 16/06/1999 Ribeyre-Baron Paris
copyright © 2017

Pre-empted works

Renowned for his avant-garde work combining ancient and modern, Edmé BOUCHARDON is a rare artist on the market, especially in his favourite discipline, sculpture. Bouchardon was indeed considered the most famous sculptor during the reign of Louis XV. So when a marble bust of Charles Frédéric de la Tour du Pin, Marquis du Gouvernet, which had remained in the family since the 1730s, appeared at a sale organised by Aguttes in 2012, it was pre-empted by the state for the Louvre, with a price of $3.7m.

Sculptor of the late 14th century, Jean de Cambrai is famous for his tomb of the Duc de Berry in Bourges cathedral and for a set of forty mourners in alabaster. Two “masterpieces of medieval statuary,” to quote Christie’s, kept in the same family since 1807, were the highlights of a Paris auction in June 2016 as they were the last two mourners in the funeral cortege of the Duc de Berry’s tomb. The highest bidder was willing to pay $5.6 million if the state had not intervened on behalf of the Louvre.

This Top 10 also reveals the vitality of the French market through two new records set in 2017 by Francesco GUARDI and Antonio CANOVA. Canova’s white marble bust representing Joachim Murat, created quite a stir. In his article published in La Tribune de l’art on 23 November 2017, historian Didier Rykner did not mince his words when hearing that this work had obtained a certificate of free circulation. Obtaining this certificate meant that the work had not been classified as a Trésor National (National Treasure) and that it could leave France. “It is French heritage that we are giving away,” said Didier Rykner, who would have preferred to see this Neo-classical masterpiece pre-empted by the state and join the Louvre collections.

Way beyond any estimate

The oldest result of this Top 10 (1993) is also the highest. It is indeed the Venetian painter Giovanni Antonio CANAL, known as Canaletto, who obtained the absolute record for an Old Master on French soil, with $13.7m including costs, against an estimate of between $4 to $5 million. At the time, only one work by Canaletto had passed the $10 million mark at auction. The painting auctioned in London was twice the size of Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day sold at Ader-Tajan in 1993. But Return of the Bucentoro proved particularly popular, especially since a painting of the same theme is part of the Royal Collection at Windsor. The painting portrays one of the most important festivities in Venice, where the Doge goes to the Lido on his official boat, the Bucentoro, to throw a golden ring into the water and symbolically celebrate the marriage of the lagoon city and the sea. The work is now housed in the Thyssen Bornemisza collection in Madrid. This French record is Canaletto’s sixth highest sale. But, ahead of Paris, London remains the centre of his market, 75% of his work being sold there.

The late 17th century Flemish painter Gerrit Adriaensz BERCKHEYDE‘s presence at the bottom of the Top 10 is worth noting as, although the sale of View of the St. Bavon Church, Haarlem is quite old (1999), it is the world record for this artist, who enjoys international recognition and is very sought after in London (68% of his sales). Considered as the artist’s masterpiece by the expert René Millet, the View of the St. Bavon Church sold for $3.7m, ten times its low estimate.

Asian art blossoms at auction

Put up for sale on 9 June 2015 at Christie’s, the huge scroll drawing entitled Five Hundred Lohan was only ‘attributed’ to the Chinese artist Quan GU as Christie’s experts could not find a trace of this work in the imperial inventory and it had proved difficult to trace the work despite the two Qianlong seals. However, the auction house was still expecting a good price, but certainly not such a high one. The Five Hundred Lohan scroll indeed sold for $6.3 million to a Chinese dealer, against a conservative estimate of between $90,000 and $133,000. A court painter during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), Quan Gu is an extremely rare artist at auction and highly regarded by Chinese art collectors who are actively buying back their heritage. In recent years, Chinese buyers have flocked to Drouot, often accompanied by fine art advisers. Asian art is even more buoyant in France as the price paid has little importance for rich Chinese, whose goal is first of all to reclaim their heritage. China is buying its past back and a large part of it can be found in France.