Monday, January 28, 2013


New York Old Master auctions preview: so much to see, so little time
Twelve sales in three days make the season a sprint rather than a stroll—but works by Batoni and Carracci are worth slowing down to see

By Paul Jeromack. Art Market, Issue 242, January 2012
Published online: 21 January 2013

Every year it gets worse. Each January, Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York hold their annual Old Master blowout. And every year, they cram their competing sales into shrinking time periods, making it impossible for anyone to attend a paintings sale without missing a drawings sale and vice versa. Twelve sales (eight at Sotheby’s and four at Christie’s) are, with one exception, shoehorned into three days—30 and 31 January and 1 February. Avoiding the daytime crush is Sotheby’s evening sale of works from the estate of Giancarlo Baroni (29 January, including an early El Greco—The Entombment of Christ, mid-1570s, estimated at $1m to $1.5m). The scheduling is particularly frustrating this year because both houses feature unusually strong offerings. Here are some of the notable lots.


Christie’s big event is the Renaissance sale on 30 January, featuring paintings, drawings, prints and decorative arts. The star lot is a rare earlytondo by Fra Bartolommeo: The Madonna and Child, around 1495, in its original frame (est $10m-$15m). This is followed by not one, but two, Botticellis: the recently identified and very early Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate, painted in the early 1460s, when Botticelli was still in the studio of his teacher, Fra Fillippo Lippi (est $3m-$5m), and the “Rockefeller” Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist, around 1493 (est $5m-$7m). More exciting is a later Italian painting—a rediscovered altarpiece of The Annunciation, around 1585, by Annibale Carracci, which until now was only known to the wider public from an old, undated black-and-white photograph.

Excluding the sketchy head studies and genre subjects of varying quality that appear at auction every so often and are attributed to various members of the Carracci family, paintings by Annibale are seldom encountered, and this well-preserved, relatively early work is of the highest quality, melding the influences of his cousin Ludovico, Titian and Correggio. It is the most important work by the artist to come to market since Boy Drinking, around 1582-83, which came from the Peter Jay Sharp collection and sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1994 for $2.2m, and which is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Christie’s estimates The Annunciation at $1.5m to $2.5m, which seems cheap. 

In 2007, the New York dealer Otto Naumann streamlined the pictures and decorative arts in his gallery by selling the excess in a special auction at Sotheby’s New York (sale total $2.9m). Now, Christie’s is featuring an additional 22 pictures from his inventory—something Naumann calls a necessary adjustment owing to the sale of his large New York townhouse in favour of a modern apartment that doesn’t have sufficient wall space. There are some terrific and reasonably estimated Dutch pictures here, notably a beautiful Hermit Praying, 1663, by Rembrandt’s pupil Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (est $150,000-$200,000), Paying the Hostess, around 1650-55, by the underrated Ludolf de Jongh (est $120,000-$180,000) and a Madonna and Child with Angels, around 1603-05, by the rarely seen Flemish master Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn, painted at the court of Rudolph II of Prague (est $80,000-$120,000).


Pompeo Batoni is best known today as the leading 18th-century Roman portraitist of British aristocrats making their “Grand Tour”, but his religious and secular paintings have received little attention. As recently as 1960, John Walker, then the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, rejected Batoni’s grand Triumph of Venice (his first major non-religious painting, made in 1737 for Marco Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador to the Papal court) when he had first pick of the works being donated by the Kress Foundation, with the rejects distributed among dozens of museums nationwide. Batoni’s masterpiece was sent to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Now, Sotheby’s features one of Batoni’s most dramatic figural compositions, a large canvas of Susanna and the Elders, which was commissioned in 1751 by Count Ernst Guido von Harrach of Vienna and sent by the Harrach family for sale in London in 1991. It was bought in but was acquired by the present consignor the following year. The work, which measures 99cm by 136cm, has not been seen in public for more than 40 years. Unusually, Batoni de-emphasises the erotic, voyeuristic allure commonly seen in most depictions of the subject and opts instead for intimidating terror as the frightened woman does her best to cover herself while the two leering elders hover over her and paw at her clothes (est $6m-$9m, sale on 31 January).

Of particular interest is Sotheby’s consignment of 16 pictures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, primarily 15th-century Italian paintings by or from the workshops of Bicci di Lorenzo, Matteo di Giovanni and Bartolomeo Vivarini, to be sold on 31 January. The most surprising discard is a rare double-sided panel of The Adoration of the Magi (recto) with The Throne of Grace (verso), around 1493-95, from the workshop of the Master of the Holy Kinship, a 15th-century Cologne painter not otherwise represented in the Met’s rather small collection of early German paintings. It was bought by the museum in 1926 from A.S. Drey of Munich. Severe condition problems have kept it off display for decades, and it is therefore estimated low at $100,000 to $150,000.

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