By: Sallie Brady
Forward-thinking collectors are looking backward. That was the message of London’s July Old Masters auctions, proving to be a bright spot in a challenged art market by outselling the season’s Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales. Salesrooms were packed, aided by the capital’s inaugural edition of Master Paintings Week, which saw 23 galleries participating in a well-orchestrated week of parties, lectures and fresh-to-market stock that drew dozens of private collectors and curators, not just from the United States but from Australia, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi.
More than 800 people packed Sotheby’s private viewing, inspecting what would be star lots of the season: Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s version of The Massacre of the Innocents, which sold for £4.6 million (est. £2.5–3.5 million), and Jusepe de Ribera’s Prometheus, a massive 6- by 5-foot oil of the titan who was chained to a rock to have an eagle feast daily on his liver. Part of the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, it sold for £3.4 million (est. £800,000–1.2 million). The collection realized £10.5 million of Sotheby’s total take of £36 million. One casualty was a pair of previously unrecorded and unpublished Fragonard oval oils of fair-haired women (est. £2.5–3.5 million). “They said chocolate box—Cadburys—across the top,” sniffed one dealer. “Very cleaned up, with too-high estimates.”
At Christie’s, the same crowd fueled a roaring private view for Old Masters and 19th-century paintings—the first time the auction house combined the categories in London—and returned the following evening to snap up £20 million worth of lots, including Fra Bartolommeo’s Madonna and Child in a Landscape With St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John the Baptist, which set a record of £2.1 million (est. £2–3 million) and Michele Giovanni Marieschi’s Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, Venice, which went to New York dealer Otto Naumann for £2.1 million.
By day, paintings enthusiasts—such as New York dealer Jack Kilgore, spotted ducking into a frame shop with a canvas under his arm—scoured Mayfair and St. James’ for Master Paintings Week. “We had a footfall of 80 to 100 a day in the gallery,” says Johnny Van Haeften. “We had hardly any last year.” He sold Anthony De Lorme’s Large Church Interior by Night (1645) for £500,000, and Pieter Brueghel’s A Peasant Brawl for £750,000.
“We’ve seen quite a few Americans who came over just for this,” says Colnaghi’s Konrad Bernheimer, whose opening-night party featured two striking paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder: David and Bathsheba and The Virgin of the Grapes With the Standing Christ Child.
Recent sales in London have spotlighted furniture. At Christie’s in early May, Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin, sold 200 lots from his 700-year-old family home, Glin Castle, to help raise funds for its preservation. Most of the furniture lots did well, with buyers favoring Irish George II mahogany pieces. The sale totaled £1.7 million.
The summer season ended in July with Christie’s offering three spectacular pieces by French cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle that had spent 200 years in Wrotham Park. A Louis XIV cabinet-on-stand intricately inlaid in brass, pewter and tortoiseshell failed to sell, while a showstopping pair of sculptural Louis XV coffers-on-stands, went for £2.6 million. Admirers still have two opportunities to see the coffers: in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, which is their new home, or in the 2001 film Gosford Park, in which they played a starring role.