While Christie’s does not stage Old Master paintings sales in New York in January, it does still go head-to-head with Sotheby’s for drawings. But the record shows the former house trailing. In 2019, it was $15 million to $2.7 million in favor of Sotheby’s, and in 2020, $15.1 million (including a $11.7 million Mantegna) at Sotheby’s compared to $5.4 million at Christie’s.
Last week, Christie’s opened the latest round with a comfortable $3.9 million for a sale that was estimated at $2.3 million–$3.4 million. (Prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)
This included a $724,000–$1.1 million collection formed by the late Cornelia Bessie, an art book publisher, which sold for $1.5 million. Bessie’s main focus was on 18th-century French artists. Topping the bill was a red chalk drawing of a seated young woman by Fragonard which Bessie had been given by her mother, art dealer Kate Schaeffer, in 1982. The gift realized a double estimate $1.1 million. A further 13 Fragonards— all made for Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso– were from the collection of American patrons Nina R. and Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. and all sold, mostly above estimate for prices up to $56,253 each.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, A Young Woman Dozing. Christie’s
The next day, Sotheby’s star lot from its multi-owner sale was to have been an early Anthony van Dyck working drawing of an old man holding a bundle, The Healing of the Paralytic, with an estimate of $2.5 million–$3.5 million. The price was said by dealers to be too high–aimed only at the top van Dyck collectors. Van Dyck’s record for a work on paper is $280,000 for a drawing sold by Christie’s in 2019. In fact, no interest was registered before the sale at the record estimate level and, rather than watch it buy in, the collector agreed to withdraw the work from the sale.
This reduced the pre-sale estimate to $2.6 million–$3.9 million, leaving a classic Swiss lakeview by J. M. W. Turner pitched at $700,000–$1 million as the lead lot, formerly in the collection of Switzerland-based philanthropists Guy and Myriam Ullens. It was sold by an English collector just above the high estimate to a U.S. collector for $1.3 million.
Master of the Blue Wash, Study for a table ornament with putti riding hippocamps. Sotheby’s
U.S. collectors continued to dominate the sale. A further choice work by a British artist, Death of Ezekiel’s Wife, by the eccentric William Blake, sold to another U.S. collector for a double estimate $289,8000. This collector, bidding online with paddle number 193, also paid a triple estimate $63,000 for a drawing of a girl’s head by Francois Boucher, an above-estimate $25,200 for an unusual drawing by Ingres, and an intriguing study of horse-riding putti by the mysteriously named Master of the Blue Wash.
A third U.S. collector, bidding through London-based expert George Gordon, produced the shock of the auction–a record $315,000, or over 30 times the $6,000–$8,000 estimate for a drawing by Italian baroque artist Guercino for his painting Apollo Flaying Marsyas. The eight-inch square ink and wash drawing is thought to be one of only two known studies for this painting, the other being in the British Royal collection.
Francesco Guardi, The Return of the Bucintoro from S. Nicolò di Lido. Sotheby’s
The fourth major U.S. acquisition was made by an unnamed institution (not the Getty, I am assured), for a view of a teeming regatta at the mouth of the Grand Canal in Venice by Francesco Guardi. Last on the market in 1920, it is one of the largest Guardi sheets to survive and is comparable to works from the same sketchbook in the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Estimated at $600,000–$80,000, it sold for a record $1.2 million, including the premium.
One European collector favoring the Dutch and German schools disrupted the American dominance, buying three of the top 10 lots by Jan Brueghel the Younger (a double estimate record $201,600), Hendrick Goltzius (an above estimate $113,400) and Hendrick Avercamp (a below estimate $75,600).
Sotheby’s followed up in the afternoon with the sale of John O’Brien’s collection of Italian drawings, titled “From Taddeo to Tiepolo.” Here, the take up was good with 112 of 133 lots, or 84 percent, was sold for $1.8 million including premium, just scraping by the low estimate of $1.5 million without the premium.
Private collectors claimed the top lots lead by an impressive double-sided sheet of studies for the Frangipani Chapel by Taddeo Zuccaro at a mid-estimate $228,800. A European collector claimed two studies by Giovani Battista Tiepolo, one of a boy at a quadruple estimate $151,200, and a New York collector paid a record $100,800 for a rare and large study for a painting in the Duomo of Naples by Corrado Giquinto.
“Considering how few people were actually able to view these sales, perhaps the most important artworks to view physically because of the potentially fragile conditions, the sales did extremely well,” observed London dealer, Stephen Ongpin, whose firm purchased seven lots in the sale.
Unlike the New York paintings sales, though, which have increased, the $11 million total for this series between the two houses (despite being above the $6.4 million–$9.4 million estimate) is a bit of a comedown from the $20 million–plus sales of the last two winters in New York.