Christies Worst Old Master Sale:Inflated prices, dearth of quality, lot of hype

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Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with Book

A canvas promoted as possibly Caravaggio’s first failed to find a buyer today at a grim Old Masters painting sale at Christie’s New York. Inflated estimates, a dearth of high-quality work, and a fall in the value of the Euro, according to several dealers present, conspired to sink an auction that saw fully 32 out of 54 works fail to find buyers. Among the unlucky lots were examples by Pieter Brueghel II, Canaletto, Pieter Claesz., Guido Reni, and Theodoor Rombouts.

The sale tallied just $9.3 million, a quarter of the pre-sale high estimate of $39 million. It was the worst result of a January old master sale since 2002. The poor tally came despite the presence of prominent dealers like Johnathan Green, of London’s Richard Green Gallery, Martin Zimet of New York’s French & Company, and Anthony Crichton-Stuart, of Agnew’s, London . The house had also promoted some of its treasures using comparisons with contemporary art that some dealers found specious.

“The estimates were just too high,” said Amsterdam dealer Salomon Lilian “Many of these works were known to the market, having been shown previously at TEFAF.”

“I came here to consider four paintings,” said London consultant Hector Paterson, adding that once he saw them, he found only one of them up to snuff. He went home with a pair of small drawings by Pietro Bianchi.

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Caravaggio’s Boy Peeling a Fruit

Boy Peeling a Fruit, the Caravaggio, went down in flames after less than a minute on the block. Speaking off the record, several dealers put the failure down to doubts about the work’s authenticity.

Among the other conspicuous failures was the painting that graced the cover of the catalogue promoting the sale, Theodoor Rombouts’s genre painting A Merry Company, which carried a high estimate of $3 million. Dominated by a red-coated figure with his back to the viewer, the nearly-8-foot-wide painting shows a baker’s dozen of revelers eating and drinking around a table. The painting wasn’t helped by the fact that it was owned for a time by King Louis XVI’s mother and hung for a long time in the building that now houses the Hotel Ritz.

Also going begging was Guido Reni’s The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia(ca. 1614), which was back at auction not quite seven years after the last time it was on the block. New York dealer Richard Feigen got $3.6 million for the oil on copper, just under 18 inches high, at Sotheby’s London in July 2008, setting a record for Reni. Apollonia was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out; in Reni’s rendition, her tormenter stands before her holding a giant pair of pincers. Even after the auctioneer opened the bidding at a modest $650,000, the painting failed to gain any traction in the sale room.

The Renaissance sale, was  expected to total as much as $27 million with 53 lots, considerably shy of the $44.9 million total for the same sale last year. The top estimate is $8-$12 million for Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, which Christie’s is bringing to market for the second time. The three-foot-high oil on panel failed to sell in 2013, when it was estimated at $12–$18 million. The sale catalogue indicates that Christie’s owns the work, in part or in full, though it says that “a private collector” is offering it for sale. 

The Bronzino fetched $9.1 million, while the sale overall totaled just $15.8 million, short of the $18-million low estimate. Just over half the lots sold found buyers.

Salomon Lilian did find a few bright spots. “It’s very encouraging—and surprising—that the Salomon van Ruysdael went for $1.2 million,” he said, referring to Skaters on the Frozen River Lek, the Town of Vianen Beyond (1653), whose hammer price just met its high estimate.

He found hope, too, in The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, a canvas by the obscure artist Matthias Stomer, which passed its high estimate to hammer for $700,000. “It’s fresh to the market,” he pointed out. (The catalogue lists only one unnamed family in the section on the work’s history.) “That’s what gets people excited.”

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