Though driven by a rare and masterful J.M. Turner painting of a crumbled German fortress that fetched £19/$24 million, Sotheby’s London Old Masters’ evening sale delivered a mixed and somewhat subdued £52.5/$67.8 million result
Ten of the 68 lots offered failed to sell for a slim buy-in rate by lot of fifteen percent.
The tally brushed past the low end of pre-sale expectations pegged at £48.6-71.2/$62.7-91.9 million.
It easily beat last summer’s same category evening sale that made £16.4/$21.3 million.
Seven of the 58 lots that sold made over a million pounds and 13 made over a million dollars.
Three artist records were set.
Two works carried financial guarantees including the top lot that was armed with a so-called irrevocable bid, or what’s known in more general parlance as third party backed financial guarantees of a minimum price sufficient to win the lot if no other competition materializes.
All prices reported include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium for each lot sold, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up and including £175,000, 20 percent on any amount above that and up to and including £2 million and 12.5 percent on any remaining portion above that.
Estimates do not include the buyer’s premium.
The summer evening got off to a peppy start with a so-called Follower of Hieronymous Bosch in oil on panel dating from the early 16th century, “The Harrowing of Hell” that made £175,00/$226,205 (est. £60-80,000).
A few lots later, another 16th century painting, Jan Sanders van Hermessen’s intense and idiosyncratic figure wearing a green and gold gown, “Portrait of Elisabet, court fool of Anne of Hungary,” and executed in oil on oak panel triggered a bidding duel, including an online bidder and shot to an estimate busting and record £2,168,750/$2,803,326 (est. £400-600,000).
But that early fizz settled rather quickly as Lucas Cranach the Elder’s stern “Portrait of Martine Luther” in oil on beechwood panel and dated 1517, bought in at a chandelier bid £1.1 million (est. £1.5-2 million).
A telephone bidder nabbed Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s multi-figured and decidedly busy “Wedding Feast” in oil on oak panel that made £1,808,750/$2,337,990 (est. £1-1.5 million] and, another narrative work, Jan Steen’s bedroom chamber scene from the 1660’s, “The Doctor’s Visit,” featuring in part a young woman holding her belly, beat expectations and sold for £812,750/$1,050561 (est. £400-600,000).
Auctioneer Henry Dalmeny, Sotheby’s United Kingdom chairman, quipped from the sales room rostrum, in referring to the bidders, “you two are obviously desperate for a doctor’s visit.”
Of the two guaranteed works, Willem van de Velde the Younger’s balmy and richly detailed scene from 1660, “The English Royal Yacht Mary About to Fire a Salute” made £812,750/$1,050,561 (est. £400-600,000).
Shortly thereafter, the big and widely anticipated cover lot, James Mallord William Turner came to market.
“Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honor and the Tomb of Marceau,” from Byron’s Childe Harold,” dated 1835 and measuring 36 ¼ by 48 ½ inches in oil on canvas, is a spectacular outdoor scene bathed in Turner’s late afternoon light of the once impregnable ruin, made more famous by Lord Byron’s epic poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”
Sotheby’s certainly considered it important, given the house devoted 31 profusely illustrated catalogue pages to the lot.
Widely considered one of the most important Turner’s still held in private hands, the painting didn’t do much more than hit the low estimate after applied fees. It fetched £18,533,750/$23,956,725 (est. £17-25 million).
Certainly, the German subject matter may have been an alienating factor for some.
“It’s one of the best Turners in private hands,” opined Nicholas Hall, a New York based old master dealer and former head of Christie’s Old Masters, “and whoever bought that got a terrific picture and probably underpaid.”
Hall added, “it’s a very selective market” and the uninspiring price for the Turner “took the wind out of the sale.”
But that feeling of dead clam appeared just ahead of the Turner, as an impressive pair of Giovanni Antonio Canal, Called Canaletto, “Venice, The Campo San Zaccharia, Venice, The Campo Santa Maria Formosa,” in oil on canvas and both housed in their original Venetian carved and gilded frames from the mid-1730’s, failed to sell against a £2.5-3.5 million estimate.
It’s even more unusual in that Canaletto is usually a sought after name in these premier evening sales, not to mention all the attention being garnered on the artist’s current exhibition where “Canaletto & the Art of Venice” is on view in London at The Queen’s Gallery.
“Nothing like it has been seen at auction,” said Greg Rubinstein, worldwide head of Old Master drawings at Sotheby’s, a work “which transports us to the very heart of 18th Century Venice.”
Beyond those disappointments, Bernardo Bellotto’s “Venice, Piazza San Marco looking east towards the Basilica” and formerly identified as a signature Canaletto, made £2,521,250/$3,258,968 (est. £1,5-3.5 million).
It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in January 2006 for $4.7 million, after it was reattributed to Bellotto who was Canaletto’s nephew and who worked in his studio.
You can call that a big come down.
Other successful entries included Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s beautiful, half-length, partially nude figure, “Portrait of a Lady as Flora” in oil on canvas from the late 1750’s that brought £2,408,750/$3,113,550 (est. £2-3 million) and Pieter Claesz’s “A Roemer, an overturned pewter jug, olives half-peeled lemon on pewter plates” in oil on panel from 1635, hit a record £956,750/$1,236,695 (est £600-800,000).
Another super-charged lot, and there weren’t that many, Sir Anthony van Dyck’s striking grisaille, as in black and white “Portrait of the engraver Jean-Baptist Barbe” in oil on panel, soared to £1,628,750/$2,105,322 (est. £200-300,000).
Earlier today at Sotheby’s Old Master and British Works on Paper auction, Canaletto’s superb and historic “The Coronation of the Doge on the Scala dei Giganti” made £2,633,750/$3,404,385 (est. £2.5-3.5 milion).
The artist’s record price for a work on paper made up for the stumble in the evening sale.
The evening Old Master action resumes at Christie’s on Thursday.