Art sales: Old Masters tot up £100m

Colin Gleadell on the London sales

With auction prices for contemporary art still somewhere in the stratosphere, it often felt like catch-up time at the Old Master sales in London last week.

The Misers was estimated at £100,000, but spiralled on trade competition to £2.1 million

Three drawings by Goya, for instance, unseen for more than 130 years, sold for a combined £4 million at Christie's. One of them tripled an 11-year-old record for a work on paper by selling for £2.3 million.

Also at Christie's, a small gem of a painting, La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau, lost for 200 years until discovered in an English country-house attic, soared past the previous £2.4 million record for the 18th-century French artist to sell to the London dealer Luca Baroni, bidding for a collector, for £12.4 million. This was also a record for any 18th-century French artist, but still not quite as much as a bulbous Jeff Koons flower sculpture fetched a week earlier.

At Sotheby's, the star of the sale was another rediscovery - a small but swaggering portrait of the textile merchant Willem van Heythuysen by the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals. Although the painting was not a rediscovery, its authorship was.

Sold four years ago at auction in Vienna as a work by a "follower of Frans Hals" for £350,000, it has since been fully attributed to Hals, and sold for £7.1 million, just short of the record set by a much larger painting by the artist. It was bought by London-based Australian dealer Richard Nagy for, he says, someone who collects contemporary art. "It's a wonderful painting," said Nagy after the sale. "It was cheaper than some small portraits by Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol, and it's a much rarer work by a 17th-century master. I thought it could go a lot higher."

advertisementAnother contemporary-art buyer was after a splendidly modern-looking 17th-century composition, The Bad Shepherd by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, at Christie's, and outbid Old Master dealer Johnny van Haeften to buy it for a double estimate £2.5 million.

The salerooms are always telling us how many new private buyers are coming into the market, and, yes, there may also have been some Russian bidding on a lustrous portrait by the 18th-century artist Pompeo Batoni of Count Kirill Grigorjewitsch Razumovsky, who rose from humble origins in the Ukraine to join the court of Empress Catherine II, which sold for a record £1.3 million.

A new American collector, one with a passion for horses no doubt, may also have bought a Stubbs horse painting in questionable condition for £337,250 and a painting of a rearing stallion, only recently given, but not without dispute, to the hand of Van Dyck, which sold for a record £3 million.

However, Old Master sales are still driven by a hard-core of knowledgeable dealers, bidding for stock. At Sotheby's, which had the best selection of 17th-century Dutch paintings, Richard Green paid a record £3.5 million (nearly double the previous record) for a joyful riverside scene with dancing figures by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Van Haeften bought seven Dutch paintings in the sale, including an atmospheric scene of figures skating through a snow storm by Aert van der Neer for which he paid a record £2.7 million.

The big surprises, though, came for early Netherlandish and Italian paintings. The Misers, one of many known versions of Marinus van Reymerswaele's 16th-century Tax Gatherers in the National Gallery, was estimated at £100,000, but spiralled on trade competition to £2.1 million because of the sheer quality of the paintwork rather than any supposition about who the artist may have been. A wonderfully expressive portrait of an elderly man by the 16th-century mannerist painter Tintoretto also soared to a five-times-estimate record £1.6 million, selling to dealer Baroni.

British art had its moments, too. At Christie's, an oil sketch of the artist's mother by Sir Thomas Lawrence, estimated at £40,000, sold to New York dealers French & Co for £373,250. A rare early painting by Turner, Pope's Villa on the Thames at Twickenham, was perhaps too classical and reserved for today's tastes and sold on its low estimate to a single bid from a private collector for £5.4 million at Sotheby's. However, it was the second-highest price on record for an oil painting by Turner.

At the final count, the £100 million sales for the week was on a par with last year's Old Master sales, revealing a discriminating but robust market at work, but still a long way short of the £260 million realised a week earlier for contemporary art.
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