Grime stars: paintings set new records for Domenico Ghirlandaio and Jan Davidsz de Heem despite being covered in dirt

Grime stars: paintings set new records for Domenico Ghirlandaio and Jan Davidsz de Heem despite being covered in dirt

Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Salvator Mundi
Courtesy of Christie’s

New auction records were set for the Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Dutch Golden Age artist Jan de Heem tonight at Christie’s Old Masters evening sale in London.

Both were in filthy—though not bad—condition, but being fresh to the market they proved very attractive to bidders.

Ghirlandaio’s recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi blitzed the previous record for a work by the 15th-century painter ($154,250 for Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels at Sotheby’s New York, 2001) selling for £1.8m (£2.2m with fees) six times the estimate of £300,000 to £500,000. The recently rediscovered work had been in the same family’s collection since 1955. After inciting a bidding war, it sold tonight to Francois de Poortere’s phone bidder in New York.

“Well done Francois, you got your Salvator Mundi in the end,” quipped auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, referring back to November 2017 when de Poortere was bidding on behalf of the underbidder (reportedly the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism) of that $450m Salvator Mundi.

Matthew Landrus, a supernumerary fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, thinks the “remarkably rare” Ghirlandaio the “most noteworthy painting of the evening”. The Florentine, he says, was among the finest painters of the last quarter of the 15th century and: “The small tempera and oil on panel (13 x 9 in.) is one of only a small number of panel paintings to survive from his studio.” Landrus thinks the £2.2m price paid was a “bargain rate”.

In the post-sale press conference, Henry Pettifer, the head of Christie’s Old Masters department, described the oil on panel as a “tantalising Renaissance painting”. Despite being “very very dirty”, Pettifer said “to see that sort of competition on a painting like that was very encouraging”. Clementine Sinclair, the head of Christie’s Old Masters evening sale, added: “There’s a discoloured layer of varnish but also I think maybe a heavy smoker had owned the painting at one point—but I think everyone is in agreement that it’s in really beautiful condition underneath.”

Jan Davidsz de Heem’s A banquet still life
Courtesy of Christie’s

Landrus points to another “exceptional panel painting” in the sale, a Holy Family by Francesco Zaganelli da Cotignola (1470/80-1532). This is, Landrus says, “one of his best, highly original compositions, albeit heavily restored.” As he adds, when a bidder requested an unusual bid increment of £515,000, Pylkkanen asked: “Is that the train to Birmingham?'” It was the winning bid.

The top lot of the sale was another record-breaker—the Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Davidsz de Heem’s big, ballsy vanitas, all tumbling grapes and gorged-upon pies. A dynamic still-life, but again covered in filth as two cleaned patches showed. Estimated at £4m to £6m, it sold for a record £4.8m (£5.6m with fees) in the room to the art advisor Wentworth Beaumont of Beaumont Nathan, presumably bidding on behalf of a client.

“The Jan Davidsz de Heem was arguably the most significant northern still-life painting to come onto the market in a generation,” Pettifer said in a statement. “This also represents the highest price (in GBP) achieved for any still-life painting in the Old Master category.”

The auction’s “crown jewel”, in Landrus’s eyes, was the Milanese artist Bernadino Luini’s The Nativity, with the Journey to Egypt (est. £3m-£5m) but this was withdrawn at the seller’s request just before the sale along with two other works. The Luini has been in the same private collection since the early-19th century and it seems it might remain in it a little longer.

“Early 16th century Flemish St Barbara paintings like the Holy Family with Saints Catherine and Barbara by the so-called Master of the Plump-Cheeked Madonnas, deserve much more attention, for the way in which they combined Flemish and Milanese approaches to figural groups,” Landrus says, referring to the Holy Family scene which sold for a double estimate £300,000 (with fees) to a bidder in Malaysia against interest in London and Latvia.

Landrus also points to active bidding for a Portrait of a lady by Bartolomé González y Serrano, which quadrupled its minimum estimate of £50,000: “As a painter for King Philip III of Spain, Serrano’s work rarely left the country, so this was a rare opportunity to obtain one of his best paintings for only £237,500 (with fees).” He adds that, although not rare, “an exquisite flower painting by Rachel Ruysh was, as usual, in high demand, selling, after dozens of bids, for £412,500 (with fees) well over the three times the minimum estimate.”

Another highlight for Landrus was a late 15th century, Hispano-Flemish alabaster sculpture of a bishop which sold for over three times its minimum estimate at £350,000 (with fees). “It’s gentle and fluid character is extraordinary, and it is in unusually pristine condition,” he says.

The 44-lot sale totalled £22.8m (with fees, est. £17.2m to £26.2m), with 38 lots sold (86%). That is only just lower than the £24.2m achieved in the equivalent Christie’s sale last year, which also contained 44 lots and was 86% sold by lot.

The evening was the first time Christie’s had a televised Old Master sale, featuring a live link with New York, Pettifer said. Sinclair added: “It was notable that the top lots were very fresh to the market and that really excites our buyers.”

Last week, 10 December, Sotheby’s 23-lot Old Masters evening sale achieved £10.6m (with fees, est. £9.5m-£14.4m), topped by David Teniers the Younger’s monumental The Wine Harvest, which had previously hung in Firle Place, Sussex, and sold for £3.6m.

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