Old Masters in New York…


Italian Baroque, Nordic Renaissance and 18th century English landscapes… Old Master connoisseurs will be this week studying the rarities soon to be offered in New York. Carracci, Guercino, Fra Bartolomeo, de Ribera, Constable, among others… Christie’s Old Masters exhibition opens on 25 April, leaving less than a week for potential bidders to approach the works before they are auctioned on 1 May. The sale will offer a total of 45 lots ranging from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The oldest work…

The oldest work in the sale is a tondo depicting Isaiah’s face against a golden background measuring 19.7 cm in diameter. The prophet points his finger at a phylactery indicating ECCE VI [R] GO CO [N] CIP [IET AND PARIET FILIUM] (Behold, a virgin will conceive, and carry a son). The work is by Lorenzo MONACO, a major Florentine artist born around 1370 and who died between 1425 and 1430. His works are extremely rare on the secondary market with only nine works appearing in the last 30 years, including this one, which already fetched $492,250 in 1987 at a Sotheby’s sale in London. The collector who bought it has preserved the work with extreme care and is probably looking at a capital gain of $1 to 2 million!

The highest bid…

The sale’s most dearly estimated work depicts a 16th century Flemish interior with a wealthy couple playing backgammon under the watchful eye of a green parrot on one side… and a large plate of fruit on the other. Painted by Jan Sanders VAN HEMESSEN in 1532, this intimist and psychological portrait has an ‘in action’ feel about it. Measuring 111 x 129 cm, Double portrait of a husband and wife, half-length, seated at a table, playing tables is undoubtedly a masterpiece, one of the finest van Hemessen canvases ever to be sold publicly. Indeed, Christies is hoping to hammer a new record for the artist with a pre-sale estimate ranging from $4 to 6 million.

A double-sided work by Constable

The estimate of $800,000 – $1.2 million for a rapidly painted landscape (with a palette knife) by John CONSTABLE may seem optimistic considering the last Constable oil-on-panel of similar dimensions sold for just $375,000 on January 30 (Summer Evening with Storm Clouds, Sotheby’s NY). But lot n°32 has “something extra”: a second painting on the back of the panel depicting a profile-view of a white cow, its legs in water, standing out in front of bushy trees. According to specialists, both front and back were painted in the open air, but several years apart. The double-sided work is therefore a valuable ‘document’ for absolute Constable’s fans… hence the price estimate reaching beyond one million dollars.

Enchanting vanity by Guercino

It has everything: sand flowing in an hourglass, the ephemeral beauty of the flowers, the reflection of the fragile glass vases, a human skull looking at us like a mirror. Two large empty orbits, another gap for two missing teeth… Death sitting on a thick book, its weight crushing the vanity of human knowledge. Moreover, this superb Memento Mori is the only known still life by GUERCINO (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Buyers are expected to bid beyond $2 million dollars and make this jewel one of the three most expensive works by the artist, despite its modest dimensions (30.8 x 38.5 cm, A vanitas still life with a skull atop a book, an hourglass and two glass vases of flowers).

An Old Master for less than US$5,000?

Not all the lots in this sale are expected to fetch 7-digit results; far from it. Whereas nine of the 45 lots are expected to pass the million mark (according to the estimates provided), another two have low estimates at $40,000. One is a Bacchanal scene by the 17th century Swiss artist Joseph Werner II, and the other – the last lot in the sale – is a portrait of Lieutenant John Abercrombie painted in 1754 by the English portraitist Allan Ramsay.

On the same day (1 May) Christie’s is organising another session (Old Master Paintings and Sculpture) with 162 lots, offering plenty of opportunities for acquisitions at lower prices. Several works have estimates under $5,000, including a seascape by Jan Verbruggen, a farm scene by Johann Jakob Biedermann and a church interior by Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg. In short, good quality Old Master artworks are not just for the financial elite…