Apollo Magazine (UK)
Susan Moore previews Old Master auctions in New York and reviews Asian art sales in London
It is invariably a case of feast or famine at the Old Master sales. New York in January offers a feast. Sotheby’s boasts paintings by two of the greatest and most famous of all artists: Sandro Botticelli and Rembrandt van Rijn. The former’s Young Man Holding a Roundel of c. is one of only a dozen or so surviving portraits by the Florentine master, and it is hard to imagine a Renaissance portrait more to contemporary taste (Fig. ). It posseses the kind of hard-edged clarity that has beguiled many a contemporary art collector into buying portraits or genre scenes from the th or th centuries, but its trump card is the radiant and slightly androgynous beauty of the unknown sitter himself.
A clue to his identity must lie in the small roundel he is so pointedly presenting to us. It is a device that Botticelli used elsewhere, namely in the Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’Medici in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Unlike that medal, however, which is fashioned in gilded pastiglia in imitation of an existing bronze and set into the panel, this one is a roundel of a bearded saint which must have come from a real thcentury altarpiece, possibly by the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini. Its enigma only adds to the portrait’s allure.
Also adding to it, presumably, for those bidders for whom this panel is intended, is its estimate in excess of m. The J. Paul Getty Museum may have narrowly missed out on the acquisition of Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents – for many years the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold at auction when it was acquired by Lord Thomson of Fleet in
for . m ( . m) – but the buyer in this case, in these times, is unlikely to be a Western museum. This is a rich man’s trophy, and it could end up anywhere. Such is the Salvator Mundi effect that an Old Master that was purchased in for , can now return to the market less than years later with expectations of times that amount. It is, crucially, a work that also survives in nearperfect condition, which is not the case with the Leonardo; nor is it the case with Botticelli’s portrait of the humanist scholar Michele Marullo Tarchaniota, shown by Trinity Fine Art at Frieze Masters in , a painting subject to export restrictions and priced at m. For all its subtleties, however, this painting, unlike other Botticelli portraits, does not seem to offer any piercing psychological insight.
Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels ( ) may not have the wall power of the Botticelli – hardly possible given its diminutive scale of just cm wide – but it does have the emotional intensity commensurate to a moment of divine revelation. The artist’s interpretation of a key Old Testament passage comprises a night scene with an angel – initially disguised as one of three travellers – announcing to a very aged Abraham and Sarah that she will conceive and give birth to a son, Isaac. This miraculous news is expressed in gesture and light. Such is the artist’s concern with the narrative detail of the moment that the other still-supping guests are at different points in their divine transformation: the wings are still unfurled behind the figure in human garb in front of us. The centrepiece of a small exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York in , the painting now returns to auction for the first time since , when it fetched
; now it bears an estimate of m– m and, unlike the Botticelli, a guarantee.
Estate sales from two very different New York apartments add to the mix. At Central Park West, Hester Diamond – whose collection was featured in Apollo in June 2011 – was rare in combining Old Master paintings and sculpture with 21st-century design. The top lot of the $30m sale is a work by Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. This personification of Autumn dates from the time when the 18-year-old Gian Lorenzo was still working in his father’s studio, and is one of only a few sculptures by father and son to remain in private hands. Made for one of their early patrons in Rome, Prince Leone Strozzi, this figure is full of life and movement, twisting to pluck fruit from a tree. It is expected to fetch $8m–$12m at Sotheby’s on 28 January.
Christie’s, meanwhile, offers the collection of the one-time ‘king of Wall Street’ John H. Gutfreund and his wife Susan, formerly housed in their 20-room duplex at 834 Fifth Avenue. This opulent profusion – enough for a two-day live sale on 26–27 January, staged alongside three online auctions – offers richly inlaid French and Russian neoclassical furniture and applied arts often incorporating spectacular semi-precious materials such as coral, kalkan jasper and pink orletz rhodonite. Presiding over all this is a sumptuously dressed and contemporary-looking Mary Magdalene of 1571 by Jan Massys (estimate $120,000–$180,000).
It is a strong season for Old Master drawings too. Two works stand out. A market rarity at Sotheby’s live sale on 27 January is Anthony van Dyck’s An Old Bearded Man Carrying a Bundle, a monumental study for the lame man healed by Christ in The Healing of the Paralytic, painted c. 1618–20 when Van Dyck was Rubens’ chief assistant. Rubensian in conception and execution, it is drawn in the trois crayons technique of black, red and white chalks (estimate $2.5m–$3.5m). Christie’s online offering, from 14–26 January, unveils Jean-Étienne Liotard’s pastel Portrait of Philibert Cramer (Fig. 2). Along with his brother Gabriel, Cramer was the official publisher of Voltaire, who referred to the Genevois as ‘Le Prince’ on account of his charm, good looks and ambition. His intelligence and determination are evident in this portrait, which is consigned by his direct descendants, and survives in outstanding condition in its original frame with period glass ($400,000–$600,000).
Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was an exceptional artist by any standard, and his extraordinary drawings have gained critical acclaim unbounded by the Mexican’s initial labelling as an ‘outsider artist’. Arguably the most compelling are the abstracted architectural images or undulating landscapes built up through the rhythmic repetition of curves that ultimately derive from the six years he spent labouring on the Californian railroads before he was institutionalised in 1931. The much-exhibited Untitled (Tunnels and Train) of 1950 is one such work, executed in graphite and crayon on two sheets of joined brown paper bag. It now emerges from a private collection as a highlight of Christie’s ‘Outside and Vernacular Art’ sale on 21 January (estimate $40,000–$80,000).