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Sotheby's beat Christie's in the first big test of 2010: New York's Old Master sales.
The Old Master market held steady in New York last week. Total sales for Sotheby's and Christie's amounted to $104.4 million (£65.4 million), which was both within estimate and an improvement on last year.
The competition between the two houses, though, was one-sided. Christie's may have claimed the largest slice of the auction market in 2009, but it limped in far behind its old rival in the first big test of 2010.
After December's triumph in London, Christie's hopes were high. The prices achieved for Raphael, Rembrandt and Domenichino "galvanised the art market and renewed collector interest in this exciting field," said Nicholas Hall of Christie's before the sale, citing, in the same breath, works made 500 years apart, such as Francesco Granacci's majestic Madonna delle Cintola and Corot's rediscovered Evening Star, as part of the appeal of the newly merged Old Master and 19th-century sales. But Granacci's altarpiece sold well below its estimate and the Corot failed to attract any bids.
The whole sale, estimated to fetch at least $48 million, returned only $39.5 million. In its select morning sale, nearly half the lots failed to sell.
A batch of paintings had been consigned for sale by the Australian collector James Fairfax. The 77-year-old arts patron and former newspaper owner, who has galleries named after him in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is no stranger to the auction room, and provided Christie's with its star lot, an 1812 Parisian street scene full of incident by portrait painter Louis Leopold Boilly. Considered the artist's masterpiece, it was bought by the J Paul Getty Museum for a record $4.5 million. Other works from the Fairfax collection did not fare so well. Another early-19th-century painting, The Sleeping Shepherd by Samuel Palmer, was wonderfully rich and atmospheric but, estimated to fetch a record $2.5 million, it received no bids.
Christie's sales were so thin on Old Masters they even boasted several 20th-century works by British artists. A portrait by Sir William Orpen of his wife was more suited to an Impressionist sale, though it did fetch a handsome $1.4 million. And 19 paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings proved too many for the market to absorb in one go. Four sold below estimate and seven didn't sell at all.
A genuine Old Master did, however, provide the highlight of Christie's sale with a bidding battle over an 18th-century mythological painting of Diana and Callisto by Gaetano Gandolfi. Thought to have been commissioned by the Russian prince Nikolai Yusupov, the painting was lost to scholars until it was rediscovered in America last year. Estimated at $800,000, it soared to a record $4.1 million, paid by an anonymous private collector.
The only Rembrandt at these sales, due to be sold by Sotheby's, was withdrawn just before the sale, apparently at the owner's request. But even without the $8-12 million it was estimated to fetch, Sotheby's drummed up a far superior $61.6 million, with three quarters of the works finding buyers – all Old Masters.
Heading the week's prices was a pair of studies of a bearded man by van Dyck which, following the record-breaking self-portrait in London in December, fetched $7.2 million. Another 17th-century work, an erotic rendition of Ovid's tale of Jupiter and Antiope by the northern European Mannerist Hendrick Goltzius, had once been claimed by Hermann Göring and, only recently returned to its rightful owners, sold for a record $6.8 million.
Sotheby's had the best Italian view paintings of the week in the shape of a pair of small, early Venetian views by Canaletto from the collection of Gordon Getty, which sold for a double estimate figure of $3.9 million to London dealer Luca Baroni. They had the best Dutch landscape in a river view by Salomon van Ruysdael which sold to Richard Green for a triple estimate $3.3 million; the best Spanish painting – a portrait of Saint Dorothy by Zurbarán which fetched a record $4.2 million; and the most publicised picture of the week – a copy of a Leonardo painting that was once the subject of a famous court case, which sold for a triple estimate $1.5 million.
But even in the blaze of victory, it was clear that prices had not been running away. The Zurbarán only doubled the price it made 12 years ago, and other works by van Dyck, Claude Lorrain, and Antonio Joli were fetching the same prices they made between two and four years ago. Old Masters is still a stable market, though finding enough to hold a sale, as Christie's has discovered, can be problematic.
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