Strong competition for a number of key works gave a major lift to the latest round of Old Master auctions in London.
While some of the lesser material on offer met with flatter
demand, certain pictures seemed to benefit from both greater
international interest as well as some crossover bidding from
buyers who usually focus on other sectors.
This was particularly the case at
Sotheby's evening sale last night as bidders from 33 countries
participated in the auction, the highest ever at one their Old
Master sales. The star lot of the night was El Greco's
(1541-1614) Saint Dominic in Prayer, a powerful
and expressive example of his many devotional pictures of
The 2ft 6in x 23in (75 x 58cm) oil on canvas had never been
offered at auction before and came from the collection of the late
Dr Gustav Rau whose collection is being sold to benefit UNICEF
Germany. It was estimated at £3m-5m.
Few such works remain in private hands and, on the night, it
duly attracted three interested parties on the telephone. As the
bidding reached £7.1m, the saleroom staff at the front of the room
had to scramble as the phone line of the eventual buyer was
temporarily lost. Meanwhile the unflappable auctioneer Henry
Wyndham quipped from the rostrum: "Don't worry, I'm here all
With the phone line restored, the painting was eventually
knocked down at £8.1m to the aforementioned buyer who was operating
through a Russia-speaking member of Sotheby's client services
The price was a record for El Greco, beating the
premium-inclusive £3.5m seen for Christ on the Cross back
in July 2000 at Sotheby's London which was bought by the Getty
Sotheby's co-chairman of Old Master paintings Alex Bell said
after the sale that the current picture "drew bidding beyond the
traditional Old Master Market" and confirmed that there had also
been underbidding from Asia.
"We're now firmly in a new era where clients from new markets
are collecting Old Masters in new ways," he said. "Our response has
been to offer the most exciting and diverse works we can find - and
to present them a more contemporary way."
Another El Greco at Sotheby's was also knocked down to a
Russia-speaking client. It was in fact another version of
Christ on the Cross although around twice the size of the
work they sold in the same room back in 2000. The current picture
came to auction from descendants of the Spanish artist Ignacio
Zuloaga but, with bidders clearly favouring the Saint Dominic
picture which was the more arresting image, this example sold at a
Elsewhere at Sotheby's, a number of other works made impressive
prices. Among the eight artists' records was the £4.7m seen for
A View of Avignon by Claude-Joseph Vernet
(1714-1789) which drew interest on the phone but sold to a
buyer in the room.
A handsome vista from 1757, it was the artist's only recorded
view of his birthplace. The 3ft 3in x 6ft (99cm x 1.83m) oil on
canvas showed the Papal Palace of Avignon, the medieval walls and
the ruins of the 12th century Pont Saint-Bénezet to the left.
Consigned by an English vendor whose father had bought it from
London dealers Arthur Tooth & Sons in the 1950s, it was in
excellent condition and was estimated at £3m-5m.
The previous high for Vernet was a seascape which made $6.2m
(£4.1m) at Sotheby's New York in January 2011.
Among a number of Dutch golden age paintings doing well was a
still life by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). Estimated
at £1m-1.5m, the 2ft 11in x 2ft 4in (89 x 71cm) oil on canvas from
1710 was a particularly fine example with exuberant roses, tuilips
and other flowers as well as a butterfly on one of the stems and a
bee in the sunflower. When originally commissioned, the artist had
been paid a substantial 1300 guilders for the picture, while when
it last it sold at auction at Christie's in 1912 it made 200
On the night, it drew two bidders in the room and one on the
phone, selling to a UK dealer at £1.4m. The price was a record for
a Ruysch and also for an Old Master by a female artist.
Overall, Sotheby's sale saw 37 of the 47 lots sold (79%) and
generated a hammer total of £30.1m which was well within the
£23.4m-36.8m presale estimate.
Canaletto in Demand
Things were a bit tougher going at
Christie's sale the night before as the £20.4m hammer total was
below the £29.5m-44.6m presale estimate. Here, 36 of the 52 lots
The results would have looked much better had the top rated
picture, Jan Steen's (1626-1679) Easy Come,
Easy Go, managed to get away. The interior scene failed to
draw a single bid against a hefty-looking estimate of £7m-10m
although the auctioneers insisted afterwards that their pitch was
in line with another large-scale Steen which had sold privately to
the Rijksmuseum roughly nine years ago.
The auction was led by a Canaletto (1697-1768)
view of Venice which drew decent interest against a £4m-6m estimate
and was eventually knocked down to an anonymous phone bidder at
The Molo, Venice, from the Bacino di San Marco was one
of the artist's glittering verdute and this 2ft 3in x 3ft 9in (69cm
x 1.13m) oil on canvas was deemed as good a work by the artist to
have appeared at auction since a number of top quality examples
came up in 2005 (including the record view of the Grand Canal that
took £16.6m at Sotheby's).
Elsewhere at Christie's and showing the selectivity of the
market, two works by Lucas Cranach the Elder
(1472-1553) met with contrasting fates. While a portrait
of Cardinal Albert von Brandenburg (depicted as St Jerome) found no
takers against a £1.5m-2m estimate, the signed oil on panel
Christ on the Cross drew a strong telephone competition
against a £500,000-800,000 pitch selling to a European dealer at
As for the portraits at the sale, a Peter Paul Rubens
(1577-1640) painting of a bearded man got away on low
estimate to a telephone buyer at £1.5m but two English portraits
generated much better bidding.
Sir Thomas Lawrence's (1769-1830) half-length
depiction of Emily, Lady Berkeley was an early work which was
exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791. The 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (77 x
64cm) oil on canvas was billed as a "vivacious and alluring
portrait" which epitomised the qualities that underpinned
Lawrence's meteoric career and established him the dominant force
in British portraiture at the time.
It came completely fresh to the market and, in terms of its
condition, it was very well preserved. Estimated at
£400,000-600,000, it sold at £750,000 to an American private buyer
bidding on the phone.
A few lots later an even stronger competition came for
George Romney's (1734-1802) half length portrait
of Elizabeth Ramus. Another striking painting of an attractive
subject (and an even more youthful one), the 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (76
x 64cm) oil on canvas came from the collection of Lord and Lady
Hambleden and was appearing at auction for the first time since
Four bidders here were in contention, including the eventual
buyer who was on the telephone and dramatically drove the bidding
up in increments of £50,000. Eventually knocked down at £450,000,
it fetched the second highest price for the artist at auction, only
behind the $690,000 (£485,060) seen for Romney's portrait of Lady
Sullivan sold at Sotheby's New York in January 2002.
The buyer's premium at both Sotheby's and Christie's was