The vast collection of the late Dr Gustav Rau provided the top lot of London’s latest series of Old Master auctions as a portrait by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) took a record £15.2m at Bonhams.
The picture of the high-ranking French aristocrat and general François-Henri d'Harcourt was knocked down to an anonymous phone bidder at the New Bond Street sale for a sum that represented a major new high for the Rococo painter. Dating from 1769, it was one of a series of 14 'fantasy portraits' by Fragonard, of which eight are now in the Louvre and only two remain in private hands.
This example had remained in the collection of the d'Harcourt family until it was sold at Sotheby's in 1971, where Dr Rau had purchased it for £340,000. Here the estimate was 'on request' but reported to be a minimum of £15m.
While the picture was one of the works which helped the artist acquire his reputation, the image has been a familiar sight to Londoners over the last few months having featured as the centrepiece for the auction house's tube and taxi adverts announcing the reopening of their Bond Street saleroom following its £30m redevelopment.
The tranche of the Rau collection being sold at Bonhams made for a separately-staged 85-lot sale in New Bond Street on December 5. Aside from the Fragonard the other main highlights were a 15th century panel of the Crucifixion by an unknown German artist that fetched £900,000 and a Camille Pissarro landscape that made £260,000. Forty-four works got away (52%) for a hammer total of £17.1m.
Overall the Rau consignments have seen 533 works split between Bonhams, Sotheby's and Lempertz of Cologne with the proceeds going to UNICEF Germany, to whom Rau had bequeathed his extraordinary collection. A statement from UNICEF said the lots were divided up between the three salerooms after putting out a call for tenders and selecting the companies on the basis of their "convincing and favourable terms".
The same source had also provided the top lot of the Capital's last Old Master series in July when El Greco's (1541-1614) Saint Dominic in Prayer took £8.1m at Sotheby's.
Meanwhile, Sotheby's Old Master and British paintings evening sale on December 4 was led by a pair of Canaletto (1697-1768) paintings of Venice that came from the HSBC corporate art collection. Having previously sold in the same rooms in December 1997 for £3.5m, when they had been bought by Lebanese banker Edmond Safra, they had changed hands as part of the deal that saw HSBC acquire Safra's holding company two years later.
The 18¼in x 2ft 6in (47 x 77cm) oils on canvas from c.1738-42 depicted two of the most famous Venice views: the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. Estimated at £8m-12m, they attracted three phone bids and sold to a European private buyer at £8.5m.
Another picture that drew strong phone interest was a Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) portrait which saw four bidders take it over a £400,000-600,000 estimate before it was sold to a North American private buyer at £2.8m.
One of 13 works from a Spanish collection at the sale, it had previously been sold a decade ago for a premium-inclusive €17,625 (£12,320) at Christie's Paris where it was catalogued as 'circle of' Rubens. However, after being subjected to recent technical analysis, it had its attribution upgraded and also a link established to Diego Velázquez via the x-radiograph of the work which showed a picture in the style of the Spanish master lay beneath the surface.
Less competition though emerged on the night for three Victorian pictures from the Leverhulme Collection which were offered as the last lots of the sale.
While James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot's (1836-1902) A Visit to the Yacht and William Holman Hunt's (1827-1910) Tuscan Girl Plaiting Straw were unsold against estimates of £2m-3m and £3-5m respectively, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's (1828-1882) A Christmas Carol was knocked down on low estimate to a Russian buyer on the phone. However, the £4m price was still a significant auction record for the artist, topping the £2.85m for Proserpine at Sotheby's in November.
Following the sale, it has now been announced that the Tissot has since sold privately to a US private buyer for a price within estimate, while the department has also received serious interest in the Holman Hunt.
Claude at Christie's
Leading the evening sale of Old Master & British Paintings at Christie's on December 3 was Claude Lorrain's (1600-82) painting A Mediterranean port at sunrise with the Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem.
Part of the Smith family's collection at Hambleden Manor, Buckinghamshire, the 3ft 4in x 4ft 5in (1.01 x 1.35cm) oil on canvas had previously been withdrawn from a Christie's South Kensington sale in July where it had been catalogued as 'after' Claude Lorrain and estimated at £15,000-25,000. Re-appearing here four months later with a full attribution to him and the estimate bumped up to £3m-5m, it drew a battle between two phone bidders and sold at £4.45m. The price was an auction record for the artist, something which reflected the fact that major works by Claude have not appeared on the open market in recent times.
The second highest price of the evening came for Man with a Sword, a painting ascribed to 'Rembrandt (1606-69) and Studio' but which had twice sold at Sotheby's New York in 1989 and 1996 as the work of fellow Dutch artist Govaert Flinck (1615-60).
Christie's submitted the work to Ernst van Wetering, the authority on Rembrandt, and it was deemed that 'the original concept' for the picture as well as the painterly qualities of the head, hair, the left hand and black cape suggested Rembrandt's authorship. The signature Rembrandt 1644 was also found to be contemporaneous with the rest of the picture rather than later.
While the studio appears to have adapted the portrait into a more generic historical character study, these features were no doubt the reason that three phone bidders, including one from Asia, competed for the work against a £2m-3m estimate. It was eventually knocked down to an anonymous buyer at £2.2m.
Overall, the 46-lot sale at Christie's made a total of £18.5m, slightly below the presale estimate of £18.6m-28.9m with 33 of the 46 lots (72%) getting away.
This helped the hammer total for the Old Masters sales from the three salerooms to £70.8m. This was slightly above the equivalent series last year which posted £68.8m (which included a £26.5m Raphael drawing at Sotheby's).
The buyer's premium at Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams was 25/20/12%.