An important and large-scale oil on canvas, it drew a lively bidding contest lasting 14 minutes with three parties prepared to go over £30m. As the price rose in increments fluctuating between £500,000 and £250,000, two phone bidders competed against dealer Bob Haboldt who was in the room taking instructions from a client on his mobile phone.
“How much longer will this go on?” quipped Haboldt as the price reached £32m. The New York and Paris-based dealer ended up as the underbidder as the lot was eventually knocked down to a telephone buyer represented by Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art Francis Outred. The other phone bidder was operating through Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia who is based in Hong Kong.
“Hell of a Price”
There was a round of applause in the saleroom as the gavel came down. In terms of the highest prices ever fetched for an Old Master at auction, the sum was only behind the £45m seen for Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents which took £45m at Sotheby’s in July 2002.
The 6ft 2in x 7ft 5in (1.9 x 2.25m) oil on canvas from c.1613-14 was estimated ‘in excess of £20m’. Christie’s Global President and auctioneer on the night Jussi Pylkkänen said: “This result shows that when the right picture comes to auction, it can make a hell of a price.” He added that he had expected a sum in the region of £32m before the sale and was delighted to see it make more.
A number of dealers told ATG that they felt the painting had made a strong price.
London dealer Charles Beddington thought the price reflected the fact that there may never be another chance to acquire a work of this calibre by Rubens on the open market.
Tim Hunter, a former head of department at Christie’s and now senior business manager at art loan firm Falcon Fine Art said: “It’s a good moment for the market and shows that the best works are always in demand. I expected it to make £30m – I was only £10m out.”
He also said that The Massacre of the Innocents would likely fetch “an extraordinary price” if it was to appear on today’s market since it is widely regarded as the greater picture.
Lot and his Daughters came to auction from the descendants of railway entrepreneur Baron Maurice de Hirsch de Gereuth (1831-96) who acquired it from the collection of the Dukes of Marlborough. It also had earlier provenance a Governor-General of the Spanish Netherlands and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I.
Billed by the auctioneers as “an outstanding example of Rubens’ early maturity”, the auctioneers said it had been listed in all the major publications on the artist's work since 1766.
The subject explores the themes of vice and virtue through the Old Testament story of the incestuous seduction of a father by his two daughters. It was a favoured subject of Northern European artists including the likes of Lucas van Leyden, Jan Massys, Joachim Wtewael and Hendrick Goltzius, and it was one to which Rubens returned to at different points over his career.
The Four Seasons
The buyer of the Rubens also acquired further works at Christie’s sale. These included a set of The Four Seasons by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1636) dating from 1624. The group of four pictures was one of the last complete sets in private hands.
Offered together and estimated at £3m-5m, the pictures drew a three-way phone battle and were knocked down to Outred’s bidder at £5.7m.
Overall, the sale performed relatively well with the saleroom feeling more buoyant compared to Sotheby’s auction the previous night. Christie’s generated a premium-inclusive total of £65.4m – the presale estimate was £36.4m-54.9m – and 33 of the 44 lots sold (77%).
This added to the £23.8m that Christie’s made from traditional pictures at their ‘Defining British Art’ sale last week.
"Confidence is critical in the art market and this season we've seen no paucity of buyers," said Pylkkänen. "The London market found its feet and these auctions were as vibrant as sales I've taken in New York and Hong Kong."