Christie's Old Master auction
Christie’s auctioneer and global president Jussi Pylkkanen sells ‘Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation’ by DoménikosTheotokópoulos (known as El Greco). It was knocked down to a phone bidder for £5.9m at Christie’s Old Master evening sale.

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It came from the collection of Baltimore investor and collector Stanford Z. Rothschild, Jr. who died aged 91 earlier this year and had acquired it at Christie’s in December 1996 for £1.35m.

The source has provided Christie’s with 51 works in total which have been spread across different sales in November and December, and are expected to raise at least $30m overall. It included Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) Le Rio de la Salute which sold at Christie’s New York last month for $8.19m (£6.1m) including premium.

El Greco’s Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation was the most prominent Old Master among the Rothschild, Jr lots. It was estimated at £5m-7m and had been backed by a third-party guarantee, meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.

Devotional picture

El Greco's ‘Saint Francis and Brother Leo'

‘Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation’ by El Greco that sold for £5.9m at Christie’s Old Master evening sale.

The depiction of the two figures was a well known devotional composition for which the artist likely painted several versions. Examples painted by studio assistants and followers of the Cretan artist who settled in Spain also exist, with a number having appeared at auction in the last 30 years, tending to sell in the £20,000 range.

The 3ft 7in x 25in (1.1m x 65cm) oil on canvas here had been deemed a ‘workshop’ painting by two El Greco scholars in the mid 20th century but, having since had much of its 19th century overpaint removed, it was subsequently endorsed as the only surviving autograph version other than the ‘primary’ work now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Bringing competition between two telephone bidders and selling within estimate, the sum fetched at Christie’s was the second highest for an El Greco at auction, only behind the £8.1m for Saint Dominic In Prayer sold at Sotheby's London in July 2013.

Select sale

The sale itself was a slim affair with only 35 lots but it witnessed some lively bidding, including from bidders in the room, giving signs that plenty of life remains in the Old Master market – especially for works in good condition and pitched at relatively attractive levels.

Overall at the auction last night, 27 of the 35 lots sold (77%) for a premium-inclusive total of £21.8m.

Rembrandt's oval portrait of Petronella Buys took an above-estimate £2.8m bid from dealer Johnny Van Haeften who was in the room and saw off competition from two bidders on the phone.

Rembrandt portrait

Rembrandt portrait of Petronella Buys – £2.8m at Christie’s.

With further Dutch and Flemish pictures generating demand, the price of the night came for Bartholomäus Spranger’s (1546-1611) Mercury carrying Psyche to Mount Olympus, which far surpassed the previous record for the artist when it was knocked down at £2.8m on the phone. The estimate was £400,000-600,000 and it drew at least six bidders on the night.

Henry Pettifer, head of Christie’s Old Master paintings department said it was “one of the finest mannerist pictures to come to the market in recent memory”.

Bartholomäus Spranger

‘Mercury carrying Psyche to Mount Olympus’ by Bartholomäus Spranger – £2.8m at Christie’s.

The painting may well have originally been painted for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, but was later sold in a Berlin auction in 1933. It had been in the Munich gallery of the controversial Nazi-era dealer Wolfgang Gurlitt but was restituted to the heirs of Dr Curt Glaser in October this year.