Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun
Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun that sold for $6.1m (£4.67m) at Sotheby’s New York. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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Estimated at $4m-6m, the imposing painting drew strong interest at the auction and sold to an anonymous buyer for a sum that not only surpassed the record for Vigée Le Brun but also “any female artist of the pre-modern era”, according to Sotheby’s.

The previous high for a female Old Master was the €1.85m (£1.63m) posted by Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria that sold at a Christophe Joron-Derem sale at the Hotel Drouot in Paris in December 2017 – a picture later sold the National Gallery in London for £3.6m by dealers Robilant + Voena.

The full-length portrait depicted Muhammad Dervish Khan, one of three ambassadors from the Kingdom of Mysore in India who came to Paris in July 1788 seeking the support of Louis XVI in an effort to drive the British out of India.

The presence of the ambassadors caused something of a sensation in Paris with their whereabouts reported almost daily in newspapers like the Journal de Paris.

Vigée Le Brun, who had risen to prominence in the French court as a portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, saw the Mysore ambassadors at the Opera and later recalled: “They appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them”.

After managing to secure the favour of King Louis to request a sitting, she painted Dervish Khan holding a curved sword and wearing an elegant muslin and gold-embroidered costume. The finished picture was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1789, not long before the artist fled France during the revolution.

The 7ft 5in x 4ft 8in (2.23 x 1.36m) signed oil on canvas came to Sotheby’s fresh to the market having last been offered at auction at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in April 1893. It had descended through the buyer’s family “until recently” according to the Sotheby’s catalogue.

It was deemed as one of the most important works by an artist who is now arguably the most widely recognised French female artist of the 18th century and who was the subject of a major exhibition at the Grand Palais and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016, in which this picture featured.

The portrait led the Sotheby’s Old Master evening auction on January 30 which posted an overall selling rate of 76% with 60 of the 79 lots finding buyers.

Additional records for female artists at the Sotheby's sale included Fede Galizia (c.1578-1630), Giulia Lama (1681-1747) and Angelika Kauffmann (c.1741-1807).

The latter’s portrait of three children of the Spencer family, one of them almost certainly Lady Georgiana Spencer, later Duchess of Devonshire, had previously sold at Christie's in London in June 2001 for a hammer price of £270,000. It had subsequently been sold by London dealer Richard Green to the Sotheby’s vendor.

Estimated here at £600,000-800,000, it was knocked down at $750,000 (£573,745).

The Female Triumphant

These record pictures were offered as part of a special assembly of works that Sotheby’s had titled ‘The Female Triumphant’. The group of 21 works by 14 artists from the 16th to 19th centuries was described by the auctioneers as “celebrating fearless and ground-breaking women artists of the pre-Modern era”.

The initiative continued Sotheby’s tie-up with Victoria Beckham, with some of the works exhibited at her Dover Street store in London and Beckham hosting a dinner at The Frick Collection in New York for the museum’s patrons and Sotheby’s clients.

Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham with a portrait of Lady Georgiana Spencer, Henrietta Spencer and George Viscount Althorp by Angelika Kauffman. Image courtesy of Victoria Beckham by Toby Coulson.

Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist Calvine Harvey said: “The number of Old Master female artists who succeeded and are known to us today remains incredibly few – in 2018, Sotheby’s sold only 14 works by female Old Masters, compared to 1100 male artists. It’s important to remember that the obstacles women artists of the pre-modern era faced were substantial, and those that broke down those barriers were truly triumphant.”

The staging of themed sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s has become a regular occurrence over the last five years, but ‘The Female Triumphant’ initiative would seem timely given the way gender issues are becoming an increasingly significant factor for the art world and art market.

Speaking before the January 30 sale, Harvey said: “Over the past five years and across the art world, both curators and collectors have been addressing the gender imbalance in their collections, actively investing in female artists who have historically been overlooked in scholarship and undervalued in the market relative to their male counterparts.

“It is our hope that shining a spotlight on these important artists will help to grow our knowledge of their work, expand scholarship, and deepen their impact on the ever-shifting trajectory of art history.”

It may also have been particularly timely for Sotheby’s given the firm has received some bad publicity in the last year relating to the MeToo movement – including the company’s gender pay gap in the UK showing that women earn 66p for every £1 that men earn, according to the mean average reported in the UK government’s pay gap service.

The buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s was 25/20/12.9%.