Bernardo Bellotto at Sotheby’s
‘Dresden, A View of the Moat of the Zwinger’ by Bernardo Bellotto – £4.6m at Sotheby’s.

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1. Andrea Mantegna’s Triumph

Andrea Mantegna drawing

A rare preparatory study by Andrea Mantegna – $10m (£7.7m) at Sotheby’s.

One of the most prominent Old Masters sold at auction in 2020 came early on in the year as a rare Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) preparatory study appeared at Sotheby’s Old Master drawings sale in New York on January 29.

Part of the artist’s famed ‘Triumphs’ series now on display at Hampton Court Palace, it was one of only 20 known drawings by Mantegna, with all bar two in museums.

The study had an undisclosed estimate ‘in excess of $12m’ at Sotheby’s but was eventually knocked down at $10m (£7.7m). It was nonetheless a landmark sum for an Old Master drawing (the fifth highest of all time and the most expensive sold in the US). The result helped Sotheby’s achieve its highest ever total for an Old Master drawings sale at $15.1m (£11.6m).

2. Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte portrait

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte by Marie-Victoire Lemoine – $310,000 (£238,700) at Doyle in New York.

A large and imposing portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, the younger sister of Napoleon, overshot a $40,000-70,000 estimate and sold for $310,000 (£238,700) at Doyle in New York on February 5.

The lifesize picture shows the sitter, who was later known as Pauline Borghese (1780-1825), at the age of 19.

The 6ft 5in x 4ft 6in (1.9 x 1.4m) oil was painted by Marie-Victoire Lemoine (1754-1820), an artist who specialised in portraits and genre scenes. It was signed M Vic Lemoine on the pilaster lower right and set a significant auction record for the artist.

The work was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1799 under the anonymous title Une jeune femme appuyée sur le bord d’une croisée (a young woman leaning on the edge of a window). It was then thought to have been given by the sitter to her brother Joseph Bonaparte, Comte de Survilliers and and came with him to the US when he moved to Bordentown, New Jersey.

At the time the portrait was painted, Pauline was married to the French general Charles Leclerc who later died of yellow fever on a military expedition to Haiti. In 1803 she married the Roman prince Camillo Borghese, and thereafter lived as an Italian noblewoman in the Villa Paolina in Rome.

3. Albrecht Dürer engraving

Albrecht Durer engraving

'The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve)', an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1504 – €430,000 (£390,000) at Grisebach.

On July 9, a lifetime impression of The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve) – perhaps Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) best-known engraving – sold for a record €430,000 (£390,000) in Germany.

Adam and Eve was made in 1504 as something of a ‘calling card’ ahead of Dürer’s second visit to Venice. He took an unusual amount of care in its creation and chose to sign it boldly with his full name and birthplace. A tablet hanging from the mountain ash branch that Adam holds in his right hand reads Albert Dvrer Noricvs Faciebat 1504.

The example offered by Grisebach in Berlin was the third state (or Meder 3a) made within the artist’s lifetime. The paper includes the large bull’s head watermark common to most Dürer prints made before c.1520. This copy was described as superbly preserved with a strong, clear and rich image.

Exceeding an estimate of €80,000-120,000, the price was a new high for a copy of the print and the second-highest sum at auction for any Dürer print (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

The buyer was a British collector.

4. Restituted view of Dresden

Bernardo Bellotto at Sotheby’s

‘Dresden, A View of the Moat of the Zwinger’ by Bernardo Bellotto – £4.6m at Sotheby’s.

As with previous years, restitutions remained an important source of market-fresh consignments in the Old Master market in 2020.

One of the leading examples sold this year was a view of Dresden painted by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-80), the Venetian artist who was the nephew of Canaletto (1697-1768). The work had been restored to the family of its original Jewish owner, the retail magnate and art collector Max Emden, and appeared at Sotheby’s on July 28 with a £3m-4m estimate.

Emden died in 1940 but, after the Second World War, the Dresden painting entered the German federal government collection and was hung from the 1960s onward in the residence of successive German presidents in Bonn for many decades thereafter. It was returned in 2019 by the German government to Emden’s heirs.

The work from c.1758 shows the moat of the Zwinger, a palatial Baroque complex in Dresden which is probably the city’s most famous building. The 19in x 2ft 8in (48 x 80cm) oil on canvas relates to a larger painting for which Bellotto was commissioned by Augustus III (1696- 1763), son of the Elector of Saxony.

At Sotheby’s, the painting generated a good bidding battle and was knocked down at £4.6m – price that stands third highest for the artist (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

5. ‘A record for an Old Master still life’

Jan Davidsz de Heem still life

Banquet still-life by Jan Davidsz de Heem – £4.8m at Christie’s.

A fine banquet still-life by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606- 84) led the series of Old Master auctions in London in December.

Offered at Christie’s evening sale on December 15, the 5ft 1in x 6ft 11in (1.55 x 2.11m) canvas was one of the artist’s largest works from his early Antwerp period – generally regarded as a highpoint in his career.

It was one of four canvases from 1640-43 inspired by the monumental kitchen still-lifes of Frans Snyders. It re-emerged at Christie’s from a private English collection where it had been since the 19th century.

Estimated at £4m-6m, it drew competition from bidders on the phone and in the room and was eventually knocked down at £4.8m. Christie’s head of Old Master pictures Henry Pettifer said the result represented the highest price (in sterling) for any Old Master still-life.