Depicting the mouth of the Grand Canal and the Doge’s Palace from the Bacino, the paintings dated from c.1733 and were considered both ‘prime period’ and ‘prime location’ in terms of the artist’s canon of work. They also came fresh to the market with a sense of rediscovery and were described by Christie’s as in excellent condition.
The works were unpublished and previously unknown to scholars but were very much in keeping with the vedute Canaletto painted for the tourist market after 1720. Measuring 18.5in x 2ft 7in (47 x 78cm), they were smaller than some of the canvases the artist painted across his career but the smaller size often reflected the fact that pictures were intended to be rolled up so they could be shipped more easily.
It was thought the current works were components of a set of four canvases commissioned by the Duke of Bedford’s sister, Elizabeth Countess of Essex, with Joseph Smith, the merchant, collector and later consul in Venice, acting as agent. They remained in the Countess’ family until a Christie’s sale in 1777 and later were part of the collection of Donald James Cumberlege Glass (1881-1944) of Ringmer Park, Lewes, Sussex, a descendant of whom consigned them to Christie’s for the current sale.
Estimated at £8m-12m at the auction on December 7, Christie’s arranged a third party guarantee ahead of the auction. On the day, two interested parties competed for the lot – a commission bidder against a rival on the phone operating through Francois De Poortere, Christie’s head of the Old Master paintings department in New York. It was eventually knocked down to the latter at £8.2m.
Overall the sale raised a £21.9m total including buyers’ fees.
Pylkkänen's final sale
With the current series of ‘Classic Week’ auctions being the last conducted by Christie’s global president and lead auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen before he leaves to become an independent art advisor, the Old Master sale ended with a standing ovation for the Christie’s veteran who has been with the firm for 38 years.
Pylkkänen has sold many of the most valuable lots at Christie’s over the last three decades and no auctioneer’s gavel has knocked down more overall value in the modern market. Pylkkänen’s career highlights include the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi which sold at $400m in New York in 2017 – the highest price for any artwork sold at auction.
After selling the final lot at the Old Master sale he was presented with a gift on behalf of colleagues – a cartoon showing him on the Christie’s rostrum with the caption: “Hang on, I thought I was the icon round here”.
His final auction came later in the evening when he conducted the opening section of the dedicated sale of Rembrandt prints from the Sam Josefowitz collection. His wife and children were present at the front row of the saleroom to watch him sign off from the rostrum for the final time.