Christie's King Street

Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen sells The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress by Michael Sweerts for a record £10.7m.

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The top lot in particular was highly contested: a previously unpublished work by Flemish painter Michael Sweerts (1618-64).

Described as a ‘signal masterpiece’ of the Baroque painter’s oeuvre, it showed the artist’s studio with a seamstress at work and was arguably his greatest picture on this key theme in his canon. Sweerts made several paintings on the subject of creating art and its formal training and here showed himself sitting at an easel with his back to the viewer. Other examples are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Prior to the sale on July 6, dealers told ATG that it was not just the quality of the work that gave it such appeal but also its excellent state of preservation as well as its market freshness and provenance. Having been kept in a Belgian castle and passed through the family of the Comte de Bylandt, it came to auction having been bequeathed to the grandmother of the current French vendors.

Michael Sweerts auction record

The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress by Michael Sweerts, a record £10.7m at Christie’s. It was painted in Rome where Sweerts is documented as living in the Via Margutta between 1646-52.

In terms of its condition, it was noted in the Christie’s catalogue that Sweerts’ pictures are notoriously vulnerable to restoration and the passage of time. However here the 2ft 7in x 3ft 7in (80cm x 1.08m) was unlined and the texture of the paint surface unusually intact beneath the old layer of dirty varnish. It promised therefore to yield spectacular results once cleaned.

Works by Sweerts are rare on the market and the auction record before this sale had stood for 26 years – the $3.5m (£2.18m) bid for a large classical scene titled Plague in an Ancient City that sold at Sotheby’s New York back in 1997.

The estimate of £2m-3m here was not deemed excessive given the rarity and importance of the picture and a number of bidders pushed up the price to well beyond this level. It was finally knocked down at £10.7m, a new benchmark for the artist.

Rembrandt portraits at Christie’s.

Pair of portraits by Rembrandt, £9.5m at Christie’s.

Overall, Christie’s Old Masters Part I sale generated a £53.9m total including premium with 28 of the 38 lots sold on the night (the selling rate was 74%).

While this was the highest total for such an event in London since 2016, a number of lots in the sale were from outside the Old Master paintings category, most prominently a bust of Helen of Troy by Canova, a personal gift from the artist to British politician Viscount Castlereagh with unbroken provenance, which made £2.9m (est: £2.5m-4m).

Two further ‘rediscoveries’ also made a crucial contribution to the bottom line. The last known pair of Rembrandt (1606-69) portraits in private hands were offered with a £5m-8m estimate.

The small-scale oils of Jan Willemsz van der Pluym (c.1565-1644) and Jaapgen Carels (1565-1640), portraying two elderly relatives of the artist, had remained in the family of the sitters until they were sold in 1760. They were bought at Christie’s by the current owner’s family in 1824 but had remained completely unknown to scholars ever since.

Henry Pettifer at Christie’s called it “one of the most exciting discoveries we have made in the Old Masters field in recent years” and here they generated international bidding, selling at £9.5m.

Fra Angelico panel

The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross by Fra Angelico, £4.1m at Christie’s

Another rediscovery, although one that came to light back in 1996, was a tempera on gold-ground panel by Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455). Previously attributed to Lorenzo Monaco, it was originally the centre of a devotional triptych commissioned by an unknown patron.

Acquired by the 2nd Lord Ashburton who died in 1864 and subsequently passing by descent, here it was offered as ‘property of the Marquess of Northampton’. Selling at £4.1m, the sum, although toward the lower end of the £4m-6m estimate, represented an auction record for the influential early Florentine Renaissance master.

Read more about the Fra Angelico panel.