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

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Had the premium-inclusive $450m picture, now on its way to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, given it a boost?

On the face of it, results from the £42.05m evening sales held in December at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and a day sale at Bonhams (Bonhams & Christie’s 25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium/Sotheby’s 25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium), showed an improved performance on last year’s equivalent auctions. Over a quarter more money changed hands.

It prompted Alex Bell, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman for Old Masters, to remark on “some exciting dynamics at play in our field, with new buyers from across the geographical spectrum entering the field”.

Christie’s global managing director for Old Masters Karl Hermanns was also in a buoyant mood, telling The Telegraph he detected “an uptick in confidence of bidders”.

However, the latest series fell short of the £82.81m Old Master evening sales held at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the summer (although these were larger), while last year’s winter total was not helped by the withdrawal of some high-profile pictures and a dearth of blockbuster offerings.

It illustrates not only how a handful of good pictures can sway results in the Old Master market, but also that they are in finite supply.

While the high profile of Salvator Mundi will keep the spotlight on Old Masters for a while yet, other market forces were at play in December.

The perennial demands among collectors for market-fresh material, original condition and sensible pricing were all in evidence in the latest series. The solid performances of several works by more obscure painters was also optimistic for the market.

A low selling rate at Bonhams, which hovered around 52%, shows how sensitive the market can be for ‘seen’ pictures. Meanwhile, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, who offered a steady stream of fresh work, had better selling rates of 77% and 82% respectively.

Sale totals

  • Bonhams, Old Masters Paintings, December 6 – £3.01m, 52% by lot, 75% by value.
  • Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale, December 6 – £20.8m, 82% by lot, 86% by value.
  • Christie’s Old Masters Evening Sale, December 7 – £18.1m, 77% by lot, 93% by value.
  • Overall hammer total: £42.05m
  • With premium: £50.39m

Christie's

Drawing some of the liveliest bidding of the week was Bartholomäus Spranger’s (1546-1611) Mercury carrying Psyche to Mount Olympus – a tour de force of Mannerist painting.

Looted by the Nazis, it had recently been restituted back to the original owner’s descendants.

Christie’s considered the 3ft 1in x 4ft 6in (95 x 1.35m) oil on canvas to be a “seminal work by the most important Northern Mannerist painter of his generation”, and one of the first major paintings the artist produced for the Imperial Court in Vienna where he was summoned in 1575.

It was knocked down for substantially more than the £400,000-600,000 guide to a Belgian collector for £2.8m.

The following lot was El Greco’s (1541-1614) numinous canvas, Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation.

This work was acquired in the same rooms 21 years ago by the late Baltimore collector Stanford Z Rothschild for £1.35m, and was being offered by Rothschild’s art foundation.

The 16th century 3ft 7in x 2ft 2in (1.1m x 64.5cm) oil on canvas presented a rare opportunity to buy a mature work by one of Spain’s seminal Renaissance painters.

According to Christie’s, it is also the “only autograph replica” of several extant versions based on the prime original hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa.

It was knocked down within estimate to a phone bidder at £5.9m. The price has only been bettered by El Greco’s Saint Dominic In Prayer, which appeared for the first time at Sotheby’s four years ago, selling for a premium-inclusive £9.15m to raise money for Unicef.

Another highlight at Christie’s was a stormy marine work painted c.1670 by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82), one of the leading landscape painters of the Dutch golden age.

Consigned from a private European collection where it had been since 1987, the 18½ x 26in (47 x 65cm) oil on canvas sold for £1.2m against a £300,000- 500,000 estimate. Van Ruisdael painted around 30 marine pictures, of which only 24 are thought to have survived. To date, this is the most expensive to have sold at auction.

Leading the Dutch pictures at Christie’s was the portrait of Petronella Buys offered as a work fully attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-69). The 2ft 7in x 23in (79 x 59 cm) painting of a young woman wearing a large millstone collar is the pendant of a portrait of Petronella’s husband Philips Lucasz, which hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The painting has provoked debate in the past and was demoted to a studio work in 1989, when the Rembrandt Research Project declared it to have been painted by an assistant.

Offered with a cautious £1.5m-2.5m estimate, it was knocked down at £2.8m to dealer Johnny van Haeften, reportedly on behalf of the private Lieden collection of 17th century Dutch pictures.

Sotheby's

While Dutch pictures stood out at Christie’s, British art led the way at Sotheby’s.

The sale-topper at £6.3m was Joseph Wright of Derby’s (1734-97) Academy by Lamplight. This exceptionally well-preserved 1769 candle-lit picture had been in the same family for at least 150 years (see ATG No 2321).

An oil sketch by John Constable (1776-1837) for his 1817 painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (now in the Tate) was pursued above its £1m-1.5m guide to £1.9m, where it was knocked down to the London sculpture dealer and art collector Daniel Katz.

The 20in x 2ft 6in (50 x 75cm) oil on canvas is a recent discovery. It was unearthed in a London home owned by the descendants of the prolific French collector Camille Groult (1832-1908).

Fairing less well was Dedham Vale with the River Stour in Flood, another Constable view from c.1814-17. It had been reattributed to Constable and came with a heftier guide of £2m-3m.

Painted earlier, and slightly larger, the 20in x 3ft (51 x 91.5cm) oil on canvas was deemed less exciting to modern tastes and scraped away below estimate to a commission bidder at £1.5m.

Elsewhere among the Continental material offered at Sotheby’s, a small return emerged for the vendor of David Teniers the Younger’s (1610-90) Flemish garden scene, An Elegant Company before a Pavilion in an Ornamental Garden.

The 2ft 3in x 2ft 10in (70 x 88cm) oil on copper plate work, which has a continuous provenance since 1731, had been secured in the same rooms by the vendor 20 years ago for £1m. Estimated at a cautious £800,000-1.2m this time, it was knocked down at £1.3m to a European private buyer on the phone.

Bonhams

A newly discovered early Renaissance gold ground Crucifixion scene by the pioneering Venetian painter Lorenzo Veneziano (active 1356-79) soared to a sale-topping £1.4m at Bonhams.

Carrying a tempting £400,000-600,000 estimate, the ornate 21 x 15¾in (56 x 40cm) tempera panel had descended for more than a century through the family of British-born antiquarian collector Baron de Cosson (1846-1929).

Veneziano is regarded highly among the Venetian artists active in the third quarter of the Trecento. He brought a natural vitality to his figurative painting at a time when a flat, Byzantine style dominated.

“Veneziano was instrumental in bringing naturalism and reinvigorating the culture of La Serenissima beyond the classical, Byzantine style,” said Andrew McKenzie, head of Old Master paintings at Bonhams.

Another highlight was Claude Joseph Vernet’s (1714-89) serene 18th century seascape Clair de Lune.

It came to auction from the collection of the late Boris Christoff, a renowned Bulgarian opera singer.

This work was one of a pair commissioned for New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, the home of Henry, 8th Baron Arundell. The other, The Shipwreck, now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The sizeable 3ft 9in x 5ft 4in (1.15 x 1.64m) oil on canvas achieved £620,000 against an estimate of £100,000-150,000.