Catalogued as ‘After Titian’, a small early roundel of 16th century Venetian patrician Elisabetta Querini Massola (1496-1559) attracted a number of interested parties at the March 10 sale.
The 4in (11cm) tondo in oils showing the sitter with plaited hair and wearing a pearl necklace was eventually knocked down at £9200 to a UK trade bidder on the phone against a £200-300 guide.
Famed for her beauty, Massola was celebrated in poems by notable men of the day, including Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), and the Florentine poet Giovanni della Casa (1503-56).
She was also a patron of Titian with her husband Lorenzo Massolo and is thought to have been the sitter in three portraits by the Venetian painter, all since lost. (Titian’s Triumph of Love in the Ashmolean is a ‘timpano’ cover for a lost portrait of a Venetian noblewoman speculated to have been Massola.)
These portraits survive today through 18th century engravings and copies such as the one at Mallams, which the auction house reckoned dates to the 17th century.
Another-well contested work in Oxford was a 17th century bust length portrait ‘traditionally identified’ as Sir Jacob Astley (1579-1651), a Royalist commander in the English Civil War. It was also cautiously catalogued as ‘Circle of Cornelius Johnson van Ceulen (1593-1661’.
The 20 x 22in (52 x 55cm) oil on canvas, depicting the sitter in a cloth cap, collar and steel breastplate, had not been on the market for nearly 170 years. It was consigned to the sale by a descendant of the purchaser who had acquired it in 1852.
According to a 1913 letter included with the painting, the work had previously been ‘erroneously’ attributed to 17th century portrait painter William Dobson. The link to Cornelius Johnson, also a 17th century painter of portraits who moved from England to the Netherlands in 1643 to escape the English Civil War, was made in c.1900 by London dealership Colnaghi.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the artist’s hand and the identity of the sitter, the portrait’s lengthy stint in a private collection helped it sell to a private bidder on the internet for £6000, four times the top estimate.
Mallams’ picture specialist Rupert Fogden described the 509-lot sale “as good all round” with 90% sold and totalling £160,000 (around 33% above top estimate).
“With the lockdown, I think people have had more time and perhaps more money to spend. It has also enabled some to bid live who perhaps wouldn’t normally be able to. I believe these factors contributed to the buoyant result,” he said.