A talent for seeking undervalued and underappreciated artists is a hallmark of a great dealer, and Richard Feigen (1930-2021) had it in spades.
“He would pick artists that were not on the highlights of anybody’s lists,” says Otto Naumann, Sotheby’s senior vice president and client development director, who knew the late art dealer well.
Known for championing old and new masters alike, Chicago-born Feigen set up his first gallery in his home city in 1957 before later opening in New York where he became one of the world’s leading dealers in a range of sectors.
Among his discoveries was a Fra Angelico panel he bought at a second-tier Sotheby’s auction in London under a different attribution. He also generated headlines for some major saleroom consignments including JMW Turner’s The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored which he sold at Sotheby’s New York for $11.5m (£8.46m) in 2009.
Some hype, therefore, surrounded a group of 55 paintings from Feigen’s private collection that were offered in a New York auction at Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) on October 18.
Amassed over the dealer’s 60-plus years in the art world, it was typically broad in scope ranging from 14th century Old Masters through to mid-20th century Modern art, some by artists he championed before they became more widely collected such as German Expressionist Max Beckmann and English Romantic landscapist Richard Parkes Bonington.
Although the sale generated $13.2m (£9.7m) on the hammer, it was towards the lower end of the $11.5m-17m estimate with a lower-than-expected 43 sold lots (78%).
Hampered by some bullish pricing, the sale was patchy in places, including the opening section of Italian Old Masters which contained several unsold lots such as a 14th century panel of the Prophet Jeremiah by Lorenzo Monaco (estimate $600,000-800,000) and a 16th century Florentine panel of Christ’s resurrection by Maso da San Friano (estimate $100,000-150,000).
A collection of 18th and 19th century British art achieved better results, however, with all except two of the 24 works offered in this category finding new homes.
Feigen’s knack for spotting quality was encapsulated in the rare group of seven pictures by Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), which almost singlehandedly achieved over half the auction total.
Born in Nottingham, Bonington painted for only five years before he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 25. He spent much of his short life in France, studying in Calais before moving to Paris and befriending artists such as Eugène Delacroix who admired Bonington’s “easy brush and coquettish touch” and described his pictures as “diamonds that ravish the eye”.
Although his works are unfamiliar to most of the gallery-going public, Bonington is regarded in specialist circles as playing a key role in the artistic relationship between England and France during the early 19th century.
The Bonington pictures in the landmark consignment, which included two blue-chip oil paintings of Venice and Lerici in near-perfect condition, sold for $8.8m (£6.4m), setting a new auction record for Bonington in the process.
The fact that the pictures had been vetted by one of the best eyes in the business – Feigen had a reputation for obtaining Boningtons and helped place his works in the collections of institutions such as the Kimball Museum of Art in Texas – only added to their appeal.
The Venetian scene, a 14½ x 18¾in (37 x 47cm) oil on millboard, was the uncontested star of the sale. Likely completed en plein air, it showed three grand palazzi at the entrance to the Grand Canal (the 15th century Gothic palaces Manolesso-Ferro, Contarini-Fasan and Contarini) and was admired for Bonington’s level of detail, texture and mastery of light and shadow.
With two bidders determined to own it, the painting quickly rose above the $2m-3m estimate and was eventually knocked down for a record $6.2m (£4.5m), going to a private collector on the phone with Sotheby’s Old Masters specialist Christopher Apostle.
The price lifts Bonington into the top ranks of British artists commercially and is more than double the previous £2.1m record fetched at Christie’s London in 2015 for a coastal landscape in oils previously owned by the Duke of Wellington’s brother Henry Wellesley.
The Lerici view, painted from a plein air sketch Bonington made on his way to La Spezzia with friend and patron Baron Charles Rivet (depicted in the painting sketching in the shade of some trees), was knocked down to a private collector for $2.2m (£1.6m) against a $1m-1.5m guide. It had belonged to portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence – possibly even commissioned by him – and was in Bonington’s studio at the time of his death in 1828.
Two further British pictures stood out. A commanding early portrait of a gentleman by George Romney (1735-1802), for which Feigen had paid $56,250 with premium at Christie’s in 2011, sold for $75,000 (£55,000).
A grand imaginary reconstruction of a classical cityscape by Joseph Gandy (1771-1843) took a mid-estimate $50,000 (£36,000), the second-highest price for the artist at auction after his watercolour design for Waterloo Palace, the proposed town residence of the Duke of Wellington, sold for £98,000 at Christie’s in 2008.
Gandy was an artist and architect who at one time was employed as a draughtsman to the famous neoclassical architect Sir John Soane.
One of Feigen’s earliest interests was German Expressionist painting, especially the works of Max Beckmann (1884-1950) which he collected over many decades and hung in his New York home.
Chief among them had been Beckmann’s Birds’ Hell (1938), a visceral late 1930s work described as the German ‘Guernica’ which he owned for nearly 35 years before selling it in 2017 at Christie’s in London for £32m – an auction record for both Beckmann and a German Expressionist picture.
Created over a decade earlier in 1926 and making its auction debut in the Sotheby’s sale was a dimly lit portrait of a bearded man dangling a cigarette.
Portrait of a Turk, described by the auction house as capturing “the essence of Beckmann’s best portraiture” in the mid to late 1920s, sold towards its lower guide for $2.2m (£1.6m) to a private collector in California.
The other Beckmann in the sale, Large Quarry in Upper Bavaria (1934), failed to get away against a $1.8m-2.5m estimate.
Though the subject was rare (only 11 canvases are known to have been painted by the artist in the location of Ohlstadt), the guide was perhaps too bullish for a landscape by an artist better known for figurative works.
Among the Italian Old Masters, Annibale Carracci’s (1560-1609) 17th century biblical scene, The Return from the Flight into Egypt, got away below estimate for $385,000 (£281,000).
A small oil lunette of three singing cherubs executed in the restrained tonal grey palette of the 15th-century Lombard painter Ambrogio Bergognone (c.1453- 1523) found a new home for $110,000 (£80,000), against an estimate of $80,000-120,000.
£1 = $1.37