With two ‘day’ sales still to run at the time of going to press, the £107m total (including premium) from sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams was over double the figure for the equivalent sales last year.
Christie’s had the pick of the lots with three works at its Old Masters Part I sale on July 6 billed as major ‘rediscoveries’.
This included the top lot: a previously unpublished work by Flemish painter Michael Sweerts (1618-64).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. Sweerts made several paintings on the subject of creating art and here showed himself sitting at an easel.
Prior to the sale, 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 had been bequeathed to the grandmother of the current French vendors.
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 sold at Sotheby’s New York back in 1997.
The £2m-3m estimate 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 sold at £10.7m, a new benchmark for the artist.
Another rediscovery was the last-known pair of Rembrandt (1606-69) portraits in private hands which were offered with a £5m-8m estimate.
The small-scale oils of two elderly relatives of the artist had remained in the family of the sitters and were later bought at Christie’s by the current owner’s family in 1824. They had remained completely unknown to scholars ever since. Generating international bidding, they sold at £9.5m.
Elsewhere at Christie's a tempera on gold-ground panel by Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) which first came to light back in 1996 having previously attributed to Lorenzo Monaco was on offer. It was once the central panel 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 at the lower end of the £4m-6m guide, represented an auction record for the influential early Florentine Renaissance master.
Overall, the Christie’s sale generated a £53.9m total including premium. Of the 38 lots offered, 28 got away for a selling rate of 74%.
This exceeded the £39m including premium posted the previous night at Sotheby’s Old Master evening sale where 32 of the 49 lots sold (65%).
The Sotheby’s sale was led by Pentecost by the artist known as ‘The Master of the Baroncelli Portraits’ (fl c.1490s). This work had previously appeared at Christie’s in 2010 where it made £4.19m including premium and came to auction here from a vendor who acquired it from London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni.
With a third-party guarantee suggesting strong competition to win the consignment, the estimate was a punchy-looking £7m-10m and it got away at the lower end of expectations.
The work itself was a great rarity: only three other paintings are attributed to the artist, including a pair of portraits in the Uffizi, Florence.
Bringing more competition was a portrait of Katherine Parr which set an auction record for any Tudor painting when it was knocked down to a UK collector at £2.8m. The estimate for this work – once believed to have been destroyed by fire – was £600,000-800,000.
Meanwhile, Bonhams’ Old Master sale on July 5 was led by a portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1635) of a young girl holding a cat. It outscored a £50,000-70,000 estimate to sell at £290,000.
Appearing for sale for the first time in its history, Antonio Canova’s (1757-1822) white marble bust of Helen of Troy sold for £2.9m on July 6 at Christie’s Old Master sale.
One of Canova’s famous ‘ideal heads’ made towards the end of his career, it was given by the artist to Robert, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), later 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, as thanks for help in re-patriating works of art to Italy after the Napoleonic Wars.
Four versions of the 2ft 1in (63cm) head are known, this one (pictured here) dated c.1816-17. The estimate was £2.5m-4m.
The most eagerly contested entries to the multi-discipline Exceptional Sale at Christie’s earlier in the day were two Italian tripod tables previously owned by Thomas Hope (1769-1831).
Made in the Grand Tour era using ancient Roman elements, they formed part of the furnishings at Hope’s London home on Duchess Street off Portland Place and later at his Surrey country house The Deepdene.
The ’pair’ were last sold for a combined 460 guineas at Christie’s in 1917 by the London dealer Durlacher on behalf of Baron Bruno Schroder (1865-1940) of Dell Park, Surrey. They came for sale by descent.
A table made in polychrome marble – one used to display a Roman marble satyr head in the Statue Gallery at Duchess Street – was estimated at £30,000-50,000 but sold at £190,000.
The other, pictured here, which combines ancient alabaster trapezophori carved with fierce panther heads and a later top and base of breccia marble, was guided at £50,000-80,000 and made £320,000.
The £11.2m sale also included a rediscovered studio version of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s 1701 painting of Louis XIV in coronation robes. With a family provenance to the ducs de Noailles, it led proceedings at £1.55m (estimate £200,000-300,000).
Sotheby’s Treasures sale on July 5 was a more uneven affair with only 20 of the 45 lots sold. It was topped at £220,000 by a pair of Spanish colonial silver-mounted and mother-of-pearl bureau cabinets made in Lima, Peru, during the second half of the 18th century.
There had been a better return for the Master Sculpture sale the previous day. It was topped at £700,000 by a lifesize bust of the Capitoline Aphrodite that combined a 2nd century Roman greywacke head with early 17th century polychrome marble draped shoulders. It came for sale from a Swiss collection with an earlier provenance to the Paris estate sale of the French art historian Jean Feray (1914-99).