It has become increasingly common for private collectors to spot undervalued Old Masters at auction and buy them as research projects.
But a picture that came up at a recent regional sale showed that this practice is actually not so new and, in fact, well predates the advent of digital catalogues and online bidding.
The sweeping view of the Bay of Naples that was offered at Chorley’s (23.5% buyer’s premium) on June 27 had been purchased at a Gloucestershire house sale back in the mid-1960s.
Back then it had been catalogued as by the French marine painter Dominic Serres (1722-93) but a local buyer believed it might be worth a punt as being by an even more valuable hand.
Leading scenic painter
After purchasing it, he began to speculate that it might be by Antonio Joli (1700-77), one of the leading Italian scenic painters of the age. Remarkably, over the next 55 years he conducted extensive research and it seems his hunch was proved right.
After receiving the consignment, Chorley’s also began researching the work and consulted the London dealer and Italian vedute expert Charles Beddington. Its authenticity established, it was offered as an autograph Joli.
The detailed catalogue entry, written by Beddington himself, noted that six variants of this composition by Joli are mentioned in Ralph Toledano’s catalogue raisonné (published in 2006). The current picture, therefore, represented a previously unrecorded version.
Painted from the hillside neighbourhood of Mergellina above the bay, all the versions are of a similar size - the oil on canvas in Gloucestershire measured 2ft 3in x 3ft (68 x 98cm) - although they show the city from slightly varying angles.
They each depict many of famous Neopolitan landmarks in superb detail such as the Torretta of Chiaia to the left, the Castel Sant’Elmo overlooking the city and the Certosa di San Martino, the great Carthusian monastery, below to the right.
Two of the six works are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna with the others in private collections.
The depiction of the boats differs significantly between the versions. Here a British three-master features prominently to the foreground, suggesting the work was painted as a commission from a British patron. The Gloucestershire picture was also curiously the only one which omitted Vesuvius on the right-hand side.
Two of the other versions have appeared on the market in the last eight years. One sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2015, together with its pendant showing the Gulf of Pozzuoli, for £250,000, while another previously unknown example with a pendant showing the ancient temples at Paestum fetched $440,000 (£336,880) at Sotheby’s New York in 2019.
While a number of Joli’s views of London, Venice and Rome in particular have fetched significantly more, these were strong sums for Naples paintings.
Pitch it right
In order to ensure the current work would sell, a lid was kept on the estimate at £50,000-70,000.
The Gloucestershire auction house reported interest from three bidders on the phone and it was knocked down at £55,000 to the European trade. It was underbid by Beddington who was bidding on behalf of a friend.
Works by Joli and his circle appear relatively often at auction, meaning buyers tend to be quite selective. This explains in part why the price may seem somewhat underwhelming for an artist of Joli’s stature.
The fact that the painting did not include Vesuvius may have put off some people and then there were also some questions regarding the condition.
The auction house’s condition report mentioned a 4in (10cm) tear to the top right, extensive retouching to the sky and areas of the sea, as well as further restoration to repair a hole to the top of the hill and other damage near the right hand edge.
However, as Beddington told ATG, when viewed in the flesh the condition was actually not as compromised as might be expected, especially compared to many works of this age. In fact, most of the problems related to the varnish, he said.
In any case, ultimately it seems likely that the actual or perceived condition played a part in limiting the bidding on the day. But, even so, the price still represented a decent sum for a work by Joli sold outside the main London rooms.
Elsewhere at the sale, a 17th century English School painting depicting the burning of London Bridge in 1632 was estimated at £10,000-15,000.
Although not as famous as the Great Fire of 1666, the conflagration destroyed much of the bridge including 42 houses. A contemporary account by a Puritan named Nehemiah Wallington attributes the origin of the fire to the house of John Briggs, a needle maker.
The artist of the 18in x 3ft 7in (45.5cm x 1.1m) oil on canvas has been variously attributed across the years but it is thought most likely to be by a Flemish painter working in London in the later years of the 17th century. It came to Chorley’s by descent from the historian and illustrator Gordon Home who published a book on Old London Bridge in 1931.
Although a detailed and atmospheric painting, ultimately the estimate proved a bit punchy for what was a non-contemporaneous depiction of the event. Nevertheless it managed to get away, selling at £9000 to a US private buyer.