Published: February 19, 2019
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring
NEW YORK CITY – Sotheby’s was in the spotlight during Masters Week, January 30-February 5, when the firm presented more than 920 lots in six sales. Across the span of nearly a week, Old Master paintings, drawings, sculpture, as well as Nineteenth Century European art, a single-owner collection of fine and decorative arts and a small online-only selection of paintings crossed the block. When the hammer fell on the last lot, the company had realized more than $100 million, making this the first Masters Week since 2011 that the totals had exceeded the eight-figure mark.
The Female Triumphant
Sotheby’s had heavily promoted “The Female Triumphant,” a small but choice group of 21 paintings by 14 women artists from the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which were sold in discrete sections within the Old Master evening sale on January 30, the Old Master day sale on January 31 and the Nineteenth Century European Art sale on February 1.
Sotheby’s generated considerable hype for the sale and pulled out the stops promoting it. The firm’s efforts were boosted by early support by fashion designer, Victoria Beckham, who recently became enamored with Old Master art after visiting the Frick Collection in New York City. Beckham, who hung several of Sotheby’s Old Master works at her London studio last summer, has continued her partnership with Sotheby’s and spoke to the Frick Young Fellows on January 24 about the importance of female Old Masters.
The promotional hype paid off, with seven women artists setting new auction records and the group surpassing a combined high estimate of $13.2 million with sales totaling $14.6 million. After the sale, a spokesperson for Sotheby’s confirmed that Female Triumphant sections generated ten new bidders to the Old Master and Nineteenth Century Art categories, with more than half being new to Sotheby’s.
The group was led by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun’s monumental “Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan,” which was also the most expensive painting to sell at Sotheby’s during the week. Estimated at $4/6 million, it received heavy competition from phone bidders before going to a phone bidder for $7,185,900. Not only is that a new auction record for Vigee Le Brun, but it is also a record for any female artist of the pre-modern era.
The evening also established auction records for Fede Galizia, Angelika Kauffmann and Giulia Lama. A pioneer of the still life genre, Fede Galizia’s “A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces and a grasshopper” became the artist’s highest selling work to date when it sold for $2,415,000 ($2/3 million). Although Galizia produced fewer than 20 naturalistic still life compositions, these works inspired followers in her lifetime and are now considered her most important paintings. One of the most cultured and influential women of her generation, Angelika Kauffmann was one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy. Her “Portrait of Three Children,” which depicted the children of the Spencer family, one of the wealthiest families in England and ancestors of Diana, Princess of Wales, sold for $915,000, surpassing its high estimate of $800,000.
Seventeen of the 21 lots in the “Female Triumphant” sections sold, or nearly 82 percent by lot, a significantly higher average than the aggregate average of 74 percent achieved over the course of the week.
Calvine Harvey, specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department in New York and the architect of the “Female Triumphant” section, commented: “The number of Old Master female artists who succeeded and are known to us today remains incredibly few – in 2018, Sotheby’s sold only 14 works by female Old Masters, compared to 1,100 male artists. It is important to remember that the obstacles women artists of the pre-Modern era faced were substantial, and those that broke down those barriers were truly triumphant. It was, therefore, such a thrill to see strong prices throughout our offering of works from the Female Triumphant – none more so than the monumental portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun that achieved a new auction record for any work by a female artist of the pre-Modern era. With additional records established for the works of Fede Galizia, Angelika Kauffmann, Giulia Lama, the market clearly responded to the work of these groundbreaking women, including both new and established collectors.”
Master Paintings Evening Sale
The Female Triumphant section was a small portion of the Masters Paintings evening sale, which achieved $52.7 million and was 76 percent sold, by lot. Following Vigée Le Brun’s triumph was Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael’s “A Banquet of the Gods,” which sold for $5,944,000 ($5/7 million) to the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. The painting was from the same collection that featured Jan van de Cappelle’s “A shipping scene on a calm sea, with a number of vessels and figures, and a jetty on the left,” which fetched $4,815,000 ($4/6 million).
Master Paintings & Sculpture Day Sale
The Master Paintings & Sculpture Day sale was led by a Seventeenth Century replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic “Mona Lisa,” which made more than ten times its high estimate of $120,000 when it sold for $1,695,000. It is believed that the work was formerly in the collection of the Pistoj family, an old aristocratic family from the city of Pistoia that dates back to the Fourteenth Century, where it remained in the family for more than 260 years until the passing of the last descendant. Other highlights of the day sale include a portrait of a young shepherd wearing a crown of laurel leaves and holding a recorder attributed to Valentin de Boulogne that finished at $579,000, nearly ten times its high estimate ($40/60,000). Closing out the top three lots of the day sale was Bertel Thorvaldsen’s luminous marble “Cupid with his Bow (Amorino),” selling within estimate ($300/500,000) to finish at $375,000. By the time the sale wrapped up, 62 percent of the lots had sold for a combined total of $10.8 million.
Old Master Drawings
Sotheby’s roster of Master Week auctions began with the Old Master drawings sale, which got the week off to an electric start when “Nude Study of Young Man with Raised Arms” by Sir Peter Paul Rubens sold for $8,202,000, establishing not only the highest price achieved during the week but setting a new record for a drawing by the artist. The work came from a collection of drawings assembled by King William II of the Netherlands and his wife Anna Pavlovna, who together amassed one of the finest collections formed anywhere in Europe in the Nineteenth Century. Additional highlights from the Royal collection included a red chalk Portrait of a youth, attributed to Agostino Caracci, which sold for $1,455,000 – more than 40 times its estimate of $35/45,000 – and an Italian Sixteenth Century drawing of “The Fight For The Standard (The Battle Of Anghiari),” after Leonardo, which achieved $795,000 – more than 20 times its estimate of $25/35,000.
With nearly 68 percent of the lots selling, the sale achieved a cumulative total of $15.1 million, the highest total achieved for any Old Master drawings sale in the firm’s history.
Nineteenth Century European Art
Following on the heels of the Old Master art sales, Sotheby’s offered more than 200 lots of Nineteenth Century European Art. All five of the works by the three female artists – Rosa Bonheur, Elisabeth Gardner Bouguereau and Virgine Demont-Breton – offered in “The Female Triumphant” section sold, totaling $1.8 million and exceeding its high estimate of $1 million. The group was led by Bouguereau’s “La captive,” which realized $591,000 and established a new auction record for the artist ($250/350,000). Exhibited at the Salon of 1893, the work displays the skill that led her to be the first and only American woman to win a gold medal at the Paris Salon. Virginie Demont-Breton’s earliest masterpiece “Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants” also exceeded expectations, tripling its estimate when it sold for $543,000 ($100/150,000) and establishing a new auction record for the artist.
Sotheby’s took the opportunity to put this triumvirate of women into the greater context of Nineteenth Century European painting and underscored how their individual successes and groundbreaking achievements not only benefitted each other but paved the way for other women artists. When reached for comment after the sale, Alexandra Allen, Sotheby’s specialist in Nineteenth Century European paintings, said the department had done considerable outreach to stimulate awareness and interest in the works, all of which was received positively. Commenting on the response, Allen said, “We were excited to shine light on three extraordinary female artists who broke barriers and achieved international fame in the Nineteenth Century. Audiences around the world responded enthusiastically on social media and in our galleries, leading to competitive bidding and shattered auction records for Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau’s ‘La captive’ and Virginie Demont-Breton’s ‘Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants.'”
Leading the sale was one of the seven works by William Bouguereau, which demonstrated the demand for works by the master of French Academic painting as well as the commitment from collectors to acquire the best works. At the front of the group was his “Le livre de prix,” which achieved $1,275,000, squarely within its estimate ($1/1.5 million). All four of the works by Jules Breton offered were sold, totaling $2.2 million and surpassing the group’s high estimate of $1.3 million. The assemblage was led by Breton’s 1883 work, “Le Matin,” which achieved $1,215,000 ($400/600,000). Sir Frank Dicksee’s “Yseult” also exceeded expectations, bringing $1,155,000 ($1/2 million).
The Nineteenth Century European Art sale made nearly $16.1 million, with nearly 77 percent of lots selling.
The Gilded Age: Property from a Distinguished American Collection
A single-owner collection branded as “The Gilded Age: Property from a Distinguished American Collection” closed out the live Masters Week auctions. The collection featured a diverse group of paintings and decorative arts, ranging from Old Masters to the Impressionists, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century continental furniture, decorative art and Asian art. Leading the sale was William Bouguereau’s 1894 “Pâquerettes,” which brought $1,167,000, well in excess of its estimate ($400/600,000). Following a somewhat distant second was “A Maiden with a Basket of Roses” by Eugen von Blaas. Estimated at $200/300,000, the work doubled expectations selling for $615,000.
“The Gilded Age” single-owner sale totaled $5,150,375 and was slightly less than 85 percent sold by lot.
Old Masters Online
A group of 62 lots that were offered in an online-only sale that closed on February 5 realized an additional $523,250, with 75 percent of the lots selling. The highest selling lot of the online-only sale was a portrait of a young boy (Master Edwin) from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., that achieved $35,000 against a estimate of $8/12,000.
All prices quoted include buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Sotheby’s is at 1334 York Avenue. For information, 212-606-7000 or www.sothebys.com.
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