LONDON - Last night will live long in the memory of all of us. Selling a work of the magnitude of Raphael's Head of a young apostle was always going to create a stir, but the seventeen-minute mini-drama that unfolded when the auctioneer announced lot 52 was of an intensity that I have not before experienced. Four bidders took part; three of them, seemingly having exhausted themselves, re-entered the bidding at a later stage, such was their desire for this rarest of objects. Bidding started very slowly, each of them challenging their opponents to make the first big move until finally it came down to two bidders, one on the telephone with Natasha Mendelsohn of Sotheby's, the latter, Stephen Ongpin, speaking into a mobile in the room. The former was triumphant, the latter forlorn, and the room broke out into much deserved and noisy applause.
The £29.7 million Raphael ended a hugely successful night in which we sold 75% of lots offered and made a total of £58m, amongst our highest ever totals in this category. The sale comprised 52 lots, each from a private source and the vast majority having been off the market for a generation or longer. Indeed the top prices for the evening were achieved by lots which had not been at auction for 100 years or more: Jan Steen’s The prayer before the meal was last on the market in 1831 and, in selling for £5m, set a new world record for the artist; Bernardo Bellotto’s View of the Grand Canal from Rialto sold for two and half times its low estimate at £2.9m, having last been on the open market nearly a hundred years ago; and Willem van de Velde’s glorious Shipping in a calm, which sold for £1.7m (three times its estimate) was acquired by a descendant of the seller in the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale.
There is such appetite, indeed more than I can ever remember, for fresh-to-the-market works of the best quality. One of the most pleasing results of the evening was the £950,000 achieved for the set of four works by Niccolo di Pietro Gerini that had come from the parish church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Withyam, East Sussex. The money raised will ensure the survival of the church and, with it, the centre of that community. And two lots later the hammer came down on the highest ever online bid in an Old Masters auction at Sotheby’s, when the cover lot, the beautiful portrait of Giovanni Gaddi, sold for £1.1m. Buyers were widespread and it was good to see such strength and resilience in the European and Russian market. With these magnificent results behind us we, and the market with us, will enter 2013 full of optimism, and we look impatiently forward to the sales in New York in January, including the much-anticipated single-owner sale of Property from the Estate of Giancarlo Baroni.