Pompeo Batoni’s Susanna and the Elders sold for a record $11.4 million.

NEW YORK - The last week of January in New York is always, always freezing, always snowy, and always full of surprises. This year we saw the ‘Battle of the B’s,’ with record prices for Boucher, Batoni, Botticelli, Fra Bartolommeo and the Master of the Legend of Saint Barbara. With only two exceptions, each of the top twenty prices of the week at both houses came from pictures in two distinct categories: the period around 1500 in Italy, Flanders and Germany; and the second half of the 18th century in France and Italy. It is remarkable that in a period of 24 hours last week the world auction record for each of the following household names was smashed: Boucher, Fragonard, Chardin, Batoni; Botticelli, Memling and Fra Bartolommeo.
Tastes are constantly shifting. While Renaissance pictures have always been somewhat and increasingly in fashion in recent years, the Rococo has had a bumpier ride so it was perhaps the record prices in this field that were the biggest surprise. Batoni’s Susanna and the Elders was a sensational painting, one of the artist’s greatest composition pieces. It had been unsold in 1991 but in 2013, spurred on by several buyers who were not around two decades ago, it quintupled the previous record for the artist. At the other end of the timescale I was gratified to see my favourite painting of the week achieve a record price too—the newly-discovered small panel depicting Saint Ursula protecting the eleven thousand Virgins with her cloak by the Master of the Legend of Barbara, an artist so-named after his altarpiece depicting the Legend of St Barbara (now split between museums in Bruges and Brussels). The $2.6m it achieved surpassed the previous record by $1m.

The Master of the Legend of St Barbara’s Saint Ursula protecting the eleven thousand Virgins with her cloak sold for $3 million.

With a few exceptions one ‘B’ that did not fare so well was the Baroque. Without wanting to generalise too much it seems the taste for the more intense and psychologically challenging works that typify this period dipped slightly last week, though I am quite sure this is only momentary. It is of course still true that any fresh-to-the-market work, sensibly priced, and from any school or period, will sell well in any circumstances and it is with this in mind that we begin our next period of gathering for the forthcoming sales in London in the summer.
When briefly comparing the major London Old Master sales in December with those last week in New York, two very different sales in terms of their content, the most obvious point of note is the disparity of buyers. This, I think, demonstrates the innate strength and breadth of the Old Master market. Two sales of broadly equal value, one month apart, and barely a common buyer between them.