Old Master Paintings

Fantastic Finds and an A-List Fan Sees a Phenomenal Year for Old Masters at Sotheby's

By Andrew Fletcher

A s if proof were needed of the lure of the big-name artists, Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt provided the headlines at our Old Masters sales in 2018, with portraits by each of them achieving the highest prices in our three Evening sales in New York in January and London in July and December. After a brief blip in 2017 thanks only to a certain Salvator Mundi, Sotheby’s dominated the Old Masters market once again, selling a higher value of Old Masters at auction than any competitor for the seventh time in the last ten years. In total we sold thirty-one Old Master paintings for more than £1m ($1.5m), over 50% more than our nearest competitor.

Velazquez’s collaborative portrait of Cristoforo Segni, that appeared for sale at the beginning of last year, was a colourful evocation of Pope Innocent X’s right hand man, the Maggiordomo and, indeed, is a mirror-image in its design of Velazquez’s famous portrait of Innocent X himself, also painted in or around 1650.

It was a very different portrait, more a head study, that dominated the end of the year but coincidentally one painted at almost precisely the same moment, circa 1650, albeit somewhat further north. Rembrandt’s highly personal Study of the head and clasped hands of a young man as Christ in prayer was painted in Amsterdam and depicts a young man, probably a Jew from the quarter where Rembrandt lived, in the guise of Jesus Christ. It is one of several studies by Rembrandt of the same sitter on this scale, and the only one that remained in private ownership. Painted in one sitting, highly finished in some parts and only cursorily executed in others, it delivers 'the nuanced subtlety of a living human physiognomy' to a degree that only Rembrandt can achieve. It sold to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and was unveiled there in February 2019.

Rubens’ Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman, based on a 16th-century prototype, was painted a few decades earlier than the Rembrandt and, though more imposing in scale, is nevertheless also something of a study rather than a formal portrait. Also painted rapidly and with supreme confidence, like the Rembrandt the brushwork shows no hint of hesitancy and is a superb expression of the artist’s personality. Each of these three portraits was subject to an irrevocable bid and all achieved prices above their high estimate.

The Rubens led our marketing for the summer season and received widespread coverage thanks to our collaboration with Victoria Beckham who chose to display it, along with a dozen other paintings from the sale, at her premises on Dover Street. Sotheby’s is constantly breaking new ground in the way we promote and sell Old Masters and the partnership with Victoria Beckham was one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the year across the whole art market. In the autumn we launched the largest ever selling exhibition of Old Masters in Asia which, by the time of its conclusion in early October, would become Sotheby’s’ most successful ever selling exhibition in the field.

We sold many collections throughout the year, the two highest profile of which were the Van Dedem Collection and The Otto Naumann sale, and both more than doubled pre-sale estimates. Otto Naumann’s sale was a result of his closing his business after several decades at the pinnacle of the trade, and the enormous success of the sale was testament to his wonderful eye and taste. Following the sale Otto had intended to return to his roots as a scholar and to turn to publishing. We were delighted however when, in June, he acknowledged that his separation from the marketplace could not endure and agreed to join us at Sotheby’s, further strengthening our team of experts who collectively have worked at Sotheby’s for over 300 years, comfortably the most experienced team in the field.

2019 has begun as 2018 ended, with a highly successful series of sales in New York in January. Old Masters week achieved over $100,000,000 in sales and was led by Rubens’ dynamic study for one of the figures in his great altarpiece in Antwerp, the Raising of the Cross which sold for $8.2m, three times its estimate. The paintings sale saw several extraordinary prices, including $7.2m for Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s exotic portrait of Mohammed Dervich Khan and Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael’s Banquet of the Gods which sold to the Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

We are currently accepting consignments for the upcoming Old Masters sales on 3 and 4 July in London. Request an estimate for your property.

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