Old Master Week, New York, January 2009, Part II

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German School, Mid-16th Century, Study Of A Seated Dog Scratching Himself, Sotheby's, Old Master Drawings, lot 53

German School, Mid-16th Century, Study Of A Seated Dog Scratching Himself, Sotheby’s, Old Master Drawings, lot 53

Sotheby’s New York
Jan. 28, Old Master Drawings [N08515]
Jan. 29 – 30, Important Old Master Paintings, Including European Works of Art [N08516]
Jan. 31, Old Master and 19th Century European Art [N08517]

Christie’s New York
Jan. 27, The Scholar’s Eye: Property from the Julius Held Collection Part I [2237]
Jan. 28, Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture [2135]
Jan, 29, Old Master and 19th Century Drawings [2134]
Jan. 30, The Scholar’s Eye: Property from the Julius Held Collection Part II [2249]

For more background on master drawings, see The Drawing Site.

See also Old Master Week I: Master Drawings

Although, as I pointed out in my preview of the dealer shows, the old master market was less affected by the notorious bubble than contemporary art, there is no question that here too a period is coming to an end, which means of course that a new one will begin at some point. We don’t know when or what it will be like. Why not now? There are certainly splendid opportunities both with dealers and with the auction houses. In general prices are moderate, and the quality is very high. What’s more there is an abundance which he have not seen for some years, nothing like pre-1995, and certainly not a glut, but enough to be exciting. Ultimately this is an excellent time to buy art, whether a collector is progressing in a direction he or she has already begun, is expanding into new areas, or is at the very beginning of the glorious enterprise.

The times are especially propitious for fledgling collectors. There is something for almost every taste and interest and much of it is accessible. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have not offered master drawings and paintings at such low estimates since the dear lamented days of Sotheby’s Arcade and Christie’s East. Sotheby’s has a delightful bizarrerie from the School of Fontainebleau (c. 1550) which is literally smaller than a postage stamp, estimated at $2000-3000. It is an exquisite example of decorative design, close to the style of Étienne Delaune. If you want it to be generally seen by your guests, you will have to display it under a magnifying glass, but, remember, there is no more dramatic way to show art than that. At Christie’s, “The Scholar’s Eye,” a sale of drawings, prints, paintings and objects from the collection of the great Rubensian Julius Held contains not only several minuscule sheets, but very fine larger drawings at reasonable estimates. Over his very long life (97 years) he amassed this collection on a scholar’s budget with his uniquely informed eye.His many students should be queueing up to acquire a memento of the master, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t something for the rest of us. This sale is of considerable local interest as well, since Dr. Held was a Bennington fixture for many years, and a visiting professor at Williams for a decade after his retirement from Barnard College in 1971. More specifically the group ranges from a lovely figure of Athena with her owl by Prospero Fontana (114 x 86 mm.) to an important Allegory of Folly by Quentin Massys…and a great deal else, reflecting Held’s extensive interests in European art.

Those who want only the very best—or fanatical students of the Da Vinci Code—will find two versions of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to choose from, one at Christie’s, the other at Sotheby’s. I would advise, however, beginning collectors to leave these opportunities for the more experienced buyers. But, seriously, I’d advise even a seasoned collector to approach auctions the old-fashioned way, relying on a knowledgeable dealer or consultant as a source of advice and feedback. Even though the experts at the major houses are respected scholars, a second opinion from a thrid party who knows your taste well is invaluable. How does one find such a person? You might try establishing a relationship with your local art museum and asking the relevant curator for advice. Once you find an advisor you trust, listen to this person, and resist the temptation to act on impulse, as exciting as it may seem. Collecting is a discipline.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have included sculpture with the paintings. The mathematician Clifford Ambrose Truesdell and his wife collected many fine paintings, but the core of their collection, which is offered by Christie’s, consists of a fine group of Renaissance bronzes and decorative objects. Chief among these is a late 17th century bronze of Saturn Devouring his Children known as the Truesdell Saturn. 48 cm. high, it is estimated to sell for $700,000-900,000. Also from the collection as Limoges and Venetian ceramics, marble sculptures, a handsome Italian, probably Veronese bell, and a wonderfully earthy, Flemish or German pine relief of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate. Sotheby’s, on the other hand, have, amidst an outstanding and diverse group of medieval and early Renaissance sculptures, a magnificent half-length terra cotta figure of St. Jerome, attributed to an important, only recently identified northern Italian sculptor, Giovanni de Fondulis (1420/3 – after 1497), who at some time worked with the established sculptor, Andrea Riccio, the subject of the recent exhibition at the Frick Collection. Deep modeling and sharp, linear contours add to the expressiveness of this ascetic figure. Estimated between $800,000 at $1,200,000, this may well be one of the masterpieces that defy the economy. Among Sotheby’s many other treasures, there is a sensuous Fontainebleau marble of Leda and the swan and a magnificent pacing bull in bronze by the Florentine Andrea Susini (c. 1575-1646), to highlight only a few of many works worth mentioning.

There are many strong, even important drawings at both houses, although more at Sotheby’s. Christie’s sale includes a classic Florentine drapery study from the circle of Lorenzo di Credi, a magnificent Stradanus Allegory of Temperance, Justice, and Liberality, a fiery study sheet by Agostino Carracci, a rare Hubert Robert view of Notre Dame de Paris, colorful Géricault sheets of studies of everyday life and galloping horses and a rich Delacroix Moroccan scene. However, Christie’s pièce de résistence, and the most beautiful and important work on paper of the season, is Federico Barocci’s oil sketch of St. John the Evangelist in his Entombment in the Church of Sta. Croce in Senigallia. This modello of the grieving Apostle, his long hair flowing in the wind, is close to the top of Barocci’s achievement. Recently discovered in a Spanish collection, it is quite likely the most impressive discovery of the season. Estimated at $400,000 to 600,000, the oil sketch would fetch far more than that in normal times and probably will now.

Also of the highest importance is the group of five Turners and one Constable from the collection of William and Eleanor Wood Prince of Chicago. Although the one strange erotic watercolor stands on its own, the landscapes represent the artists’ best mature work in their favorite surroundings, the Mosel, Switzerland, the Lake Country, and, of course, Constable at Salisbury. If one is not in the market at the level of six and seven figures, the separate catalogue, produced by Christie’s at a high scholarly level, with essays by Andrew Wilton, Peter Bower, and Stephen Wildman, is a worth buying, as are their catalogues of the Julius Held Collection.

Sotheby’s has drawings of all sorts, stunning examples from the great hands, fascinating curiosities from odd pockets of artistic production, and exquisite, modestly estimated sheets for collectors of relatively limited means and fine taste. At the top, there is a sensitive, lyrical wash drawing by Goya of a Hunter with his Dog in a Landscape: no devils, witches, or whores here, but a feeling and observant Goya at at his best. There is a wild pen drawing by Guercino of a scruffy beggar or ruffian, a brilliant sheet of caricatures by Annibale Carracci, a rare Piranesi head of a young man, large and bristling with contrast and wiry pen work, and a vigorous and classic study of a male torso by a Raphaelesque Ingres. Also notable are a handsome St. John the Evangelist by Hans Franckenberger the Elder, an artist close to Hans Baldung Grien, on dark brown prepared paper, a striking roundel of a scene from the Gesta Romanorum by Jörg Breu the Elder, an enormous watercolor Calvary by the Nazarene, Johann Friederich Overbeck, a grand Vinckeboons of the Finding of Moses, a marvelously fluid and expansive Fall of Simon Magus by Magnasco, and a fine Venetian landscape from an artist not far from Titian and Campagnola. Menzel’s Study of an Old Woman Holding a Lamp is a top example of his keen observation and sure hand. Two large, free nautical studies by Willem van de Velde the Younger are especially appealing. Drawings like these can stand on their own in a miscellaneous collection or fit into a more rigorously organized collection devoted to draftsmanship alone. For collectors with more adventurous tastes there is Fuseli’s sketch of his wife riding a horse, lustily flailing her whip, which was also a favorite toy in their sexual relations, as well as a mysterious and horrific interpretation of the Flaying of Marsyas by a follower of Rosso Fiorentino, or possibly the master himself. Another intriguing—and very appealing—rarity is an unusual scene attributed to the Florentine Baroque painter, Filippo Tarchiani, showing A Saint Reviving and Artist who has Fallen from his Scaffold while Painting a Fresco. (It is reassuring to know that miracles exist for artists, too.)

With the novice collector in mind, I’ll run through some very fine sheets, all with estimates under $10,000: the aforementioned Fuseli, an unattributed Dutch Judgment of Paris, a nymph and satyr on vellum by van Mieris, a drapery study convincingly attributed to Bernardino Gatti, a curious 16th century Roman study of a vase carried by a faun, who is standing on a tortoise, an elegant study sheet by the Sienese Francesco Vanni, a chalk drawing on blue paper of a seated monk by his compatriot, Ventura Salimbeni, a double-sided chalk drawing attributed to Giulio Campi, three studies of St. Paul by Carlo Urbino, and a charming red chalk drawing of a singing boy by Benedetto Gennari, the Guercino follower. The neophyte may not even recognize any of these names, but once he or she takes the plunge they will be thoroughly familiar soon enough, eventually rolling through the collector’s mind on sleepless nights, as he meditates desirously over what he has seen in galleries and the sale rooms. Sotheby’s even has the perfect beginner’s lot, a bouquet of four small sheets matted and framed together, works of four different 16th century Italian artists, including Vanni and Salimbeni, whose evanescent St. Sebastian is quite unforgettable.

And don’t miss the large, mid-sixteenth century study of a dog scratching his ear (est. $30,000-40,000)! Its fluid but precise and energetic line, the knotty contours of the animal, and the liveliness of the German artist’s observation of a small incident in daily life—a trait we find in Menzel as well—make this sheet hard to resist.

The sale also includes an extensive group of Swiss drawings, all studies for glass plaques from the 16th and 17th centuries from a collection formed by Dr. Hugo von Ziegler, a scholar who had a special interest in this abstruse field. Swiss art of this period is in general not well known outside Switzerland, especially this particularly Swiss medium. These painted glass panels were intended to fit into the tops of windows, often in official secular venues and private houses. They usually depicted emblems, allegories, or moral narratives expressing key values of an organization, community, or family. The better of these drawings—and there are a good many of them—are very well executed indeed, and Jost Amman and Tobias Stimmer are hardly obscure artists. Examples already exist in American public and private collections. However, the newcomer will probably be most struck by the imaginative characterization in both the narrative scenes and the allegories. The figures are full of humor and insight, and a scene like Hans Bock the Elder’s Judgment of Brutus psychologically and morally powerful.

Sotheby’s paintings alone would suffice to make up an important picture gallery. There are impressive early Italian panels, including an Hermogenes by Lorenzo Monaco, important Cranachs, among them a portrait of a young man and a scene of An Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans by Lucas the Elder, as well as a Lucretia by father and son. There is Rubens, Jordaens, and Steen, and superb late 16th and early 17th century Italian pictures by artists like Dolci, Martinelli, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Ludovico and Annibale Carracci, and a masterpiece by Guercino of Salome visiting John the Baptist in Prison. The sale, however, includes a substantial group on an altogether higher level, a recently discovered Titian Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, as well as a portrait by him, a pair of Frans Hals portraits, an amazing bagpiper by Hendrick Ter Brugghen, an important Claude Landscape with Mercury and Battus, an equally important Canaletto, as well as a Goya male portrait. This quick listing will serve to give an idea of the importance of this sale. Amidst all this, I can point out a nocturne by Joseph Wright of Derby of a burning cottage on a moonlight night, and, on quite a modest price level ($100,000-150,000), a psychologically acute portrait of Pope Benedict XIV by Piere Subleyras—only one of several desirable and accessible works.

The scope of these offerings make it impossible to do more than skim over the hundreds of works in the sales. At this dark moment, they offer, we hope, not only an education, a document of a crucial moment in the history of the art market, but an opportunity for renewal. Is it time yet? You will have to draw your own conclusions…but be sure to visit the sale rooms before you decide.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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