Rare Old Master? Cue Furious Bidding

Article excerpt

Last-chance syndrome works wonders where big names are concerned.

Behind an appearance of remarkable vigor, the market for Old Master paintings is heading for troubled waters.

The round of winter auctions that began last week at Christie's on Jan. 25 and ended at Sotheby's two days later may well come to be seen as a watershed. True, higher prices than ever were paid for a number of pictures perceived as highly important within the oeuvre of famous artists from every school and period.

On that Wednesday the big winner at Christie's was the presentation picture, or modello, submitted by Giambattista Tiepolo in 1744 for a fresco that he was commissioned to paint by the Venetian patrician Vincenzo Pisani: "The Arrival of Henry III at the Villa Contarini."

The fresco survives in much degraded condition after it was taken from its wall to be remounted in the townhouse of its Parisian buyers, which is now the Musee Jacquemart Andre. Art history as much as intrinsic merit helped Tiepolo's modello set a world auction record for the Venetian master at a very generous $5.9 million.

Another world record was achieved for the Leiden 17th-century artist Gerrit Dou with an equally unusual work. Dou is known for his pleasant scenes and sweet portraits of no great consequence. With the picture sold last week, he rose to the level of the greatest Dutch masters of his time. The likeness of a woman giving the viewer a look both wistful and searching caused a sensation among connoisseurs. Johnny Van Haeften, the London dealer, paid $3.33 million to secure the unique masterpiece of a genre painter.

A similar surprise effect sent a preparatory study by Rubens for his famous "Assumption of the Virgin" soaring far above its estimate to $2.43 million. As with the Tiepolo, the impressionistic sketchiness that appeals to the modern eye was a factor in the price.

Moments before, immense rarity helped a small portrait signed by Thomas de Keyser in 1627 shoot up to an astonishing $1.48 million. The octagonal portrait on copper retains its pristine colors and crispness, making it doubly irresistible. It multiplied the high estimate two and a half times.

As Christie's switched to the French 18th-century school in the afternoon, two matching compositions by Fragonard rose to yet another record, set at $3.67 million. They are considered by specialists to be hugely important for the close connection they display to Francois Boucher. The two paintings done around 1770 are so close to the style of Boucher in whose workshop young Fragonard worked as an assistant that they were at one time ascribed to the older artist.

In one picture, "Le Jour," putti hover above white billowy clouds. In the other, "La Nuit," the putti are fast asleep over clouds as if they were couches. The compositions, which suit the taste of a bygone era, border on kitsch, despite Fragonard's impeccable craftsmanship. History rather than art saved the day.

Sure enough, two other Fragonards that came up immediately before and after fell unwanted, even though both are vastly superior as painterly achievement goes. But French 18th-century aesthetics have become too alien to the modern eye. They did not sell.

The Fragonard failures were no freakish accidents.

One of the most accomplished pictures by Francois Hubert Drouais portraying the young children of the Duc de Bouillon dressed as montagnards from the Savoie was much admired not so long ago. When seen at Sotheby's on Jan. 30, 1997, it brought $1,212,500. As recently as Jan. 24, 2008, the Drouais still realized $1,217,000.

Last week, the twee rendition of the children with doll-like blue eyes and rosy cheeks proved lethal.

Some far better French 18th-century paintings found takers only because the auctioneer was willing to let them go below the lower end of the estimate.

An outstanding portrait of her mother by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun fetched only $122,500. …