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
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
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
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. …