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Art Market.

A superb selection of bronzes comes to the block in London, alongside a celebrated Rembrandt drypoint and Chippendale commode. In May, the New York salerooms--boosted by Christie's record-breaking Rockefeller auctions--notched up almost $3bn

Preview

Has there been a more spectacular selection of sculpture for sale in living memory? Certainly the London sales this July offer some extraordinary works. The most valuable--almost inevitably--are the bronzes, a material in which there has been a surge of interest in recent years.

In its Treasures sale of 4 July, Sotheby's offers what is known as The Dresden Mars, an outstanding cast of Giambologna's compelling conception of heroic masculinity--a sculpture of a god fit for a prince and indeed made for one (Fig. 1). It is, moreover, one of the very few of this master's bronzes to be firmly documented during his lifetime--a rare reassurance in a market structured on the complex nuances of contemporary and later casting.

While not the earliest cast of Mars, this is certainly one whose detailing and golden surface this genius of a sculptor took great pains to perfect. Apart from the lively chiselling of the glowering god of war's locks of hair and beard, it is the articulation of the powerful musculature and veins as they work across a moving body primed for action that is remarkable here. His spine forms a sinuous arch as he halts his stride and swings his right arm back to attack with a now lost sword, the other arm dramatically raised and turned to offer balance. Mars is dynamic, confident and strong. He was an appropriate choice of subject for a gift to Christian I, Elector of Saxony, in 1587.

Quite why the sculptor decided to make this gift is less clear. One might have thought he was touting for work, but he was engaged exclusively as the court sculptor to the Medici in Florence. It seems that the gesture pleased the Elector who promptly commissioned an extravagant gold necklace from the goldsmith Urban Schneeweiss to thank him, and this the sculptor is thought to be wearing in the portrait by Hendrik Goltzius.

Nationalised from the royal collection in 1919 and restituted to the House of Wettin five years later and subsequently sold, the statuette has spent the last 30 years in the corporate collection of Bayer AG, a standalone piece amid the company's holdings of modern art. A market rarity, it now comes to the block with expectations of 3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling].

Christie's counters with two superlative bronzes from the court of Louis XIV. The first is a metre-high equestrian portrait of the Sun King by his court sculptor, Francois Girardon. Cast some time between 1690 and 1699, it is a reduced-scale version of the monumental seven-metre-high statue made for the Place Vendome and destroyed during the French Revolution. Girardon took the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius as his inspiration, placing his king in Roman armour atop a prancing steed. One of four documented bronzes cast under the sculptor's supervision, it is believed to have been the example in the sculptor's collection engraved in the Galerie de Girardon. Lost to scholarship until 1993, it re-emerges on the market bearing an estimate of 7m [pounds sterling]-10m [pounds sterling]. Louis XIV's gift to his son and heir in 1681 is a quite different beast, as classical decorum is replaced by the tumultuous struggle of Hercules wrestling the river god Achelous in the guise of a bull, a work by the 17th-century Florentine Ferdinando Tacca. The bull still bears the French royal inventory number. Around 5m [pounds sterling] is expected.

Of course, the season sees more than bronze. Sotheby's highlights range from a small-scale and superbly carved boxwood Corpus Christi attributed to Veit Stoss of around 1490-1500 (200,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling]), to two rediscovered marbles: Bust of Peace, an idealised and austerely neoclassical female head by Canova (estimate in excess of 1m [pounds sterling]), also in the Treasures sale, and Sarah Bernhardt's Hermione, offered on 11 July (80,000 [pounds sterling]-20,000 [pounds sterling]). No doubt more extraordinary works will be unveiled by the sculpture dealers participating in London Art Week (29 June-6 July).

It could be argued that this London season champions the underdogs of the classic art markets. An unusual highlight of Christie's Old Master evening sale on 5 July is Rembrandt's Christ Presented to the People ('Ecce Homo'), not a painting but a drypoint print of 1655 by arguably the greatest and most innovative printmaker of all (Fig. 2). Of a monumental scale, this complex scene with Pontius Pilate and Christ on the tribune above the crowds reveals the artist at the height of his powers and in command of his medium. In this particularly expressive technique, the artist scratches directly on to the metal plate with a needle to produce a line with a raised burr alongside, and it is this that holds the ink and produces a rich, velvety effect. It has all the immediacy of drawing and allows for the subtleties of human expression for which the Dutch master is renowned.

This example, printed on luxury paper imported from Japan, is one of only eight known impressions of the first state and the only one to remain in private hands. It comes from the collection of the late Samuel Josefowitz, one of the great print collectors of the 20th century and known for his passion for Rembrandt. Expected to fetch in the region of 2.2m [pounds sterling]-3.5m [pounds sterling], it is an unprecedented estimate for a single print.

That other 17th-century Northern European colossus, Peter Paul Rubens, also takes a bow here. In what can only be described as a salutary tale, the small, intimate portrait of the artist's first child, Clara Serena, was deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. Deemed to be by a follower of the master, it was sent to auction with an estimate of $20,000--$30,000. The canny purchaser who followed his instincts and paid $626,500 for it had the old varnish and the overpainting removed. The result was transformative, and it emerged as a direct and freely painted portrait of a beloved but ill child, presumably made just before Clara Serena's death at the age of 12 in 1623. Estimate 3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling].

Christie's celebrates Thomas Chippendale on 5 July in a 22-lot sale encompassing a wide range of objects, styles and techniques. While a richly ornamented George III marquetry dressing-table of around 1772 comes to market for the first time (300,000 [pounds sterling]-500,000 [pounds sterling]), the illustrious neoclassical mahogany and Indian ebony commode of around 1766-69, supplied to his early patron Sir Rowland Winn of Nostell Priory, probably for his London town house, is returning to auction (estimate 3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling]; Fig. 3). In 1991, the commode established a new auction record for Chippendale when it sold at the landmark sale of the Messer collection for 935,000 [pounds sterling]. The pair of grand giltwood sofas here (estimate 2m [pounds sterling]-3m [pounds sterling] each) that were made to the designs of Robert Adam and supplied to Sir Lawrence Dundas in 1765, broke that record again in 1997.

Caption: Fig. 1. The Dresden Mars, before 1587, Giambologna (1529-1608), bronze, ht 39.3cm. Sotheby's London (3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling])

Caption: Fig. 2. Christ Presented to the People ('Ecce Homo), 1655, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69), drypoint on Japan paper, 38.2 x 44.7cm. Christie's London (2.2m [pounds sterling]-3.5m [pounds sterling])

Caption: Fig. 3. Sir Rowland Winn's Commode, c. 1766-69, Thomas Chippendale (1718-79), mahogany and Indian ebony, 89 x 158.5 x 58.5cm. Christie's London (3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling])

Review

It is impossible to gauge precisely how much money was spent on art in New York in May. Suffice it to say that Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips notched up a total of almost $3bn in just two weeks, to which must be added the largely undisclosed dealers' sales from two major fairs--Frieze and TEFAF New York Spring--and from innumerable gallery shows. Even without the $832.6m bonus of Christie's record-breaking Rockefeller sales this year, the auction figures topped those of last May. It is safe to assume, therefore, that the appetite for buying art as an asset--or for pleasure--has not diminished amongst the global super-rich. Beyond that, it is difficult to draw many conclusions from this richly various series of sales but a number of impressions emerged nonetheless.

First, hats off to Christie's. While there was not much doubt that the Rockefeller sales would break the previous auction record set for a single art collection--that of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, which made $483.8m in 2009--they far exceeded the collection's pre-sale estimate of around $6oom. That every single one of the 1,500 works offered found a new owner was an impressive achievement, and testimony to the professionalism and hard graft of employees across the whole company. For while the works of art came with a dream provenance, not all of them were of the first rank and a great many were far from what is deemed fashionable.

On the opening night, it soon became clear that despite a crowded saleroom, there were few actual participants in this 44-lot sale. As is often said, the air is thin at the top, but the lacklustre response to the star turn--Picasso's Fillete a la corbeille fleurie of 1905--seemed to presage the fate of this season's overhyped lots. Despite the auctioneer's evident incredulity, feigned or real, it seemed that only one person wanted to bid on the picture--possibly the guarantor who had pledged $100m for it. So the Rose Period painting changed hands for $ii5m, including commission.

A similar fate befell Modigliani's 1917 Nu couche, offered at Sotheby's on 14 May. This came with an estimate of $150m, the highest ever placed on a single work of art at auction. Bidding opened at $12501, but there appeared to be no takers at any offered sum until finally, after several seemingly interminable pauses, the head of the department secured the canvas on a bid of $139m--presumably on behalf of the guarantor ($157m with commission, and not even an artist record). It is tempting to conclude that in this age of maverick and, shall we say, inexperienced global buying, the auction houses have concluded that all they have to do is slap an impressively vast estimate on something appealing and everyone will go crazy and compete for it. These painfully long interludes do nothing for a sale's atmosphere and momentum. Perhaps it is time for Sotheby's and Christie's to rethink their strategy.

It was striking, too, at the inaugural Rockefeller sale, to note that the most favoured lots were often the most highly or brightly coloured. Monet's dazzling violet and green Nympheas enfleur was a case in point. It was fought over by at least five contenders who pushed the price beyond its $som estimate to the $7Sm bid by the deputy chairman of Christie's Asia, a busy person that night. A record $84.68m with commission, it was a great deal for a late, studio-stamped Monet. Who would have imagined it would make more than Matisse's voluptuous and marketrare Odalisque couchee aux magnolias? That sold for a record $80.75m, and also went to an Asian buyer (Fig. 3).

Vibrant colour seemed key for Asian bidding evident in subsequent sales too. Was it a coincidence that David Hockney's joyous Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica of 1990 fetched a new auction record when it was claimed through Sotheby's Patty Wong for $28.45m on 16 May?

The vertiginous perspective and multiple viewpoints of the Hockney are also indebted to Song dynasty scroll-painting, and it was intriguing to note the success of works in the format of such traditional Chinese paintings. At the Rockefeller sale, a brightly coloured four-screen panel by the Nabis painter Armand Seguin--hardly a household name--prompted eager contestants to shout out their bids, and the work soared $6m over estimate to fetch an unlikely $7.7m. Bidders evidently cared nothing for art-historical importance. Les rues de Paris, Vuillard's tall, narrow decorative panels made for the playwright Henry Bernstein, similarly exceeded expectations.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, was the huge success of the Rockefellers' deeply unfashionable decorative arts. While several of the couple's more conservative paintings struggled to reach their auction estimates, 18th- and 19th-century porcelains in particular soared. Here Christie's had been temptingly conservative in its estimates, and lots such as the 'Marly Rouge' Sevres part dessert service made for Napoleon, estimated at 150,000 [pounds sterling]-250,000 [pounds sterling], changed hands for $1.8m (Fig. 2). A Chinese export 'Tobacco Leaf assembled dinner service of around 1775 fetched $1.15m --one of 67 sets in the sale.

Even in the Part II sale, a set of six George III yew and elm 'Gothick' Windsor armchairs sold for $336,500 against an estimate of $50,000-$80,000. And so it went on. Of course, there were trophy hunters who wanted to take away a piece of Rockefeller, but the quantities offered and sold were huge and the enthusiasm of their reception suggests that there is more appetite for these objects than some auction houses care to believe.

Of all the myriad wonderful works on offer this month, the one that stopped me in my tracks was Kerry James Marshall's epic late 20th-century fete champetre, Past Times (Fig. 1). Standing in front of this almost four-metre-wide canvas, it was shocking to realise the obvious: there are no black faces in the canon of Western art other than examples of the exotic other. Marshall's figures are intentionally very black, flat and stylised, and although ostensibly enjoying the pleasurable leisure activities of the urban middle classes in this sunny lakeside park--waterskiing, playing croquet or golf--no one is smiling. For this is both rebuke and parody of the great American Dream from which so many African Americans have been excluded. Marshall's Arcadian scene is fringed with grim high-rise social housing that provided the artist with the ironic title of his Garden Projects series.

Fresh from the artist's rapturously received retrospective in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, the acrylic and collage work of 1997 was sent to auction by Sotheby's New York with an estimate of $8m-$12m. It sold for $2i.im, far surpassing the artist's previous auction high of $5m and setting a new record for a living African-American artist. Its buyer was the rapper and music producer Sean 'Diddy' Combs.

Caption: Fig. 1. Past Times, 1997, Kerry James Marshall (b.1955), acrylic and collage on canvas, 275 x 398.8cm. Sotheby's New York, 21.1m [pounds sterling]

Caption: Fig. 2. The 'Marly Rouge' Service, c. 1807-09, Sevres, porcelain part dessert service. Christie's New York, $1.8m

Caption: Fig. 3. Odalisque couchee aux magnolias, 1923, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), oil on canvas, 60.5 x 81.1cm. Christie's New York, $80.75m
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Author:Moore, Susan
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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