Of all saleroom seasons, the most unpredictable --and potentially exciting--is that of London in July. While the artists represented in any of the calendar's carefully curated Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions are more or less a foregone conclusion, it is anyone's guess what the July round of auctions, fairs and gallery exhibitions will turn up. For this is the time when old works of art of all kinds and all periods return to the light, often after decades or even centuries of lying unrecognised, forgotten or simply hidden in private collections.
As if to illustrate the point, Sotheby's offers the near-miraculous discovery of another Lewis chessman (Fig. 2). Unearthed on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis in 1831, the hoard of late 12th- or early 13th-century ivory figures are regarded as the most beloved and vividly resonant survivors from early medieval Europe, and not only in Britain, where most of them are divided between the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. As the auction-house publicity points out, their presence and mystery continues to beguile every new generation, citing as evidence Noggin the Nog, the adored animation of my childhood, the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) and the Japanese manga story Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure (2011).
The exact circumstances--even the exact location and size--of the find and its dispersal remain shrouded in mystery. What is known is that 92 walrus-ivory objects, 59 of them chessmen, were shown to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1831, and were bought from a Stornaway merchant by an Edinburgh art dealer. He sold 10 to a local antiquary before selling the rest to the British Museum. That antiquary was able to source another piece from someone on Lewis. At the time the pieces were carved, Lewis was part of the kingdom of Norway and the consensus is that the pieces were made in Trondheim and, given how little most of them are worn, were the stock of a merchant. His hoard, significantly, was five pieces short of four complete sets of chessmen, and the pieces missing were one knight and four warders, or rooks. It is a warder that is on offer here, purchased for 5 [pounds sterling] from one Edinburgh antiques dealer by another in 1964 but unrecognised as anything other than an antique chessman. Chess is a war game, but in Europe it also came to represent the structure of society. As the 13th-century Franciscan John of Wales wrote: 'The whole world is like a chessboard, of which one square is white and another black, following the dual state of life and death, praise and blame. The society of this chessboard are men of this world, who are all taken from a common bag, and placed in different parts of this world...'
What is striking is the variety of representation even within the specific categories of figures. The warders, standing foot soldiers, fall into two types: those biting the tops of their shields represent the fearsome Norse warriors known as berserkers; the majority, like this one, stand solemn and bearded with sword and shield. Needless to say, Sotheby's presents evidence to demonstrate that this piece is entirely consistent with the surviving group. This figure is interesting for not having been cleaned, and it may have once been green, as Icelandic sets were known to be. Sadly, it is not in the best of condition, which may explain why it was not offered as part of the original hoard. 600,000 [pounds sterling]-1m [pounds sterling] is expected on 2 July.
The two 2nd-century marble Celtic hounds offered by Bonhams on 3 July were found in 1795 in the ruins of the villa of the emperor Antoninus Pius at Laurentum, on the coast south-west of Rome; the celebrated English aesthete, collector and tastemaker Thomas Hope claimed them shortly afterwards. One of his earliest purchases, the engaging duo formed part of the statue gallery of his London townhouse-cum-museum, and now return to market for the first time since 1911 (estimate 200,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 3).
Another new discovery, to be auctioned at Sotheby's on 3 July, is the rare black-chalk drawing by the appealingly eccentric 16th-century painter Rosso Fiorentino. This compositional study for an existing and documented painting is specifically mentioned by Vasari: en route from Florence to Rome in 1524, Rosso stayed in Arezzo with his friend and fellow artist Giovanni Antonio Lappoli, who asked him to provide a drawing for a recently commissioned altarpiece. Rosso duly obliged, drawing from the nude model as was standard Renaissance practice, and here is the schizzetto tutto d'ignudi for the Visitation, squared up for transfer. The sheet was found among the Old Master drawings of an 18th-century artist, which had passed down through his family (500,000 [pounds sterling]-700,000 [pounds sterling]). Those with grander tastes might well prefer the virtuoso Canaletto ink-and-wash drawing of The Presentation of the Doge in S. Marco, one of the greatest of all drawings this 18th-century Venetian master ever made (1.5m [pounds sterling]-2m [pounds sterling]).
By the end of the 19th century, those with the grandest taste of all were the banking Rothschilds. On 4 July, Christie's offers 50 or so pieces exemplifying legout Rothschild, amassed in the main by Baron Gustave de Rothschild (1829-1911). Among them are 10 brilliantly hued lozenge-shaped enamel plaques of apostles of around 1540, painted by the French court enameller Leonard Limosin, who, like Rosso Fiorentino, worked at Fontainebleau, and was arguably the most lively and original of all the Limoges enamel painters. Three are signed. The set returns to the market for the first time since 1875 (200,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 1).
A scent of the School of Fontainebleau hovers around the similarly dazzling, and hardly larger, oil on copper Diana and Actaeon executed by Joachim Wtewael in 1608. This gem catches the moment when the hunter Actaeon accidentally spies the chaste goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing in the woods, and is duly punished. Transforming into a stag, he is about to be torn to shreds by his own hounds. The erotic frisson, and the perfect polish of the execution, are typical of the artist's cabinet pieces. Acquired in 1997 for $2.6m, it is now offered by Sotheby's in London on 3 July with an estimate of 4m [pounds sterling]-6m [pounds sterling]--his comparable Banquet of the Gods fetched $5-9m at Sotheby's New York in January.
This is such a strong season that there are too many good Old Masters and British paintings--and pastels--to single out. A final highlight of the week is one of the rarer models created by Johann Kandler for Augustus the Strong's menagerie of life-size porcelain birds and animals at his Japanese Palace in Dresden. This hen and chicks, housed with the Williams-Wynn family at Llangedwyn Hall since the mid 19th century, comes to Christie's Exceptional sale on 4 July with expectations of 300,000 [pounds sterling]-500,000 [pounds sterling].
To suggest that the 'Own the Controversy' ad campaign created for Christie's sale of Jeff Koons's Rabbit (1986) is more revelatory than the work of art itself is hardly fair, irrespective of whether you care for the shiny faux-inflatable or not. Yet the very existence of such a slick multichannel, multi-market operation has propelled the commodification of art to heady new heights (or depths). There were digital screens in Times Square, a 1950s-style film noir, bunny merchandising and a tongue-in-cheek light installation with giant neon letters spelling out 'ICON' with the 'I' pulsing on and off. People were invited to join the debate using the hashtags #goodbunny and #badbunny.
It was not 'people', of course, who would be bidding on a sculpture estimated at $50m-$70m, but a handful at most of superrich collectors who may or may not have previously been Koons enthusiasts. The campaign amused or infuriated 'us', but it apparently did the trick of massaging the egos of enough potential buyers to ensure that one of them, in a period of slumping Koons prices, wanted to bid--and, moreover, bid just enough to set a new auction record for a work by a living artist. The $91m result, including fees, returned the artist to this particular market pedestal, his place having been temporarily usurped by the sale of Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) in New York in November. In fact, the winning bid--$80m--was identical; only Christie's fees had changed.
Once again, Jeff Koons has tapped into the Zeitgeist. Just as his remade ready-made Pop sculptures with their gleamingly perfect surfaces mirrored--literally--the superficiality and excesses of 1980s consumer culture, so the sale of Rabbit, reportedly to the US billionaire hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, reflects the even grimmer excesses and inequalities of today. The global art market saw $67.4bn in sales in 2018, according to cultural economist Clare McAndrew, and during just 10 days during the May Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips another $2bn changed hands close to $ioom up on last year. Revealingly, just over half that amount was notched up at Christie's.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the fact that the season's most expensive lot was not Rabbit, or anything remotely similar, but a classic Impressionist oil on canvas. Claude Monet's luminous 1890 grainstack Meules (illustrated in these pages in May) came to the block at Sotheby's with expectations of some $55m and changed hands for a record $110.7m, easily surpassing the artist's previous auction record of $84.7m. It is the first Impressionist work to break the $100m barrier. Six bidders chased it.
A huge number of auction records tumbled this season. One of the most striking, on paper at least, was the 888.9m paid at Christie's for Robert Rauschenberg's monumental silkscreen painting Buffalo II (1964; Fig. 2), at the same Post-War and Contemporary evening sale as the Koons. This was almost five times the artist's previous auction high; but then, there has been a dearth of major paintings by this hugely significant artist, who bridged the worlds of Abstract Expressionism and Pop. The painting contains images appropriated from newspapers and magazines, as well as the artist's own photographs, which refer to momentous events, personalities, ubiquitous consumer products and symbols--space exploration, John F. Kennedy (assassinated before the work was finished), Coca-Cola, a bald eagle and a US Army helicopter--its jumble of disparate elements echoing the visual cacophony of the street and perception itself. A snapshot of American life in the Sixties, part public, part personal, it offers no cohering narrative. Buffalo II was exhibited at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where it won the artist the International Grand Prize in Painting, and had remained in the same collection since 1965. A cast of Louise Bourgeois's colossal bronze Spider, that powerful manifestation of primordial fear, was another of the auction's records, fetching $32m.
At Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale on 13 May, paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Balthus also established new auction highs. While the former's La Terrasse ou Une terrasse a Grasse of 1912 soared beyond expectations to sell for $19.6m, bidding on Balthus's Therese sur une banquette of 1939 stopped at the top end of its estimate. This final work of a remarkable series featuring the artist's neighbour's pubescent daughter had been chosen for the cover of the catalogue for 'Balthus: Cats and Girls--Paintings and Provocations' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. While there was no question of the work not selling--its sale had been guaranteed--it is tempting to imagine that its fortunes had suffered from the artist generating the wrong sort of controversy. Less than two years ago, an online petition called for the Met to remove another painting, Therese Dreaming (1938), from display. Therese sur une banquette, which realised $19m, was a rare leftfield offering in a season that catered, even more noticeably than usual, to risk-averse buyers.
As for the younger artists who provided highlights in the contemporary sales, bidding was manic on Dana Schutz's huge and bizarre Civil Planning of 2004 at Sotheby's on 16 May (Fig. 3). Sold against an estimate of $300,000-5400,000, its $2.4m supplanted the record of $980,000 set at Phillips just 90 minutes earlier. Art flavour of the month, however, proved to be KAWS, whose reimagined Smurfs rank with Koons's inflatables as manifestations of the infantilisation of the age.
Added to the modern art offering in New York were various tribal art sales. Art of Africa Masterworks at Christie's on 14 May included what was arguably the most celebrated example of a Songye kifwebe mask to have come to market (Fig. 1), a piece striking for both its bold graphic quality and what could be described as its interiority. In the catalogue, the 19th-century Songye sculptor who created it was hailed as a master of geometric abstraction. Also bearing a notable provenance, the Congolese piece changed hands for a mighty $4.2m, well over the high end of its estimate. Another record--$37,500--was set for a full costume from the Chokwe people of Angola, made of finely woven fibres in geometric patterns of brown, red and black.
In London on 14 May, meanwhile, a huge sum was found at Christie's for an impressive three-colour Chinese imperial carved lacquer throne. Its panels are carved with the traditional imperial motif of five-clawed dragons --an auspicious nine of them here--each pursuing pearls among dense and complex clouds. The greater proportion of the design is finely carved in red lacquer to reveal in part the yellow lacquer ground beneath, carved with lozenges, while the clouds bear small green lacquer extensions. Of the Qianlong period (1735-96) or possibly earlier, the throne came with an estimate of 800,000 [pounds sterling]-1.2m [pounds sterling] and cost its buyer 6.1m [pounds sterling].
Caption: 1. Plaque of St Matthew, one of a set of 10 apostles, c.1540, Leonard Limosin (c. 1505-75/77), parcel-gilt polychrome enamel, 13x 13cm. Christie's London (200,000 [pounds sterling]-2300,000 [pounds sterling] for the set)
Caption: 2. A warder, 13th century, probably Trondheim, Norway, walrus ivory, ht 8.8cm. Sotheby's London (600,000 [pounds sterling]-1m [pounds sterling])
Caption: 3. One of two Celtic hounds, c.2nd century, Roman, marble, ht74.5cm. Bonhams London (200,000 [pounds sterling]-300,000 [pounds sterling] for both)
Caption: 1. Kifwebe mask, 19th century, Songye, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood and pigment, ht 37cm. Christie's New York, $4.2m
Caption: 2. Buffalo II, 1964, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 243.8 x 183.8cm. Christie's New York, $88.9m
Caption: 3. Civil Planning, 2004, Dana Schutz (b. 1976), oil on canvas, 289.6 x 426.7cm. Sotheby's New York, $2.4m
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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