Canny collectors buy against the market but this can be a challenge if the work is totally at odds with the taste of the day. The highlight of a handsome group of fine and decorative arts from a Spanish private collection offered at Christie's London on 7 December--an eclectic group ranging from a Hellenistic terracotta to a Botero bronze could hardly be less fashionable. Bartolome Esteban Murillo's St Joseph and the Christ Child is. however, a wonderful piece of painting and an affecting image (Fig. 1).
Murillo's great gift was to endow his religious subjects with an entirely believable naturalism and a visionary otherworldliness. Here we are offered a moment of familial tenderness, as St Joseph gently takes the hand of the Christ Child to present him to the viewer. It is a gesture to be found across time and on every street and yet, of course, this is no ordinary child, as his golden halo and the glory of angels above bear witness. He may look upon us with an unflinching gaze, but it is one full of a heartrending sorrow.
There is something of the sweetness and palette of Barocci here, and it is striking that Joseph is not the usual old man but young, handsome and Christ-like. Prolific and popular in his day, Murillo remained highly prized among collectors across Europe well into the 18th century when this large altarpiece was among the paintings acquired in Spain by an English merchant and banker whose widow brought it home. It was in the Byng family collection at Wrotham Park from the early 19th century to 1990 when Christie's London sold it for 2.4m [pounds sterling], and it emerged again at Sotheby's New York in 1998 to fetch $2.75m. Now it bears an estimate of 3m [pounds sterling]-5m [pounds sterling]--not necessarily the kind of financial return auction houses care to boast about.
Murillo exerted a profound influence on 18th-century painters too, not least Greuze and Gainsborough. It is the likes of the Constable oil sketch offered at Christie's Old Master and British Paintings evening sale on 8 December, however, which represent the other end of the spectrum of contemporary taste in this sale category. This little oil sketch on paper, Beaching a Boat, Brighton, is as free and fresh as one could hope, with Constable's purple-brown primer still visible under the racing clouds and the painting's near monochrome palette dextrously enhanced by a touch of brilliant yellow and of red, and bold gestural sweeps of creamy pigment (Fig. 2).
This was one of a group of plein air sketches that the artist made while visiting his wife convalescing on the south coast in the summer of 1824. As he wrote to his friend John Fisher, all 'were done in the lid of my box on my knees as usual'. This work is of particular note as he used it for his large studio sketch and final canvas of Chain Pier, Brighton, of 1826-27. It also bears a more colourful history than most. It had been given to Tate in 1986, but in 2013 the heirs of the great Hungarian Jewish collector Baron Hatvany claimed the painting. Hatvany had bought it in Paris in 1908 and deposited it with other works in a Budapest bank during the Allied bombing of the city, where it was seized either by the Nazis or by the Red Army. Despite new evidence coming to light of a deeply suspect 1946 export licence, the UK's Spoliation Advisory Panel recommended restitution. The little sketch, laid on canvas, now bears an estimate Of 500,000 [pounds sterling]-800,000 [pounds sterling].
An unpublished early 16th-century bronze statuette of a satyr steals the show at Sotheby's London's Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on 6 December. Such small-scale bronzes are probably the most evocative manifestations of the poetic paganism of the Italian High Renaissance, treating as they do the mythical bestiary of monsters of the classical imagination--hydras, chimeras, tritons, and the like. Satyrs, male followers of Dionysus, god of wine, ritual madness, and fertility, are usually half-man and half-goat, depicted with furry thighs, hooves, pointed ears, and horns and, of course, a permanent erection. For the humanist scholars of the day, their duality manifesting the unbridled forces of human nature seemed to have particular appeal.
The master of the small classicising bronze in the great university city of Padua was Andrea Riccio, and this statuette is attributed to Desiderio da Firenze, a sculptor active in the city from 1532 to 1545, who may have worked with Riccio or inherited his models. (There is possibly no field of art-historical scholarship more contentious than Old Master bronzes.) This salacious but sadly emasculated satyr is one of the finest versions of a model known in a small number of casts and variants, and appears to lunge forward as if cradling something in his arms--perhaps a missing satyress. Estimate 150,000 [pounds sterling]-250,000 [pounds sterling].
While the satyr reflects a growing taste for small-scale bronzes for the private collector, the diorite bust of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet from an enthroned, full-length figure reveals the Egyptian taste for the public and monumental (Fig. 3). Both, coincidentally, were associated with feasts of great intoxication. This Sekhmet was probably among the 600 or so images of the goddess of war and protector of the king that lined the courts of the great Temple of Mut, built largely by Amenhotep III at Thebes around 1400 BC. Most of the surviving figures have long been dispersed among the great museums of the world, but we have seen a few on the market recently. A damaged but full-length example that once belonged to John Lennon sold at Sotheby's New York last year for just over $4m. This bust, from the collection of the late surrealist poet Joyce Mansour and her husband Samir, comes to the same saleroom on 15 December with an estimate of $3m-$5m.
Also on 15 December is the highly anticipated dispersal of Madeleine Meunier's estate through Christie's Paris in association with Millon. Meunier was married to the legendary dealer Charles Ration and, previously, Aristide Courtois, a French colonial administrator in the Congo who brought hundreds of tribal objects to France. The highlight of the sale is the pre-contact Luba-Shankadi headrest attributed to the Master of the Cascade Coiffure, active in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 19th century. Such headrests were conceived to protect the sleeper's elaborate hairstyle (estimate 500,000 [euro]-800,000 [euro]). On offer are some 80 items of African and Oceanic art, as well as 60 antiquities.
At the beginning of the month in London's Regent's Park, Frieze Masters (6-9 October) presented what was arguably its most impressive edition to date, and the month ended with the launch of a dazzling TEFAF New York Fall (22-26 October). At the very least, both served as a reminder that although auctions will always claim the headlines--saleroom prices are public while private transactions are just that --it is the dealers who source and sell most of the works of art in the world. On the evidence of much of what was seen in those nine days or so, they are offering us fresh and fabulous material of a kind not always to be found in the major auction houses.
It was striking how many dealers presented works that they had been stalking for decades or researching for years. Tribal specialist Lance Entwistle, for instance, sold an extraordinary and unusually naturalistic mask made of wood and human hair by the Makonde people of northern Mozambique and southeast Tanzania, which he had been tracking for 25 years as it moved around the world. The finest known example of its type, it had an asking price of around 500,000 [euro] (Fig. 3).
A US museum reserved for a sum 'well into seven figures' another sculptural tour de force, an unusually large and early Japanese Shinto carved figure of a seated attendant. Dating to the Heian period (794-1185), this wooden sculpture took pride of place on the stand of London Gallery and Sebastian Izzard, which collaborated to present 'One Thousand Years of Japanese Art'. Despite its weathering and damage (the hand and bow are recent additions), the figure retains a compelling repose and dignity. After it had spent decades in his stores, Alexander Rudigier offered a monumental carved reclining figure of the sleeping Jesse, father of King David, sporting a gloriously curling beard and swathed in a complex relief of drapery. Dated to around 1500, it was recently attributed to Veit Stoss, the greatest of all German medieval sculptors (asking price 9.5m [euro]).
Outstanding 14th-century gilt-bronze apostles were found at Sam Fogg, as well as a frieze fragment of Persepolis. In fact, antiquities proved to be the new strength of this fair, after pulling in first-time exhibitors Phoenix Ancient Art and Kallos to join the likes of Rupert Wace, which has found clients here from the very first edition.
There were even discoveries to be found among the Old Master paintings, still the section of the fair that looks uncomfortable. Jean-Luc Baroni, for instance, had found a gem of a character study of around 1780 by the underappreciated Gaetano Gandolfi --a disconsolate and daringly bare-breasted Mary Magdalen, perhaps. In fresh condition, unlined and on its original stretcher in a 'Gandolfina' frame, it was snapped up by a private collector for around 350,000 [pounds sterling].
What there was this year was less showbiz --no bad thing, as Frieze London across the park had plenty of that. Helly Nahmad contented himself by presenting just three imposing Picassos, although Dickinson did stage a spectacular Surrealist installation based around the earliest of Magritte's L'Empire des lumieres, dated 1949 (priced over 20m [pounds sterling]).
Some of the prices asked at both fairs were eye-watering in their ambition, but October's contemporary art auctions also set the mark high. What dealer could hope to sell an Adrian Ghenie for 7m [pounds sterling]? Yet a record price of 7.1m [pounds sterling] is what his Nickelodeon of 2008 fetched at Christie's London on 6 October. The Romanian artist just can't produce enough work to supply the demand in the primary market. Auctions are the very public barometers of the market generally, and in this sense auction houses bear great responsibility. Their prudence paid off this season, with small, choice evening sales that were around 90 per cent sold by lot and 97 per cent by value at both Christie's (total 34m [pounds sterling]) and Sotheby's (total 47.9m [pounds sterling]). Spirited bidding at the Leslie Waddington sale at Christie's London on 4 October had started Frieze Week on a high, with everything from his private collection selling over estimate for 28.3m [pounds sterling].
The low value of sterling was probably as attractive to foreign buyers as the art itself, and that dubious advantage suited the London-based dealers exhibiting later in the month at TEFAF New York Fall. The fair looked stunning --the Park Avenue Armory's dingy entrance halls brightened by white scrim and cascading flowers, and some of the upstairs period rooms offered intriguing backdrops for exhibitors. Most importantly, the dealers pulled out all the stops by offering a plethora of outstanding works of art, many of which were also fresh to the market. The concentration of quality on the stands--small by the standards of Maastricht --was remarkable.
Of course, everyone was curious to see the new fair, and the VIP opening was crawling with major collectors, museum directors and curators from across North America, taking items off the more theatrically lit stands to pore over them. And they weren't just looking.
In the opening hour Phoenix Ancient Art sold three pieces, including the marble Aphrodite at the centre of its stylish 'Park Avenue Pantheon', which sold to a European collector for a seven-figure sum; the antiquities dealer went on to sell all three of its Corinthian helmets during the charity gala. It was not the only armour to find a new home. Peter Finer sold the best suit of early 16th-century Maximilian field armour he had ever seen to an American collector for a high-seven-figure sum. Richard Green sold a Venetian view by Bernardo Bellotto with a price tag of $sm.
Everyone seemed to have made multiple sales, and the sales themselves ticked various boxes. Robilant + Voena, for instance, sold what the late, great art historian Roberto Longhi deemed to be the masterpiece of the Caravaggesque painter Bartolomeo Manfredi (see Collectors' Focus, pp. 96-97), a St John the Baptist, to an Asian collector, for $2.sm (Fig. 1). Lowell Libson sold a Turner watercolour and a Constable oil sketch to new clients. Daniel Katz sold a 16th-century Spanish vanitas panel to a contemporary art dealer. Daniel Crouch Rare Books was able to announce a sale to an American institution--the only complete example of a planisphere of the Dutch Golden Age ($820,000; Fig. 2)--but many more museum purchases will follow in due course. Three institutions expressed the desire to buy the wondrous marble carving in shallow relief of the Resurrection of Christ at Dickinson, a work of around 1553 attributed to the rarely seen Pierino da Vinci, and there was similar enthusiasm for Salviati's portrait on slate at Carlo Orsi.
The consensus was that New York had never seen anything like this fair. What is more complex to determine is what this will mean for Maastricht. For some, it may whet an appetite to see what the far larger parent fair can offer. Other serious collectors told me that they no longer needed to make the journey to Maastricht. Either way, the Dutch fair needs to take note of the lessons learned here.