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Collectors' focus: recent months have seen Dutch Golden age paintings soaring over their auction estimates to achieve record prices--driven partly by an emerging Asian interest, and an increased awareness of the value of these pictures as assets.

Those perennials of classic European collections--the Dutch still life and the Dutch landscape or seascape--seemed to have reached their market peak seven years ago. But two recent sales in London set a new bar in the market. On 3 July, at Christie's London's sale of the collection of Pieter and Olga Dreesmann, one star lot, A Calm--A smalschip and a kaag at anchor with an English man-o'-war beyond by Willem van de Velde II (1633-1707), realised 4m [pound sterling]. Soaring above its estimate of 2.5m [pound sterling]-3.5m [pound sterling], another historical seascape by the artist also exceeded all expectations the following evening at Sotheby's London. The Surrender of the Royal Prince during the Four Days'Battle, 1st4th June 1666 achieved 5.3m [pound sterling] against an estimate of 1.5m [pound sterling]-2.5m [pound sterling]. Together, the sales confirmed the generally high prices for Van de Velde II's vivid evocations of sea and sky, and suggested the market in Dutch Old Masters is burgeoning.

At Christie's London, further surprises were the 1.7m [pound sterling], 1.8m [pound sterling]and 2.3m [pound sterling] paid for three still lifes by Adriaen Coorte (c. 1663-after 1707). Of the three, Asparagus and redcurrants on a stone ledge secured the top price (Fig. 3), but an exquisite still life by Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657) achieved an even more impressive 2.6m [pound sterling] against an estimate of 800,000 [pound sterling]-1.2m [pound sterling]. It suggests that at the very top of the market, for the best pieces with unimpeachable provenance, collectors are ready to pay a great deal. The other surprise was the strong Asian interest, with Asian buyers for the Van der Ast and one Coorte, as well as the top lot, the 1626-27 Rembrandt painting A man in a gorget and cap, bought for 8.4m [pound sterling]. Johnny Van Haeften, dealer in Dutch pictures, remarks: 'The market is undoubtedly continuing to go up. The Asian interest is very difficult to gauge as these buyers like to buy at auction.' He adds that he would have sold the Van der Ast for lm [pound sterling], but that few Asian buyers come through his door, preferring the competitive edge of the saleroom: 'The Chinese like to gamble.'

Certainly works by Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621), the earliest and most prized of the flower painters, are highly sought after. In 2008, CHF 5.8m (3.8m [pound sterling]) was paid at Koller Auctions in Switzerland for a 1608 oil on copper bouquet of flowers with butterflies and a shell, still the record for the artist. As William Mitchell of John Mitchell Fine Paintings explains: 'Every picture Bosschaert painted is so meticulous. And there are very few--40 or 50 known paintings perhaps. With works of this kind, condition is paramount. Eighty per cent of the value is condition, and copper is durable--people get quite frenetic about copper paintings.' Richard Knight, co-chairman of Old Masters and British Paintings at Christie's London, remarks: 'People love quality of execution and subjects which are easy to explain. These pictures appeal to serious collectors, the trophy hunters and those aware of the value of these pictures as assets.'


London dealer Richard Green bought Flowers in a glass vase on a draped table ... by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/4; Fig. 1) for 3m [pound sterling] in the July sale at Christie's London. '[It] exemplifies what people are looking for,' he states. 'It is by a major master. It's an exquisite, lavish composition. It's in superb condition and it's flesh to the market, having not been seen in public since 1921.' He continues: 'Certain artists have been strongly sought after recently because they appeal to a contemporary aesthetic--the very simple but arresting still lifes of Adriaen Coorte, for example, which weren't known at all before the 1950s.' More generally, he adds: 'The difference between a good still life and the best can be 10 to 20 times the price.'


Mr Van Haeften comments: 'In very broad terms, northern European collectors tend to go for the simpler, more austere, still lifes, while the southern French, Italians, and Spanish go for the more lavish pictures.' Sarah Gordon, director at Lawrence Steigrad Fine Art in New York, states: 'Currently we are seeing collectors buy more still lifes. The market taste is for scenes that are meticulously done, with each object clearly defined and bold in an isolated space.' Most of its clients are Belgian, Dutch and German, though it is seeing more US buyers. The gallery will take Still life of a roemer surrounded by vine tendrils and fruits by Laurens Craen (active 1649-after 1664) to Maastricht next year (Fig. 2). 'Craen's works are very scarce as only about 20 were ever painted. This rarity is a quality all collectors are searching for,' Ms Gordon says.

Daisy Prevost Marcilhacy at Galerie de Jonckheere in Paris concurs that 'people now look for the very special, the out of the ordinary'. Her perception is that 'still lifes have gone down,' and the gallery will be taking Dutch landscapes and history paintings to Frieze Masters later this month. Mr Mitchell further notes 'a shift away from the Haarlem landscape,' produced by artists such as Van Goyen and Salomon van Ruisdael. He adds: 'Jacob van Ruisdael [1628/9-82], however, is on a pedestal.'

The market for Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) remains steady. It is a Hobbema that holds the record for a Dutch landscape, set in 2001 at Christie's London with a wooded landscape that achieved 6.5m [pound sterling]. Another untouched area of the market, he says, are the winter landscapes of Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634). 'A good Avercamp,' states Mr Mitchell, 'is about as rare as the Thames freezing.' In 2004, Avercamp's A winter scene with many figures skating on a frozen river, achieved $8.7m at Sotheby's New York.

George Gordon, co-chairman of Sotheby's Worldwide Old Master Paintings, adds: 'There has been a steady refinement in the market for Dutch landscapes. People have become much more selective. The middle range is not as strong as it was 50 years ago, but the top end continues to do well.' Perhaps it is in order to revive the middle market that London dealer Derek Johns has set up a joint venture in Singapore with entrepreneur and collector Chng Hock Huat. The new--and as yet unnamed gallery--will specialise in European Old Masters, and include Dutch landscapes by Philips Wouwerman and Jan Bruegel the Elder.

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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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