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Old master sculpture: eye-catching images with exciting provenances are regularly smashing the old 'glass ceiling' of 1 million [pounds sterling] in this specialised market.

'Big Money is chasing Vanishing Goods' trumpeted The International Herald Tribune. but when, yesterday? No--comfortingly--a decade ago (27/28 July 1996). We have survived the millennium and--despite various corporate convulsions in the auction world--the art market continues to flourish, if ever more frenetically. The niche in it occupied by 'Old Master' sculpture is small, underpopulated in terms of dealers and collectors: it has no 'domestic collectorly base' such as is enjoyed by, say, furniture, silver or ceramics--the things that people tend to buy first when they begin to feel prosperous. Alas, the demand is sporadic and in part for decoration, or for intensely historical and intellectual trophies by great sculptors of the past, preferably with exciting provenances. The premium is on eye-catching, unforgettable images.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is emerging as a major collector in the new millennium under its energetic and perceptive director, Timothy Potts. It has added to its renowned collection of paintings two superlative terracottas (prices not known): a model by Bernini for his fountain statue of The Moor in Piazza Navona, Rome, via Salander-O'Reilly, New York, who had bought it at Sotheby's London in July 2002 for 2 million [pounds sterling]; and a portrait of a ravishing renaissance princess (possibly Isabella d'Este) attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano. This had been levered out of the Thyssen Collection by Daniel Katz of London (both were illustrated in APOLLO in December 2004). Also from Thyssen, but via the auction route, was a third terracotta of fabulous quality, a Virgin and Child by Andrea Riccio (c. 1470-32), acquired at Sotheby's London on 10 December 2002 by the J. Paul Getty Museum (3.3m [pounds sterling]).

A price over twice as much was paid by Sheik Saud al-Thani of Qatar, towards the end of his recent buying spree, for the only other trophy of renaissance sculpture to surface since the millennium. This was the previously unknown parcel-gilt bronze roundel showing Mars, Venus and Cupid at Vulcan's Forge (Fig. 2) from a minor English country house. Clearly from the circle of the Gonzaga in Mantua, whose principal court artists were Mantegna and Antico, it was perhaps fashioned by the bronze specialist Gian Marco Cavallli. Its convenient size, secular subject and scintillating appearance attracted many punters, but the Sheik outbid them all at 6.2 million [pounds sterling]. High though this may sound, the record for a sculpture of any school sold at auction is $27.4m, for Brancusi's Bird in Space (1922) (Christie's New York, May 2005).

In the Old Master sector, however, what used to be the 'glass ceiling' of 1 million [pounds sterling] is now being breached once or twice a year in public sales. Prior to 1989, only three marble busts by Bernini had fetched that sum or more, but in that year Gianfracesco Susini's Patis Abducting Helen (Ader, Picard, Tajan, Paris, 15 April, 2.2m [pounds sterling]); Giambologna's signed bronze of the Rape of a Sabine (Christie's, 2.75m [pounds sterling]/$4.4m); and Adriaen de Vries's Dancing Faun (Sotheby's, 6.8m [pounds sterling]/$11.32m) all shattered the ceiling well and truly. These prices remained exceptions, until Canova's Three Graces was sold in October 1993 for 7.6m [pounds sterling]. Three years later, in 1996, Antico's parcel-gilt bronze Hercules fetched 3m [pounds sterling] at Bonham's, while Bohler of Munich was able to sell Nicolas Gerhaert van Leyden's suave gothic boxwood group of the Virgin and Child to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, for around the magic stun (DM3.5m).

However, from 2000 onwards, prices of seven figures in sterling have been reached regularly, especially by late renaissance and baroque bronzes. First up was Francavilla's bizarre, but beautifully rendered, group of Saturn Devouring his Children from the Wernher Collection at Luton Hoo (Christie's, 5 July 2000, 1.1m [pounds sterling]/$1.67m). Foggini's David Beheading Goliath nearly touched the magic ceiling at Paris on 29 November 2004 (David Kahn, Drouot, 941,206 [pounds sterling]), while 2005 proved to be the year of his best pupil, Giuseppe Piamontini, two of whose masterpieces surfaced, each fetching over 1 million [pounds sterling]. The marker was set at Christie's on 7 July by a dramatic, rearing equestrian portrait statuette of Grand Prince Ferdinando de'Medid (1.264m [pounds sterling]) (Fig. 1), whose appeal was enhanced by a rock-hard provenance from the day it was paid for in 1717. The same was true of Piamontini's other masterpiece, made five years later for Ferdinando's sister Anna Maria Luisa, the Dowager Electress Palatine, in 1722. Star of the Florence antique dealer's Biennale last autumn, Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Isaac (ultimately from the Serristori Collection, whose sale by Sotheby's in Florence was blocked at the last minute by the Italian government in 1977), was no sooner unveiled on Carlo Orsi's stand than it was snapped up by the distinguished Milanese collector Giacomo Etro, it is believed for nearly the same amount of money, 1.5m [euro] (APOLLO, November 2005). Meanwhile, in the same sale at Christie's, it is encouraging for an 'early' specialist to note, a charming little statuette of Cupid from the fascinating milieu of Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio, cast, chased and hammered into virtual life around 1480-90, and whose brother is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, was fought over, to reach a healthy 1.35m [pounds sterling] (APOLLO, September 2005).

The honours in 2005 were however shared by a surprise entrant into the lists of 'sterling millionaire' Old Master sculptors, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt (1736-83). His sanity in doubt, he resorted to studying his own features in a variety of tragically grotesque expressions, recorded in busts, mainly in lead (APOLLO, July 2005). Two of these appeared at Sotheby's New York on 27 January. The Ill-Humoured Man was bought by the Louvre for 2.4m [pounds sterling] ($4.3m)--a record for any eighteenth-century sculpture at auction--and the other by Giacomo Etro for 1.2m [pounds sterling] ($2.2m). Sotheby's nearly managed to pull off a hat trick with a third similar one, but in alabaster, offered on the coat-tails of the others, at their London sale on 8 July (930,000 [pounds sterling]).

Word has just arrived that a terracotta relief of the Virgin and Child, called The Borromeo Madonna (Fig. 3) and offered by Sotheby's, New York, in a single-lot catalogue as by Donatello, was bought by the Kimbell for $3.95m (see p 112). This is just short of the low estimate of $4m, but is nevertheless a remarkable figure ($4.44m with buyer's premium), placing it in the pantheon of highly priced Italian terracotta sculptures enumerated above. Vive la renaissance!


Female Saint by Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), 1515-20. Sotheby's, New York, 22 May 2002, $2m--Vestal by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), 1787. Private sale, 2004-2005, $12.6m--Vulcan and Venus by Henry Cheere (1703-81), c. 1730. Cheffin's Cambridge, 11 February 2004, 530,000 [pounds sterling]--Crucifix by Giambologna (1529-1608), 1603. Sotheby's, London, 9 July 2004, 500,000 [pounds sterling]--Nessus Abducting Deianira by Antonio Susini (active 1580-1624)/Giambologna, 1580-1600. Christie's, London, 7 July 2005, 2.4m [pounds sterling]

Charles Avery is an independent fine-art consultant and a historian of sculpture.
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Title Annotation:COLLECTORS' FOCUS
Author:Avery, Charles
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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