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Sotheby’s Master Paintings & Sculpture Just Misses

January 29, 2021

portrati of a man holding a roundel


On January 28, Sotheby’s offered a small selection of paintings in their Mater Paintings & Sculpture sale.  I always wonder why they have a sale of Old Master works and then throw in a few 19th-century paintings. My personal feeling is that a Bouguereau just does not sit well next to a 14th or 15th century Madonna and Child … but what do I know? (w/p = with the buyer’s premium)

 The Descent from the Cross

Hugo van der Goes

The top lot was Botticelli’s well-publicized Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel from the Solow collection.  The painting was offered with Estimate On Request, but the whisper number was in excess of $80M.  The bidding took a long time, as the auctioneer worked hard to hit the number, and it did end up selling for $80M ($92.2M w/p).  Mr. Solow purchased the painting about 40 years ago for $1M … so that was an excellent return.  Sadly, he passed away in November, so he will not get to enjoy the extra money. In a very distant second was Hugo van der Goes’ The Descent from the Cross. The 21 x 15-inch canvas was expected to bring $3-5M and was a guaranteed lot (so we knew it was going to sell).  The hammer came down a $3M, and during the sale, the price with the buyer’s premium showed as $3.65M; however, after the sale, the price was changed to $3.35M … so obviously, the individual who guaranteed the lot was the buyer and received a discount.  The number three lot was a very small (14 x 10 inches) but pretty still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder that carried a $1-1.5M estimate and hammered at $1.9M ($2.32M w/p).  The seller bought the work in 2012 for $1.68M, so they initially expected to take a pretty big loss; it turns out they may have made a little money.  Rounding out the top five were Rachel Ruysch’s Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly that hammered at $1.8M ($2.2M w/p – est. $1-1.5M), and Luca della Robbia’s Relief of the Madonna and Child which made $1.65M (2.02M w/p – est. $700-1M).  The Robbia was one of 6 works offered by the Albright-Knox Museum … 2 of which went unsold.

still life of flowers

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder

There were a few other lots that did well; these included Portrait of a Young Man Holding His Gloves and Wearing a Tall Hat, His Arm Akimbo by School of Haarlem, circa 1615, which carried a $70-90K estimate and sold for $310K ($391K w/p); Portrait of a Young Woman, Aged 17, Holding a Small Spaniel Wearing a Collar of Bells by Frans Pourbus the Elder at $380K ($479K – est. $70-90K); The Death of Lucretia at the Banquet of Lucius Janius Brutus by The Master of Marradi hammered at $830K ($1.02M w/p – est. $400-600K); and a large 19th century work by Antonietta Brandeis titled Venice: A View of the Piazza San Marco which was expected to bring between $150-$200K and sold for $350K ($441K w/p).

On the flip side, the sale had some big failures, which included works by Willem Claesz. Heda (est. $2.5-3.5M), Sir Anthony van Dyck (est. $700-1M), William Bouguereau (est. $1-1.5M), and Lorenzo di Credi and Workshop (est. $600-800K).  There were also three lots withdrawn before the sale started, the biggest of which was a Rembrandt (est. $20-30M) – guess there was little interest and the owner decided to pull it.

When the sale was over, of the 46 works in the ‘catalog,’ 30 sold, 13 were bought in, and 3 were withdrawn.  The sale brought in $98.3M ($114.5M w/p), and the low end of their presale estimate range was $100.09M, so they needed the buyer’s premium to beat it.  Of the 43 works that were offered, 7 were below, 11 within, and 12 above their estimate ranges; this left them with an accuracy rate of 25.6% … which is ok.

As you might have surmised, it was the Botticelli that made the sale; it accounted for 81.3% of the sale’s total.  Another example of how difficult it is for the salerooms to obtain high-quality works.