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Sotheby’s Masters Week: Master Paintings Part 1

February 4, 2023
A portrait of a young man against a green background. He is dressed in dark colors, with a grey tunic, a black vest, and a black flat cap. He sits at a desk with a quill in hand, pointing to some lines written in Latin on a sheet of paper.

Portrait of Young Man with a Quill and a Sheet of Paper by Agnolo Bronzino

To close out their nearly two-week-long Masters Week, Sotheby’s New York hosted a two-part Old Masters sale on January 26th. While the first sale was far shorter than the second, it contained the greater bulk of the high-value pieces. Probably the most well-known and publicized was the Agnolo Bronzino Portrait of Young Man with a Quill and a Sheet of Paper, which art historians say is a possible self-portrait. Bronzino’s mythological or biblical scenes may seem very odd today, given his figures’ strange, disproportionate anatomy, consistent with some other late Renaissance and Mannerist painters. However, that strangeness was not transferred to his portraits, some of the finest and most recognizable of the sixteenth century. Portrait of a Young Man with a Quill was recently in the news as having been returned by the German government to the estate of Ilsa Hesselberger. Hesselberger was a Munich socialite who, though Protestant by faith, qualified as Jewish under Nazi race laws and had her art collection confiscated before being deported to German-occupied Lithuania, where she was murdered. Her descendants had the portrait returned to them by the German government last year, and they decided to consign it to Sotheby’s for this sale. When the Haselberger estate consigned the work, they had no idea it was a Bronzino portrait. Experts previously attributed the work to Bronzino’s contemporary Jacopino del Conte. But once the dirt and varnish were cleaned off the painting, Sotheby’s Old Masters specialists, with outside help from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, gave a positive attribution to Agnolo Bronzino. Sotheby’s specialists predicted the portrait would sell for anywhere between $3M and $5M. However, given the story behind its ownership and the fact that works by Bronzino rarely come to auction, the painting sold for $9M (or $10.6M w/p). According to Ilsa Hesselberger’s descendants, the proceeds will go to several charitable organizations.

A painting of a nude elderly man with grey hair and beard against a plain, brown background.

Study for Saint Jerome by Anthony van Dyck

Coming in second place at the sale is another painting that was in the news recently because of its provenance. Study for Saint Jerome by Anthony van Dyck was considered lost for hundreds of years until it turned up in upstate New York, where it had been collecting dust in a shed. No one entirely knows where the Van Dyck came from before turning up in Kinderhook, New York. Collector Albert Roberts found and purchased the piece in 2002 for $600. Van Dyck experts agree that the study is an early work, likely from when the Flemish master was a student under Peter Paul Rubens. Predicted to sell for $2M to $3M, Saint Jerome eventually fell nicely within estimate, with the hammer coming down at $2.5M (or $3.07M w/p). Following up close behind the Van Dyck was an early fourteenth-century Nativity scene. Previously, the small 8-by-6½-inch panel had been attributed to the pre-Renaissance master Giotto. But when it came to auction in 2004, specialists reattributed the work to an anonymous painter known by art historians only as the Master of the Spinola Annunciation. The panel was originally part of a set of four, showing the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The first of these panels, now in a private collection in Italy, is an Annunciation scene at one point owned by the Spinola family of Genoa, giving the artist their academic name. The second lot in the sale, the Nativity hit its low estimate at $2M (or $2.43M w/p).

A pre-Renaissance biblical scene on wood panel showing the birth of Christ. Joseph sits in the foreground with a flock of sheep, while Mary, the Baby Jesus, and shepherds sit in the wooden manger. Above, three angels observe the scene.

Nativity by the Master of the Spinola Annunciation

Of course, a sale like this wasn’t without its surprises. While a small handful of lots achieved double their high estimates, one painting stood out in particular. Portrait of Lucy Loftus was created around 1673 by Sir Peter Lely, not long after the subject’s marriage to the Viscount Lisburne. The portrait had several prominent owners, including Britain’s first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, as well as Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who kept the portrait at the Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Predicted only to sell for $300K at most, the portrait eventually sold for $1.25M (or $1.57M w/p).

Of the fifty-three lots available, twenty-one (40%) went unsold. Surprisingly though, the sale’s total fell within its presale estimate range, likely because of the Bronzino portrait selling for as much as it did. Even though only eight lots (15%) sold within estimate, with fourteen lots (26%) selling above, the entire sale brought in $23.6M, slightly above the $22.9M minimum total estimate. The sale would have done far better had some of the other highly-valued lots, like Sebastiano del Piombo’s Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Crown of Laurels (est. $1.5M to $2M), met their reserves.