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Sotheby’s Masters Week: The Fisch Davidson Collection

February 4, 2023
A 17th century painting of a biblical scene showing the aftermath of St. John the Baptist's execution. The saint lay headless on the floor, with the executioner resting his foot on the saint's back while he sheaths his sword. Several soldiers look on in the background, while Salome's maidservant presents her with the saint's head on a plate, while she also pulls his tongue from his mouth.

Salome Presented with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Peter Paul Rubens

On January 18th, Sotheby’s New York kicked off its Masters Week. This consisted of a series of auctions, mainly featuring Old Masters and nineteenth-century realist art. But leading up to the Master Paintings sale on January 26th, Sotheby’s held a handful of very short sales featuring works from single-owner collections. Even though these collections might not have done as well as intended, they regardless provided an opportunity to showcase some wonderful Old Masters paintings. The first was the Fisch Davidson collection, featuring ten Baroque masterpieces. The star of this sale was the much-anticipated Peter Paul Rubens biblical scene Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. This slightly gruesome painting has impeccable provenance, including the Spanish royal family and Steve Wynn. This is one of Rubens’s earliest major works that, along with Samson & Delilah and Massacre of the Innocents, established him as one of the premier Flemish masters after his return from Italy. It is common nowadays for people to describe a well-composed photograph as akin to a Renaissance painting. However, oftentimes, they actually mean Baroque paintings, and Salome provides a good example of this. The headless body of the saint lies on the ground with blood pouring from his neck. The executioner is sheathing his sword while someone presents Salome with the head on a platter. Salome’s maid pulls the saint’s tongue out of his mouth, showing the reason for his execution: speaking out against King Herod’s marriage to his own sister-in-law Herodias. Being such an early work with a popular subject, I suppose it’s no surprise that Salome came out head and shoulders above the rest of the sale at $23.5M (or $26.9M w/p).

A painting showing three figures emerging from darkness: two soldiers are putting the crown of thorns on Jesus's head while the soldiers joke and mock him

Christ Crowned with Thorns by Valentin de Boulogne

Behind the Rubens, both chronologically in the sale and in terms of price, were two more biblical scenes that each achieved a hammer price of $4M (or $4.89M w/p), hitting the low end of their $4M to $6M estimate ranges. The first was Christ crowned with Thorns by Valentin de Boulogne. The last time this dark, intimate look at Christ’s pre-crucifixion humiliation was up at auction was in 2016 at the Sotheby’s New York sale of Alfred Taubman’s estate. Back then, it sold for $5.18 million w/p. Coming up right behind it was Orazio Gentileschi’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene. This painting had been in the same family for centuries, from the work’s commission in 1621 all the way to 1975, when the British collector Thomas Grange purchased the work.

Saint Mary Magdalene lays with bare breast in the wilderness along with the open book and the skull (typical symbols of Mary Magdalene). This scene follows in the medieval tradition of stories from Mary Magdalene's life after Christ's crucifixion.

Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene by Orazio Gentileschi

However, Sotheby’s specialists were expecting at least $43.2M from the sale. Unfortunately, the collection fell just a bit short at $41.9M. No lots went unsold, so this can mainly be attributed to the lots that sold for below estimate. Salome, while selling for an impressive $23.5M, was expected to sell for no less than $25M. The Rubens was actually one of four lots to sell for below estimate that also included Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s Judith & Holofernes (est. $1M to $1.5M; $800K hammer) and Georges de la Tour’s Saint James the Greater (est. $3.5M to $5M; $3M hammer). All other lots sold within estimate, except one painting by an unknown artist who was likely a student or follower of Rembrandt van Rijn. Young Man Asleep Before an Open Book was the only lot to exceed its estimate range, selling for $750K (or $945K w/p) when predicted to sell for no more than $700K.