Sometimes a single painting can make or break a sale. For example, last year’s most valuable painting sold at auction was Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, part of the Thomas & Doris Ammann collection at Christie’s New York on May 9, 2022. It sold for $170m ( or $195M w/p), constituting over 60% of the sale’s $273M total. Of course, with reserves and guarantees and all that, these lots almost always do fairly well, leading to a successful sale. But in the case of the Master Paintings sale at Sotheby’s New York on May 26th, one lot more or less carried the entire sale in a rather unexpected way. Portrait of a Poodle by Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre is a rather unimpressive painting of a small dog. The pup sits on a tabletop beside an inkwell, its fur expertly trimmed. The canvas is only 9 ⅝ by 12 ⅜ inches and was created sometime in the late eighteenth century. What drew people’s attention is that the painting’s subject is allegedly Pompon, the pet poodle of Queen Marie Antoinette. Specialists, however, are unsure of this, as Delamarre created many portraits of small dogs throughout his career. Case in point, the last time this specific portrait went to auction was at Bonhams in 1986 under the name Lowchen seated by a quill. So the royal connection might not be very strong, but that didn’t stop people from placing bids. In 1986, with Bonhams omitting the possible connection to Marie Antoinette, the painting sold for £5K (or $7.6K). Last week, Sotheby’s experts may have underestimated how much attention anything related to royalty can bring, especially famous (or infamous) royals like Queen Marie Antoinette. They only estimated the painting to sell for $5K at most. But even if you were expecting the poodle portrait to do well, you would have been incredibly surprised when the bidding continued for far longer than expected. When the $50K bid came in, I was surprised. When it reached $100K, I was astounded. And when it got its final bid of $220K (or $279.4K w/p), I was almost upset. This poodle portrait received enough attention to propel its final hammer price to forty-four times what Sotheby’s specialists had anticipated. Of course, this lot upholds my theory that paintings of dogs always do far better than expected.
The lot immediately following the poodle was the sale’s second-place lot and the other big surprise of the day. Two Bathers by a Secluded Stream was commissioned around 1775 for Princess Marie Adélaïde, daughter of King Louis XV and Duchess of Louvois. It was created by the French Rococo painter Jean-Louis François Lagrenée, who had previously served as a court painter in Russia before taking on academic positions in Paris and Rome. The work is unusual because of its medium, being an oil painting on a copper plate measuring 16 ⅝ by 13 ⅜ inches. It last sold at auction at the now defunct London auction house of Peter Coxe, Burrell, and Foster, where it sold in February 1906 for £8/8 (or 8 pounds and 8 shillings in pre-decimalized British currency), or roughly the equivalent of £824 today (or $1,017). Estimated to sell for no more than $20K, the Lagrenée painting on copper sold for $150K (or $190.5K w/p), or 7.5 times the high estimate.
Third place in the sale was a tie between two Dutch paintings, one landscape, and one historical scene. The former was created by an unknown seventeenth-century artist, with the only identifying mark on the painting being a monogram containing the letters CSG. The landscape shows the city of Delft from afar, with the towers of the city’s two main churches dominating the horizon. The work is more or less colorless, almost as if it’s just an etching or a charcoal drawing. However, the work is an oil painting on a panel measuring 28 by 42 ⅜ inches. The other painting, a scene from Roman history, is by Pieter Fris. Fris was better known for landscapes but chose the Death of Lucretia as his subject for this painting. According to legend, Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king of Rome, attacked and raped Lucretia, the daughter of a prominent Roman family. After telling her father and her husband, Lucretia had them swear to take vengeance, and then she committed suicide to maintain her and her family’s honor. According to the story, this set off the chain of events that led to overthrowing the Roman monarchy and the institution of the Republic. The Fris painting is clearly a product of its own time since I doubt that members of the sixth-century BCE Roman nobility would be wearing seventeenth-century European dress. Furthermore, it’s speculated that at some point in the twentieth century, the painting was touched up a bit, removing some of the blood that once covered Lucretia’s front. Some of the blood can still be seen staining Lucretia’s bodice. The retouching adds some confusion to the scene. Lucretia’s suicide was a relatively common subject for Renaissance and Baroque painters. Artists like Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Sandro Botticelli have all put Lucretia’s violent end to canvas. However, most of these depictions are not overtly violent or bloody like the Fris painting seems to have previously been. Both the Delft landscape and the Death of Lucretia achieved $22K (or $27.9K w/p), the former surpassing its $9K high estimate and the latter falling nicely within the $20K to $30K estimate range.
Of the eighty-one available lots, eighteen sold within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s specialists a 22% accuracy rate. Thirty-seven lots (46%) sold below, thirteen lots (16%) sold above, and another thirteen lots (16%) went unsold. The auction made $805.2K, just shy of the $831.5K total high estimate. However, most of the sale’s apparent success can be attributed to that tiny poodle portrait, the hammer price comprising about 27% of the total. The auction would have done far worse if that royal dog had not gotten as much attention.