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Bonhams Skinner European Art

May 24, 2024
A pencil and watercolor sketch of a nude woman

Femme nue debout vers le droite by Auguste Rodin

While the Sotheby’s Old Masters sales may have drawn many people’s attention on Wednesday, some of the more exciting auction action was going on up in Massachusetts at Bonhams Skinner. On Wednesday, they hosted their European art sale, consisting of one hundred sixty lots featuring nautical and sporting scenes, genre paintings, seventeenth-century Dutch still-lifes, and views of Parisian streets. Bonhams anticipated that Les Débuts d’Un Confesseur by Jehan-Georges Vibert (est. $15-25K), which had serious condition issues, would likely be among the top lots. However, everyone’s expectations were blown apart when an incredible number of works sold far above their presale estimates, including a sketch on paper by Auguste Rodin called Femme nue debout vers le droite. Not much is known about the drawing other than its provenance. It is likely a preparatory sketch for a larger work, with Rodin employing a method called drawing à l’aveugle, or blind drawing. This involved Rodin keeping his eyes fixed on the model while his hands sketched away. Bonhams specialists only expected the drawing to fetch no more than $9K. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the Rodin not only surpassed this estimate but exponentially so, with the hammer coming down at $95K (or $121.2K w/p), over ten times the presale estimate.

The sale’s second-place lot was one of the paintings Bonhams predicted would bring in a fair amount of money. Figures and Camels Before a City Gate by Rudolph Gustav Müller was one of the two Orientalist works featured in the sale, the other being a portrait by Paul Jean-Baptiste Lazerges. There have not been many highly valued works by Müller sold at auction in the past ten years, with his most recent sale being a moderately-sized Tunis street scene sold in Paris in 2013 for €3.5K. That makes this painting a particularly exciting find. The Müller was estimated to sell between $25K and $35K, with the hammer coming down just shy of the highest estimate at $34K (or $43.5K w/p); making it the artist’s third most valuable work sold at auction.

A painting of a town in the Middle East or North Africa, with several people and camels outside the stone gate.

Figures and Camels Before a City Gate by Rudolph Gustav Müller

The third-place lot was another surprise for Bonhams. This was a painting of a sleeping infant against a background of white bedsheets by Nikolaos Gyzis, one of the most important Greek painters of the nineteenth century. Gyzis was a leader of the Munich School, a band of academic Greek artists primarily trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Gyzis and his colleagues traveled to Munich for their artistic education because when Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, an agreement between Britain, France, and Russia mandated that an independent Greece would be ruled by a European prince of their choosing, which in this case was Otto, the second son of the King of Bavaria. This established close ties between Greece and Bavaria, one of the largest and most powerful of the German states. While Gyzis dabbled in many different painting styles, some of his most popular works at auction were his genre scenes that showed family life. This particular painting captures the artist’s first child, his daughter Penelope, created in 1878 when she was six days old. Expected to sell for no more than $6K, the Gyzis became the subject of a bidding war, with the winning bid being $24K (or $30.7K w/p), four times the high estimate.

While some of the hammer prices at Bonhams may not have been as high as at Sotheby’s, it was really astounding to see how many lots sold not only over their estimates but exponentially so. The Rodin and the Gyzis were only two of the twenty-three lots sold for more than double their high estimates. The Rodin was probably the biggest surprise at the sale, yet many more proved far more valuable to their buyers than the Bonhams specialists anticipated. Among these were George Smith Armfield’s Two Terriers on the Alert (est. $700 to $900; hammer $5.5K, or $7K w/p), an eighteenth-century painting by a continental European artist of a woman with her needlework (est. $300 to $500; hammer $3K, or $3.8K w/p), and a copy of an Aelbert Cuyp painting of ice skaters in winter (est. $1K to $1.5K; hammer $7K, or $8.9K w/p).

A painting of a newborn against white sheets.

Penelope by Nikolaos Gyzis

Due in no small part to the number of lots sold over estimate, the sale did well. Of the one hundred sixty lots, twenty-eight (18%) sold within their estimates. Fifty-seven (36%) sold below estimate, while forty-seven (29%) sold above. With twenty-eight lots (18%) going unsold, Bonhams ended Wednesday’s sale with an 82% sell-through rate and an 18% accuracy rate. However, some of these numbers might appear skewed if you look at Skinner’s website. It appears that after the sale ended, three lots (no. 21, 28, and 108) were taken off the website despite them selling. This may be indicative of the house removing the lots from the site on a buyer’s behalf to prevent the sale price from being publicly viewable. So, despite there being one hundred sixty lots in the sale, Bonhams’ website lists one hundred fifty-seven. Bonhams specialists initially gave the sale a total presale estimate range of $330.2K to $504.9K. Even though 18% of the works were bought-in, given that 14% of the lots sold for more than double their estimates, this helped bring the sale’s total to $472.4K – close to the upper end of their estimate range. And in case you are wondering, the Jehan-Georges Vibert did not sell — thank goodness!