For the Old Masters world, 2019 has been a bonanza year on the museum front – there were superb monographic shows devoted to Pieter Breugel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Verrocchio and Rembrandt.
The market was also remarkable in the sense that it saw the rare emergence of works by Caravaggio and Cimabue, which topped the auction record for Old Masters this year; for us it was somewhat surprising to see the fireworks repeatedly ignited not in England or the United States, but in France.
Perhaps the most widely discussed painting was the graphic depiction of Judith and Holofernes, discovered in an attic in Toulouse and identified as a lost work by Caravaggio. Estimated at over 100,000,000 EUR it was sold privately before the auction for an undisclosed sum. It is, according to word on the street, currently being cleaned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Opinion was less divided on a jewel-like panel convincingly attributed to Cimabue (fig.1; header image above), it appears to be part of a diptych to which panels in the Frick Collection and the National Gallery, London also belonged. Inscribed ‘Masaccio’ in pencil on the back this panel has the intense humanity and individuality of the later master. It was covered in centuries of grime, supposedly an accumulation of fumes from the coffeemaker near which the panel hung for many years in a private home. Its owner believed it to be an icon until properly identified by experts as a lost panel by the founding father of Italian art, Cimabue. There was intense competition for the picture: it was underbid by the Metropolitan Museum with another American museum not far behind, and eventually sold to a private collector for 24,180,000 EUR. That might seem a lot in light of the pre-sale estimate of 4,000,000 to 6,000,000 EUR, but considering what the Met paid for a small Madonna and Child by Duccio in 2004 it seems extremely reasonable.
Other notable sales in France include a Lucretia by in-fashion woman artist Artemisia Gentileschi (fig. 2) which sold in Paris in November for 4,777,000 EUR, with fees, against a low estimate of 600,000 EUR and the exquisite Enthroned Madonna by the Bohemian Master of the Vyšší Brod (fig. 3) which was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 6,201,210 EUR .
For several years we have been observing that in public auctions demand is greatest for exceptional works by blue-chip artists. The top three auction artists of 2019 were Caravaggio, Cimabue and Turner. Bold images that appeal to a ‘modern eye’ also continue to spark interest, such as the Hemessen Husband and Wife playing Tables (fig.4) and the Giovanni di Paolo Miracle of St Clare (fig.5), both selling for double their estimates. It is worth noting that the Giovanni di Paolo attracted an online bid of up to 4,100,000 GBP – a significant sum for online bidding which reflects the buying habits of collectors nowadays.
For dealers, TEFAF Maastricht in 2019 was widely held to have been successful, with most Old Master paintings dealers reporting healthy sales including a Wright of Derby candle-lit scene which went to the Getty, a version of Domenico Fetti’s Melancholia which was snapped up by the Chicago Art Institute and a Roman Charity by Willem Drost which was acquired for the Rijksmuseum. Alas, the New York version in October does not seem to generate quite the same enthusiasm; maybe because New York has more competing distractions than the city of Maastricht.
2019 was a year of exploration for Nicholas Hall, as we made our debut at two fairs: TEFAF Maastricht and the Biennale di Antiquariato di Firenze (BIAF). We organized an exhibition of Lombard Paintings in our gallery space, which you still have a chance to see until Monday December 23. We also produced three books: Endless Enigma (now sold at the bookshops at the Frick Collection, the Met and MoMA), Anonymous Portraits, which includes an essay by Arthur Wheelock, and Faithful to Nature, which features a study of Lombard paintings by Virginia Brilliant. Among the notable sales this year, we were particularly excited to see L’Ange du Destin (The Angel of Destiny) by Odilon Redon hang in several different settings at the MFA Boston, Wings of Augury by Aileen Agar enter the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Fishing Boats at Whitby by John Singer Sargent exhibited at the Frick Colletion in New York.❖