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In terms of pure quality, Sotheby’s (19.5/10% buyer’s premium) October 29 sale at York Avenue did not rank as one of their more distinguished offerings, containing as it did a number of entries from the troubled American stockbroker collector Jerry Davis, who up until a year ago was one of the most free-spending buyers in this particular market.

Back in May 1999 Davis bid a record $2.1m (£1.3m) at Christie’s New York for Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem (The Wailing Wall) by Jean-Léon Géròme (1824-1904).

Since then the equity markets have slumped, compelling Davis to claw back some liquidity from his art collection. The once record-breaking Géròme of the Wailing Wall duly reappeared at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $600,000-800,000, which, incidentally, was just marginally more than the $400,000-600,000 Christie’s had estimated it two and a half years
previously.

Bidding was similarly sober, with Martin Zimet of the New York dealers French & Co securing the painting for $675,000 (£432,000) – a drop in price (excluding auctioneers’ charges) of $1.425m (£913,000), which must rank as one of the more dramatic losses incurred on a painting in recent years.

With the front cover-featured, but rather over-restored Summer by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), estimated at $2.5m-3.5m, failing to sell, The Wailing Wall proved to be the most substantial contribution to Sotheby’s premium-inclusive total of $7.5m (£4.8m). A hefty 48 per cent of the 158 lots failed to find buyers, representing (thanks to the failure of the Tissot) an even heftier 49 per cent by value.

Christie’s (19.5/10% buyer’s premium) 19th century European paintings sale the following morning was a rather more upbeat event, finding buyers for 73 per cent of its more tightly edited 91 lots and notching up a premium-inclusive total of $10.1m (£6.5m).

The presence of some prestigious named provenances such as the Dr. Freddy and Regina Homburger Collection, the Drury Museum, Missouri, and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts seemed to have made a difference here, as did Christie’s keenness to find buyers for a clutch of substantially guaranteed lots said by trade observers to have been entered by Richard Green.

Star of the show was undoubtedly The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1883), one of three versions of the painting that represented the epitome of the sort of kitsch academic art that Manet and the Impressionists were rebelling against.

The original painting, which won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1863 -– the year in which Manet’s Olympia created such a furore – is now in the Musée d’Orsay, while this second version, thought to have been painted c.1865-69 for the Philadelphia collector Henry C. Gibson, has been in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who are now seeking to fund its American Art Acquisition Fund. Twenty years ago this painting would have been regarded by art historians with disdain, but now academe takes such art altogether more seriously.

Indeed there is an entire museum devoted to exhibiting it – the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York – and it was they who snapped up this iconic 2ft 91/2in by 4ft 51/2in (85cm x 1.36m) canvas for a record $750,000 (£480,770) against an estimate of $400,000-600,000.
Exchange rate: £1 = $1.56