The sales offered a wide range of Old Masters, sculpture, antiquities, books, works on paper and Modern and Contemporary art, with two-thirds of the auctions staged as online-only sales and just a scattering of socially distancing room bidders present at the live events.
With the calendar in flux due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not possible to properly compare this figure with totals from previous years. However the overall turnover from the major summer sales at the big two salerooms in the capital appears to be significantly below that raised at last year’s auctions – although a number of works that would have been appeared in 'normal' London sales were instead offered in the newly launched ‘international streamed’ sales held this summer.
One issue for the auctioneers is that vendors are holding onto key works rather than consigning. However, strong prices can still be achieved for individual highlights, as the current series proved.
Among such works at Christie’s ‘Classic’ sales was a marble relief of the Death of Lucretia attributed to Italian Renaissance sculptor Antonio Lombardo (1468-1516).
It had been purchased by the father of the private European vendor in the early 1950s, although its significance was not previously recognised and it was seemingly unknown to modern scholars in the field.
The Christie’s catalogue stated that the 19 x 17in (48 x 43cm) relief related to a series of small rectangular plaques, all depicting figures from classical antiquity carved in such high relief as to be almost fully three-dimensional.
In this case Lucretia was depicted standing in the centre of the relief, flanked by two attendant figures and plunging a dagger into her body.
A great rarity at auction, it drew strong competition against a £500,000-800,000 estimate and was knocked down at £3.1m to a private European buyer. The price was a record for a work by Lombardo at auction.
Christie’s Classic Art evening sale on July 29 was led by a portrait of an unknown woman by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) that got away under estimate at £3.4m.
The top Old Master of the week sold the night before at Sotheby’s when a Rembrandt (1606-69) self-portrait from 1632 was knocked down for £12.6m.
Estimated at £12-16m, it was one of just three self-portraits painted by the artist remaining in private hands with the almost all the others now in major museum collections. The work carried a third-party guarantee, meaning it was always bound to sell at the auction.
More works from these sales will be covered in Art Market in a future issue of ATG.