This year has been no exception, as shown by this selection of highlights from auctions held in June.
Fragonard at Epernay
One of the strongest prices came not from a sale in the French capital but at an auction house in Epernay in northern France.
On June 26 at Enchères Champagne (22% buyer’s premium), auctioneer Maître Antoine Petit hammered down a rediscovered painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) for €6.3m (£5.43m), or €7.686m including premium.
Petit discovered this 18 x 22in (46 x 57cm) oval painting, which depicts an aged philosopher reading a book, in January when conducting an inventory of a nearby apartment in the Marne. The oval painting was hanging high on a wall of the sitting room and, on taking it down for examination, he noticed a barely visible inscription on the frame reading Fragonard.
“This inscription, as well as the high quality of the composition, had until then passed completely unnoticed,” he said.
Petit took the painting to the Old Master experts Cabinet Turquin whose Stéphane Pinta, following in-depth examination, confirmed the attribution to Fragonard. The experts dated the work, which is on the original canvas in its original frame, to c.1768-70 when the artist was in his 40s and at the peak of his powers, a period when he allowed himself great freedom of execution.
Another oval format painting by Fragonard depicting the same philosopher is in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. It is one of at least nine other portraits of mature men to which the Epernay portrait, whose existence has been unknown for 200 years, can now be added.
It is also now known that the painting discovered by Petit belonged to the miniaturist Pierre Adolphe Hall who was a friend of Fragonard and owned several of his works.
The painting had a pre-sale viewing at the Drouot before the auction at Epernay. On the day, seven bidders contested the work before it was hammered down to a French collector. The price was over three times the €1.5m-2m estimate and is the third highest paid at auction for a work by the artist.
“Among the bidders most determined to acquire the canvas were two private collectors, a Frenchman who bought the painting and an American, but also a London gallery specialising in contemporary art. Interest in Old Master paintings now largely exceeds the sphere of insiders”, said expert Eric Turquin.
Aguttes Venetian panel
Very much the highlight of a small sale of Old Master paintings and drawings held by Aguttes (25/23% buyer’s premium) in Neuilly on June 17 was a mid 15th century Venetian panel painting that was the work of two artists.
The 3ft x 2ft 11in (98 x 90cm) work, in tempera and gilded stucco on wood, is a collaboration between two Venetian-born painters, Antonio Vivarini (c.1414-76/84) and his brother-in law Giovanni d’Alemagna (1411-50).
Vivarini and d’Alemagna, worked together on a number of commissions in the city until Giovanni’s death, including the high altar in the San Tarazio chapel in the San Zaccaria which is still in situ.
The small scale panel on offer at Aguttes, probably intended as a private devotional work, was made around 1443. It exhibits features such as increased use of perspective and architectural motifs indicative of the move away from the Gothic style towards the Renaissance, influenced in part through the contemporary Venetian innovator Jacopo Bellini (fl.1424-70).
Numerous phone bidders joined in the fray from a starting bid of €120,000 taking the final price to €700,000 (£603,450). The price was comfortably over the €200,000-300,000 estimate and a new auction high for a work by Vivarini. The painting will now join a French collection.
Paintings by northern European artists took top honours in the first of two days of sales given over to Old Master and 19th century paintings, drawings and sculpture at Artcurial (25/20/14% buyer’s premium) in Paris on June 9-10.
Heading the list at a double-estimate €460,000 (£396,550) was a classic still-life by the 17th century Dutch artist Jan Jansz van de Velde III (1620-62) who specialised in the genre.
The 17 x 21in (43 x 55cm) oil on canvas depicting a dish of oysters, lemons, chestnuts and a roemer glass, is signed and dated J van de. velde. fecit Anno 1653 on the shelf to the lower right and is one of around 40 paintings by him executed between 1642 and 62.
It came from a private collection passed down by descent, probably from the collection of the Parisian stationer Charles Duriez in the early 19th century. It sold to a French collector.
Another still-life, this one by the Flemish artist Frans Snyders (1579-1657) depicted monkeys with a basket of fruit. It was painted in oil on a 2ft 1in x 3ft 5in (63.5cm x 1m) oak panel and signed lower left.
Consigned from a private collection and acquired from the Galerie de Jonkheere, it was last under the hammer in 2008 at Christie’s in London. Here it went to a French collector for €300,000 (£258,620).
The same price was paid by an American collector for a Caravaggist painting depicting an older man and a youth holding a glass of wine up to a candle, a 2ft 3in x 20in (69 x 51cm) painting catalogued as by the Flemish artist Adam de Coster (c.1586-1643).
In the past this work has been variously attributed to his contemporary Gerard van Honhurst; as after Van Honthorst, or, when last under the hammer at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2016, as circle of Gerard van Honthorst. Sold from a private London collection, the work was on loan to the Rubenshuis in Antwerp from 2018-21.
The second-highest price of the sale was a much earlier Flemish work, a panel painting of the Virgin and Child in a landscape setting attributed to the 15th century artist Dirck Bouts (c.1410-75).
The small 8¼ x 4¾in (21 x 12cm) unframed oil on oak panel, with some losses lower right, leapfrogged a €30,000-50,000 estimate to sell for €340,000 (£293,105) to a European collector.
Among the 19th century works on offer there was competition between two phone bidders for Baron Gérard’s (1770-1837) portrait of Henry Seymour (1776-1849) previewed in ATG No 2494, which was painted in 1815 and shows the sitter portrayed in Tudor costume. It ended up selling for €255,000 (£219,825) against a €150,000- 200,000 estimate.
Brueghel the elder at Christie’s
A hitherto unpublished small oil on copper by Jan Brueghel the elder (1568-1625) was the best seller in the small sale of Old Master paintings and sculpture held in Paris by Christie’s (25/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) on June 16.
The 10 x 14in (26 x 35cm) work applied to a panel, which is signed and dated Brveghel. 1594 lower left, depicts a scene from the story of Orpheus in the Underworld showing the point at which Orpheus meets Pluto and Prosperine and makes his request to them to bring back his love Eurydice.
Three other copper versions of the composition are known: one in the Pitti Palace, another in the Palazzo Colonna and a third sold by Christie’s London in 1988. The present example was acquired by the father of the vendor in 1978 from the French antique dealer Paul Weibel and is in a very good state of conservation. It sold for €1.28m (£1.1m), double the €400,000-600,000 estimate.
There was keen demand for the oil on panel painting of a young woman writing a letter by the Flemish artist known as the Master of the Female half lengths (previewed in ATG No 2496) which ended up selling for €220,000 (£189,655).
There were also some Old Master paintings included in the themed Women in Art auction that followed immediately afterwards. These included the top lot of the auction, a pastel by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) representing Mrs Charles Mitoire with her children.
The 3ft x 2ft 1in (92 x 72.5cm) pastel laid down on canvas is signed and dated Labille f Guyard. 1783. It shows an elegantly dressed woman breast feeding her younger child with the elder standing beside her – a subject reflecting Enlightenment enthusiasm for natural motherhood rather than the typical employment of wet nurses by aristocratic women.
The pastel was executed in 1783, the year in which the artist joined the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and was shown at the Salon in that year.
Madame Mitoire was the granddaughter of the artist Carle Van Loo. The pastel passed down by descent through the sitter’s family until 1901 when it was acquired by the dealership Kraemer and then passed through several other dealers before it entered the collection of Baron Eugene de Rothschild in 1926.
Until its reappearance almost a century later it was known only via a black and white photograph. The work was purchased at Christie’s last month by the J Paul Getty Museum for €520,000 (£448,275) setting a new auction record for a work on paper by the artist.
The portrait of Madame Mitoire is the second work by Labille-Guiard in the Getty’s collection joining another pastel, Head of a Young Woman, that was purchased in 1996.
Sotheby’s bronze selection
French Baroque bronzes were the toast of Sotheby’s June 15 sale of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture.
At the core of this 76-lot sale was a single-owner French collection of European paintings and sculpture formed over more than 60 years.
This included three bronzes from the Gods and Goddesses series devised in 1652 by the French sculptor Michel Anguier (1612-86) for the royal goldsmith and jeweller Pierre Le Tessier de Montarsy. The finely cast sculptures were intended to represent human and divine temperaments by associating each with one of the four elements.
The trio featured in Sotheby’s sale were Neptune Agité, Mars quittant ses armes and Pluton Mélancolique.
It was the Neptune, cast around 1670-80 and standing 20½in (52cm) high, that topped the bill, dramatically outstripping its €300,000-500,000 estimate to take €1.25m (£1.08m). The sculpture is one of eight known examples of this size and the composition shows the influence of Gianlorenzo Bernini. The price, says Sotheby’s, sets a new auction high for a 17th century French bronze.
Angier’s 22½in (57cm) high Pluto, made around 1660-70 and inspired by the antique Farnese Hercules, followed on at €650,000 (£560,345) again far in excess of its €200,000-300,000 guide. The third of Anguier’s Gods, the 21½in (54.5 cm) high Mars, from c.1660-70, sold for €180,000 (£155,170).
Another sculpture from the collection that also outstripped its estimate was a bronze by Etienne Le Hongre representing an allegory of air.
The 2ft 1in (64cm) high bronze, set on a boulle marquetry base, dates from c.1685. It is one of three known bronzes cast during the sculptor’s lifetime of a larger than life-size marble that Le Hongre produced for the Parterre d’Eau at Versailles. The bronze was formerly in the collection of Pyotr Arkadievich Kotschubey (1825-1892), whose PK mark is engraved to the base.
Estimated at €150,000-250,000, it sold for €500,000 (£431,035).