He had purchased the painting in January 1997 at Sotheby’s in West Sussex for a premium-inclusive £3105. The sitter in the painting remains unknown but this did not stop it attracting serious attention when it re-emerged at auction after 25 years last month.
Ondaatje was selling the library and some of the contents from his London home at Sloane Street Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on November 30. Catalogued as ‘Portrait of a young lady, a free person of colour’ by Swiss artist Jean Baptiste Bonjour (1801-82), it was estimated at £10,000-15,000.
After interest from several international and UK dealers, it was knocked down to an overseas buyer at £85,000. The underbidder on the lot was London dealer Philip Mould, who told ATG: “It is an exquisitely painted rare subject, unusual for its arresting, nonobjectified characterisation of the sitter.”
The price difference compared to its previous auction appearance underlines a changing market with buyers, both private and institutional, eager to rebalance their collections, moving away from ‘pale, male and stale’ subjects. It was also a major auction record for Bonjour - the 1997 result at Sotheby’s being the previous saleroom high.
The 17 x 14in (44 x 36cm) oil on canvas was dated 1852, four years after the end of slavery in the French colonies (1848), which followed Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act which came into effect in 1834 (Britain had outlawed the slave trade in 1807).
The buyer will now conduct research, seeking to identify where Bonjour painted the work and who the sitter might be.
A painting believed to depict a young Faustin-Élie Soulouque, the future Emperor of Haiti, was among the lots bringing interest at Dreweatts’ sale of the collection from Château de Lasfonds in France (see main Art Market story this edition).
Soulouque was born into slavery when Haiti was still under French rule but participated in a successful revolt in 1803. Later in 1847 he was named president, representing the black majority of the country. In 1849, he ousted a group of powerful ‘mulatto’ leaders and adopted the title of Emperor Faustin I but, in 1859, his rivals regrouped and deposed him, forcing him into exile where he died.
The 22¼ x 16¾in (57 x 43cm) oil on canvas was a small picture showing the subject in uniform, perhaps at around the time of the revolt or even earlier. It had sold at Christie’s South Kensington in 2012 for £4375 including premium where it was described in the catalogue as an 18th century French School picture ‘thought to be’ of Soulouque.
The Dreweatts catalogue for the November 16 sale did not mention whether any further evidence had emerged since then to connect it with the Haitian ruler, but, even still, with such portraits now more highly valued, it did rather better this time around.
Estimated at £3000-5000, it sold at £16,000 to an international private buyer.