While these days they are considerably rarer, the latest auction series seemed to buck the trend with its fair share of lucrative lots consigned from titled owners and their descendants.
One such source provided Christie’s with a work by one of the major names in art history. Although billed as a ‘rediscovery’, the tempera on gold ground panel was a known work from the collection of Marquess of Northampton. Its first recorded owner was William Bingham Baring, the 2nd Lord Ashburton from the famous Baring banking family, who died in 1864.
Having previously been attributed to Lorenzo Monaco (c.1370-1425), the painting had been ‘overlooked’ according to Christie’s until it was identified by Francis Russell, Christie’s UK deputy chairman back in 1996, as an early work by Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455).
Russell said: “It was a thrilling moment when I realised I was in the presence of an early masterpiece by Fra Angelico.
“This panel exemplifies his deep religious conviction. Intensely personal, it also expresses his understanding of the revolutionary achievement of the great Florentine sculptors of his time.”
Originally the centre of a devotional triptych commissioned by an unknown patron, the 2ft 1in x 15in (60 x 34cm) arched-top panel had undergone restoration to the background that perhaps mitigated against it commercially, although the figures depicted were deemed well preserved.
With a third-party guarantee arranged in advance of the auction, it was estimated at £4m-6m and sold at £4.1m. The sum, although toward the lower end of predictions, represented an auction record for the influential early Florentine Renaissance master.
The previous Fra Angelico record was another gold-ground panel of St Dominic and St Francis that made $3.9m (£3.12m) at Christie’s New York last year, while Duke’s of Dorset notably sold a pair of panels of Dominican saints for £1.7m back in 2007 (a house record for the firm).
At least one private sale is recorded at a much higher level: The Virgin of the Pomegranate which was bought by the Museo del Prado in Madrid for a reported €18m in 2016.
Tudor painting record
Another aristocratic consignment provided Sotheby’s with a notable lot, a portrait that drew strong interest and set an auction record for any Tudor painting.
The portrait of Katherine Parr came to auction from the collection of the Earl of Jersey and had been in the vendor’s family since at least 1861, having been kept at their estates of Osterley Park, Middlesex, and Radier Manor, Jersey.
The 3ft 1in x 2ft 4in (92 x 72cm) oil on oak panel was erroneously recorded as ‘destroyed by fire’ in Roy Strong’s Tudor and Jacobean Portraits in 1969 (where the sitter was identified as Lady Jane Grey).
It was reidentified in 1996 by Susan E James as being one of only two surviving contemporaneous paintings of Henry VIII’s sixth wife; the other being a full-length portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery.
While it was also once thought to depict Mary I, much of the argument for Parr was on account of the jewellery the sitter is shown wearing, specifically the distinctive crown-headed brooch which appears on her bodice and is recorded in inventories of her possessions. The brooch is thought to have been made by her favourite goldsmith, the Dutch jeweller Peter Richardson.
According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, the portrait was most likely painted c.1547-8, shortly after Henry’s death. The NPG picture is from around two years earlier.
In terms of the artist, both the NPG portrait and the current work have been traditionally attributed to ‘Master John’, an unknown artist who was active in England in the 1540s. Having painted Mary I in 1544 (when she was a princess), his name is known from a mention in Mary’s expenses from that year: ‘Item, pd to one John that drue her grace in a table’.
Only a handful of works by his hand are known. The portrait here was estimated at £600,000- 800,000 but, being a rare opportunity to acquire such a rarity and with its provenance traced back to the noted antiquary and collector John Dent (1761-1826), it brought determined bidding from a number of parties. It was knocked down to a UK collector at £2.8m.
Important Hogarth work
Elsewhere at Sotheby’s, a work described as ‘the first significant painting by William Hogarth (1697-1764) to appear on the open market for half a century and his last major satirical painting left in private hands’ came for sale from another titled source.
A caricature of Georgian high society and a forerunner to the artist’s celebrated Marriage à-la- Mode series, it had been acquired at a Christie’s auction in 1905 by art dealership Agnews on behalf of Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), one of the most important collectors of British art of his time.
It came to auction here from a descendant, having appeared last year at a dedicated Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain.
The 2ft 1in x 2ft 6in (64 x 76cm) oil on canvas was dated 1742 and depicted a typically vivid cast of characters: a sycophantic dandy, an absurd old lady, an attired monkey (symbolising human folly) and a condescending lady with a black pageboy.
It was offered with a £2m-3m estimate but sold on low estimate to a single bidder. While the sum was an auction record for Hogarth, it seems likely that the subject matter put off a few would-be bidders.
Much has been written about the complex role of black figures in Hogarth’s art, but some have argued that he regarded the keeping of black slaves for social vanity as a form of moral corruption which he lampooned, something which helped lay the groundwork for the abolitionist movement later.
Whatever the case, the figure of the boy is traditionally thought to be based on Ignatius Sancho.
Born on a slave ship in the Atlantic, Sancho lived with three unmarried sisters in Greenwich from the age of two before running away in his late teens to Montagu House, where he received an education under the patronage of the 2nd Duke.
He later became a writer and abolitionist, and remains the first British-African known to have voted in a general election.
Sotheby’s: 26/20/13.9% + 1% overhead premium