Offered at Bonhams’ (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) Old Masters paintings sale on December 7, it showed an alchemist at work in his makeshift laboratory with a stuffed alligator hanging from a ceiling beam.
It was part of the Roy Eddleman collection which is being sold to benefit the Quantum Institute at the University of California.
Eddleman, who died aged 82 earlier this year, was the founder of life sciences firm Spectrum Labs.
Among his other interests, he collected works relating to the history of alchemy, 25 of which he donated to the Science History Institute in the US, where the work at Bonhams had previously been on loan.
The theme of alchemy was highly popular in mid-17th century Flemish art and it was clearly a favourite of Teniers the Younger.
A c.1652 portrait of an alchemist studying is in the Royal Collection (it was purchased by George IV), while among the dozen or so paintings with this subject sold at auction in the last 30 years was a view of an alchemist in his workshop that made $570,000 (£443,360) at Christie’s New York in 2019.
The work here had been acquired at Sotheby’s sale of the Guterman collection in New York in 1988, where it fetched a hammer price of $520,000 (then £288,080). The 2ft 4in x 2ft 10in (72 x 88cm) signed oil on canvas shows the alchemist holding a pair of bellows which were used as part of the heating process in attempts to create gold from purified base metals.
The subject of alchemy first appeared in Teniers the Younger’s paintings in the late 1640s and the current picture was believed to date from the early 1650s, making it one of his earliest treatments of the subject.
As with other Flemish artists, he used such scenes to demonstrate his artistic skills including his prowess at still-life painting, which explains in part why he chose to depict the spacious workshop strewn with books, glassware, ceramic pots, vials and the stuffed alligator.
The picture was estimated at £300,000-500,000 but, after a decent bidding battle, sold at £420,000.
Bonhams head of Old Master paintings Lisa Greaves said: “Teniers is known for his theatrical, intricate and complex scenes, and this was an exciting chance for collectors to acquire one of his earliest pictures on the theme of alchemy. It is clear that concepts like this, which blur the line between science and witchcraft, still fascinate us long after the mid-1600s, when Teniers produced this piece.”
Driven to drink
Another work drawing interest at Bonhams was a lively and early view of two bibulous figures by Willem van Mieris the Elder (1662-1747).
Showing a trumpeter at a casement window along with another figure holding an upturned wine glass, the 9½ x 7¾in (24 x 20cm) signed oil on panel was dated 1689 – meaning it was executed not long after he started collaborating with his father, Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-1781).
The musician and drinker depicted in the picture were favourite motifs of the Leiden school of painters and a related painting by van Mieris showing the figures transposed with trumpeter in the foreground is now in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. It dates from around a decade after the current work.
Given a £50,000-70,000 estimate, it drew strong demand and sold at £310,000 – an auction record for the artist despite its small size.
Overall, the Bonhams sale made a total of £1.81m including premium from 72 lots.