‘The pursuit of refinement’ was the title of the section in Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium plus 1% overhead premium) catalogue dedicated to the collection of Juan Manuel Grasset – the source of some of the highlights of the latest London series of Old Master auctions.
The Spanish civil engineer, who died in 2020, was a major collector for nearly half a century, especially of Dutch and Flemish still-lifes which formed the core of his holdings and together charted the evolution of this genre of painting in the 16th and 17th centuries.
To people active in the market Grasset was a well-known buyer. Starting in the 1960s, he was part of a new generation of private collectors who began to buy directly at auction – challenging what was then the preserve of seasoned art dealers.
His collection, however, was largely unknown to the wider world and only recently gained public recognition when it was exhibited at The San Diego Museum of Art in 2016 and then at the Museum of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, Florida, in 2019.
Speaking before the sale of 16 works from his collection at Sotheby’s Old Master evening sale in London on December 7, co-chairman of the auction house’s Old Master paintings department Alex Bell said: “I first met Juan Manuel Grasset in our saleroom 35 years ago. In a field still dominated by art professionals, private collectors made up a minority of the buyers at the time. But Juan Manuel was part of a pioneering band who had realised that they could buy great works directly at auction.
“It became clear to me very quickly that he had an extremely good eye and knew the market better than anyone else. He was a quietly passionate collector who knew his pictures inside out, lived with them and enjoyed them every day, and loved discussing them with like-minded people.”
With the 16 works backed by guarantees, together they realised a £10.3m hammer total against a combined estimate of £7m-10.8m.
The fact that most of his works were acquired from European auctions gave a chance to compare the prices with how much Grasset had paid for them. What their performance showed was that high quality Golden Age still-lifes have generally been a sound investment, so long as they are held over the long term and so are fresh to the market when reoffered.
Demonstrating this, five bidders competed for a still-life of flowers in a glass vase with insects and fruits by Davidsz De Heem (c.1606-83) which was carried over a £1m-1.5m estimate and knocked down at £2.2m. Grasset had bought it for £200,000 at Sotheby’s in 1987 – about £600,000 in today’s prices.
The artist, who was born in Utrecht but moved to Leiden in 1625 before heading to Antwerp in the 1630s, was the most celebrated still-life painter of his day. This small but detailed 13½ x 10½in (34 x 27cm) oil on oak panel was thought to date from the 1660s.
It exemplified De Heem’s sumptuous and superbly crafted arrangements. Showing his meticulous technique, some of the insects crawling across the petals could be seen only when viewed close-up. While Christie’s set a record £4.8m for the artist when a much larger banquet still-life sold in 2020, the sum fetched here was over double the previous high for a smaller format still-life such as this.
Also exceeding its previous auction price by some distance was an elaborate still-life by Floris Claesz van Dijck (1575-1651) showing flowers, porcelain, a pewter jug and an old and fresh cheese spread out on a table.
Estimated at £600,000-800,000, it drew three bidders and took £1.7m, a record for the artist at auction and a notable return on the £290,000 Grasset had bid at Sotheby’s in 1995 to acquire it (again around £600,000 in today’s prices).
Only a small body of work by the artist is known to exist with under 20 works being recorded as ever having sold at auction (source: Artprice). He clearly had a penchant for cheese which featured in most of his known works.
As well as a picture for those interested in fromology, the painting’s extraordinary range of objects – ranging from blue and white Chinese export porcelain bowls to the two damask table cloths – demonstrated van Dijck’s considerable talent and showed why the Haarlem artist is considered a pioneer in of the uitgestald or ‘display piece’.
The Sotheby’s catalogue described this as ‘one of the largest and most impressive examples’ of this kind of still-life painting.
The Grasset collection also posted two of the four highest prices ever recorded for Osias Beert the Elder (c.1580-1624), first when a depiction of 12 different varieties of roses took £510,000 and then, two lots later, when a larger painting of four vases and baskets of flowers made £700,000.
The latter drew multiple bidders against a £400,000-600,000 estimate and sold to an online buyer. A more recent acquisition by Grasset, here the return was more modest – it had been unsold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2006 where it was pitched at £600,000-800,000 and the Spanish collector had acquired it immediately after the sale (presumably at a sum close to the low estimate).
The kolf club
As well as still-lifes, demand came for a few landscapes and river scenes. A record came for Barent Avercamp (c.1612-79) when a vintage winter scene sold for £300,000, albeit a low estimate sum.
Showing horse-drawn sleighs on a frozen river by a tower, the 12¼ x 21½in (31 x 55cm) oil on oak panel included a depiction of skaters playing kolf (regarded as a forerunner of both golf and ice hockey) which added to its appeal.
Grasset had bought it at Christie’s for £85,000 – around £300,000 in today’s prices. The fact that it made a roughly equivalent price here indicated its value had kept pace with inflation, even accounting for the recent spike.
The top lot of the consignment, however, probably recorded a slight real-terms loss. The Canaletto (1697-1768) view of the Grand Canal in Venice with the Palazzo Pesaro and Palazzo Foscarini had appeared at Christie’s in 2003 with a £3m-5m estimate but was left unsold. Again, Grasset was able to acquire it immediately after the sale.
Here at Sotheby’s nine years on, it was offered with the same estimate, this time selling at £3m to an online buyer.
Overall, Sotheby’s evening sale raised a £32.7m total including premium with 31 of the 36 lots (86.1%) sold.
This figure represented the highest for a December Old Master evening sale at Sotheby’s in six years, even though the number of lots still looked on the low side and included pictures drafted in from other categories – such as a work by English aesthetic painter John William Godward (1861-1922) and a seascape by Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), both selling for £1.05m and £1.4m respectively.
The total was boosted by the top lot of the series, a version of Venus and Adonis catalogued as by Titian (c.1485-1576) and workshop which was knocked down at £9.5m to a phone bidder (reported in News in ATG No 2572).
Christie’s (26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) Old Master evening sale also looked relatively thin with only 30 lots offered, 27 of which sold (89%) for a £13.1m total. It was led by The Reading Party by French rococo painter Jean-François de Troy (1679-1752) which was knocked down at £2.4m, the second-highest price for the artist according to Artprice (reported in ATG No 2572).
Another elegant Dutch still-life was among the most contested lots here. The painting of a range of objects on a ledge by Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680) came to auction from a descendant of Amsterdam shipping magnate Henrij Theodoor Cox (1868-1935) who had bought it in the 1920s. It was previously unknown to scholars.
In many ways it was highly typical of the carefully constructed and deft tonal compositions that date from the Haarlem artist’s earlier period. However, the oil on panel was unusually small measuring 13¼ x 21¾in (34 x 55cm).
Signed and dated 1629, it had many of the artist’s favoured motifs: the large roemer, a silver knife, a gold pocket watch with blue ribbon, a pewter plate with a peeled lemon. Pitched at £150,000-250,000, it drew decent interest before the sale as well as on the day and sold at £600,000.
Although the record for Heda stands at £4.25m for a much larger and more elaborate still-life sold in the same rooms in 2014, the price per square inch here looked in line with those fetched by other notable works by the artist.
Elsewhere at Christie’s were three Italian gold ground paintings from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection that sold separately for a combined £1.2m.
The leading light was a depiction of the Madonna and Child with two angels by Barnaba da Modena (c.1328-86). Works by the Milan-born painter, who was mainly active in Pisa, are exceedingly rare on the market. Only nine auction results are recorded on Artprice, the highest of which was back in 2010 when Sotheby’s sold another Madonna and Child for £720,000.
This 19 x 13½in (48 x 35cm) tempera on gold ground panel had been acquired by Baron Hans-Henirich Thyssen-Bornemisza sometime after 1989. Painted as an image for private devotion, it was signed and thought to be a late but mature work.
A finely worked picture with distinct features that had similarities to known works by the artist in museums, as well as being a strong image, it found favour against a £400,000-600,000 guide and sold at £700,000, the second-highest hammer price for the artist (although a record in terms of premium-inclusive results).