About halfway through the sale of Old Masters at Dorotheum (25/20.84% buyer’s premium) in Vienna on May 3, auctioneer Rafael Schwarz paused the proceedings for an unusual announcement.
“Now we come to the old mistresses”, he said, introducing a small section of works by female artists.
Long ignored by art historians and bidders, but now of course an increasingly popular and profitable sector of the art market, the paintings on offer demonstrated that women artists could on occasions achieve prices that were as impressive as those for their male colleagues.
Variations on a theme
Star of the show was without doubt Fede Galizia, the daughter of a Milanese miniature painter, who was born in 1578 and was renowned not only for her still-lifes but also for her portraits and religious motifs.
The subject matter of the 4ft 2in x 3ft 2in (1.27m x 96cm) signed canvas in Vienna was Judith with the Head of Holofernes, a theme Galizia returned to several times.
In 1995, the vendor, a European collector, bought his previously undocumented painting from an English dealer.
It is thought to have been painted between 1610 and 1615, later than the other four versions by Galizia and documents the maturity of her style, particularly in comparison to her first treatment of the subject in 1596.
The guide of €200,000 was reached in next to no time and international bidders pushed the price to €480,000 (£424,780), the highest price of the sale.
The other works in this section could not compete with the Galizia, but are still worthy of note.
A pair of floral still-lifes were by Elisabetta Marchioni, about whom little is known, other than that she was active in Rovigo in the second half of the 17th century and is thought to have died c.1700 at an advanced age.
The bidders took the pair of paintings to €36,000 (£31,860), a good way above the lower estimate of €20,000.
A depiction of St Cecilia, attributed to Diana de Rosa, sold for its lower estimate of €30,000 (£26,550).
The Neapolitan artist was the sister of Pacecco de Rosa, to whom many of her works were previously attributed.
In recent years, research has confirmed her authorship of several religious subjects closely related to the 4ft 11in x 5ft 2in (1.51 x 1.27m) canvas in the Vienna auction.
Her life ended tragically when she was just 41; she was murdered by her husband who was jealous of her platonic relationship with her painter colleague Massimo Stanzioni.
The same price, also the guide, was achieved for The Holy Family with the Young John the Baptist, the work of Barbara Longhi who was predominantly active in Ravenna where her father and elder brother were both successful artists. She was mentioned by Vasari in his Lives of the Painters as a talented artist.
In the 19th century, the painting belonged to the Marchese Giacomo Bovio in Bologna, albeit with a different attribution: Longhi’s signature was obscured by dirt and only recently revealed by a restorer.
Several days prior to the sale in Vienna, another work attributed to a female artist caused a great deal of commotion at Bertolami Fine Art’s (27% buyer’s premium) auction on April 27 in Rome.
When it was originally consigned, the small copper panel of a sleeping child was attributed to an unnamed 17th century Roman painter.
After several international experts pointed out the remarkable similarity to a version of the same theme by Artemisia Gentileschi which had been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2022, the 5 x 7in (13 x 19cm) painting was reassessed.
After extensive research, it too was attributed to Gentileschi, “with due prudence”, as the auction catalogue put it.
The painting in the Rome auction was almost identical to the Sleeping Christ Child in Boston which had been acquired via private treaty from Christie’s, acting on behalf of a French collector.
One intriguing difference possibly had a great bearing on the price now achieved in Rome: the cushion in the Boston painting is green, that in the Rome panel red. Because of this detail, several experts considered that the latter was possibly the painting once owned by the prince and cardinal Flavio Orsini, which was mentioned in a posthumous inventory of 1698.
Bertolami’s moderate starting price of €12,000 certainly inspired the bidders and only after a prolonged bidding match was the painting knocked down to an anonymous buyer for €245,000 (£216,815), taking the top price of the day.
Recco in the swim of things
A female artist also put in an appearance at the Old Master sale held by Zurich auction house Koller (25/22% buyer’s premium) on March 31.
On offer was a Still Life with Fishes, painted by the late 17th century artist Elena Recco who followed in the footsteps of her Neapolitan father, artistically and literally. Giuseppe Recco had made a name for himself as a still-life painter and his most successful works included fish.
In 1695, he moved to Spain with daughter Elena, but died soon after his arrival. His reputation was, however, sufficient for his daughter to secure a position as a court painter in Madrid, where she worked until her death in 1715.
The 3ft 3in x 4ft 5in (98cm x 1.35m) canvas in Zurich had once belonged to the mid-18th century Swedish sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel and now came from a European collection.
On auction day the hammer fell at SFr16,000 (£14,220), twice the lower estimate.
£1 = €1.13/SFr1.12