The 19½in x 2ft 2in (49 x 63cm) oil on wood panel in Dominic Winter’s (20% buyer’s premium) latest picture sale had formerly been owned by Prince Frederick George William Christopher of Prussia (1911-66), also known as Friedrich von Preussen, who was a grandson of Wilhelm II, the last German kaiser.
He married Brigid Guinness, the youngest daughter of Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, in 1945 and became a naturalised British citizen two years later. He drowned in the Rhine aged 54.
Following his death, parts of his estate were sold at auction but this picture remained with his wife until it was acquired by a collector in c.1972. It came to auction from one of the collector’s descendants.
Label says Delff
A label in German on the back of the picture identified the subject as the Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius and the artist as Willem Jacobszoon Delff (1580-1638).
Also known as Huig de Groot, the humanist scholar, lawyer, poet and playwright was born in Delft and published more than 60 texts including his famous 1625 work The Rights of War and Peace.
His image is known through engravings as well as a portrait by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt (1566-1641) which, although they show de Groot with similar features including to the facial hair, depict him as a somewhat older man than in the current picture.
In terms of the artist mentioned on the label, Willem Jacobszoon Delff seemed an unlikely candidate as he is thought to have worked exclusively as an engraver.
However his son, Jacob Willemsz Delff the Younger (1619-61), who trained under van Mierevelt, emerged as a more likely contender for authorship.
The auction house approached Jasper Hillegers, a former assistant curator at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, who assisted with the cataloguing.
Hillegers identified a comparable portrait of a young man by Delff the Younger in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, dated 1642, in which the sitter wears a very similar collar and jacket to those shown here. He also felt the pose, painterly treatment of the flesh, finesse of the painting of the fine soft hair, beard and moustache, and the transition in the background from dark to light, all seemed to argue for an attribution to Delff the Younger.
Works by the artist appear only occasionally at auction with the highest price for an individual portrait (as opposed to a pair) being the £20,000 bid for a halflength portrait of Michiel Pauw at a Sotheby’s online sale in 2020.
At the Dominic Winter auction on July 20, the picture was offered as ‘attributed to’ Delff the Younger and given a date of ‘c.1642’. Its condition was not perfect with some flaking paint and scratches.
Estimated at £8000-12,000, it sold to a US buyer at £12,000, a decent price for the artist even if the vivid quality and interesting subject may have led some people to think it might have made more.
Downside looking up
Elsewhere at the South Cerney sale were 31 pictures from Downside Abbey.
Over the last three years the Somerset monastic community has transitioned away from its historic location and works from its picture collection have been appearing at auction over this time. A number have sold at Sotheby’s including a 16th century painting of The Raising of Lazarus that made £70,000 in December 2020.
As might be expected, the works at Dominic Winter were mostly religious scenes. The highest price among the group came for a set of 11 portraits of the Apostles, thought to date from the late 17th century or early 18th century.
Each was an oil on thin wood panel inscribed with the saint’s name and measuring 21 x 16½in (54 x 42cm). A similar oil on wood panel portrait of St Gregory was also part of the lot.
Director and picture specialist at the auction house Nathan Winter told ATG the works had a “crudeness but lively element” not unlike the appeal of some pieces of folk art.
He also added that it was quite unusual to have a whole group on offer such as this. Against a £800-1200 estimate, the works duly attracted admirers and sold at £7500 to a London-based buyer who was bidding online. Winter said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the price.
Pick of the drawings
The pick of the Old Master drawings in the sale was a sketch of a male figure with arms outstretched by the French artist Charles Joseph Natoire (1700-77).
Signed to the lower right, the 13 x 7¾in (33 x 20cm) red chalk study was a study of a figure in supplication most probably for a larger painting.
The artist used this medium for plenty of his drawings and examples are not unheard of at auction. The best and more complete sketches can make over £20,000 but this example, which came from a private collection in Hampshire, was probably not in this category despite the quality of execution to the face.
Estimated at £300-500, however, it was always likely to attract strong interest and it sold at £6000.