Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun self portrait

Self Portrait In Traveling Costume by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, $2.5m (£1.97m) at Sotheby’s.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Arguably the high point of the series was a group of works from the collection of the art historian Joseph Baillio which were offered at Sotheby’s in a dedicated auction on January 31. A noted scholar of 18th century French painting and of the works of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) in particular, Baillio staged important exhibitions on her life and career and did much to propel Le Brun to the forefront in terms of pioneering female Old Masters.

He was also a dealer for many years, becoming vice president of Wildenstein & Co, although the pictures and sculptures offered here were from his personal collection and the Sotheby’s sale was branded ‘A Scholar Collects’.

Many of the lots in the sale sold for sums that were substantially higher than Baillio paid for them, including most of those by Le Brun. All 12 lots by Le Brun sold with eight going above top estimate, including the highlight of the collection – a pastel self portrait which she had executed artist shortly after she had fled revolutionary Paris for Italy in the autumn of 1789 (famously she was patronised by Marie-Antoinette, painting around 30 pictures of the French queen).

Depicting herself in traveling costume, the work here was described in the catalogue as ‘sensitively rendered yet visually striking’ and suggested it could be counted as one of, if not, the ‘finest and most important pastels in her oeuvre’.

By portraying herself without frills or extravagance, and looking younger than her true age, it seemed to contain a nod toward her humble beginnings and it may well have been created to show her determination to succeed as a painter once again.

Its first owner was fellow artist François-Guillaume Ménageot, who at the time was director of the Académie de France in Rome, and to whom Le Brun had presented it.

Baillio had acquired it in 1983 at an auction at Nouveau Drouot in Paris but the market for the artist has risen substantially since then. In 2019, a major record came at Sotheby’s New York when her monumental portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan made $6.1m (£4.67m), quadrupling the previous high and bringing her into the premier league of Old Masters commercially.

In terms of her works on paper, it had been almost a decade since a comparable work had emerged at auction – Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat with a Plume that made €310,000 (£257,890) at a small auction house in the suburbs of Paris (Hôtel des Ventes de la Vallée de Montmorency).

The estimate at Sotheby’s was £700,000-1m but, even though the lower end was more than double the previous record for a Le Brun work on paper, bidders did not baulk. It was eventually knocked down at an eyecatching $2.5m (£1.97m), the highest ever price for a work on paper by any female Old Master and the second highest for any work by Le Brun at auction.

Mother's portrait

The Baillio collection also included an oil portrait of the artist’s mother – one of the artist’s earliest surviving paintings, executed when Le Brun was around 20 years old. A piece that she clearly treasured and took with her everywhere, it was estimated at $100,000-150,000 and sold at $220,000 (£173,230) – a good return on the $100,000 (£64,220) that Baillio had bid for it at Christie's New York in 2012.

Another Le Brun pastel making a major price was a remarkable portrait of the Duchesse de Guiche that also made a notable return on the £70,000 that Baillio had paid at Sotheby’s in London in 1991.

The sitter, who was renowned for her beauty with her striking blue eyes, was a close friend of Marie-Antoinette and, along with her mother, was the subject of several portraits by Le Brun. In this 2ft 8in x 2ft 1in (81 x 64cm) pastel, which was signed and dated 1784 and executed on two joined sheets of paper laid on canvas, the sitter was shown in an unusual costume for a lady of her rank – possibly something that related to her talent as an actress (she was a regular performer at the Petit Trianon theatre at Versailles). Her pose with both hands on her chest, her head slightly inclined and her lips half opened was also somewhat unconventional.

Portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Portrait of the Duchesse de Guiche by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, $500,000 (£393,700) at Sotheby’s.

The image was well known, having later appeared as an engraving by the Comte de Paroy (it was also reproduced in various other media). Estimated at $500,000-700,000, the pastel sold at $500,000 (£393,700) – the second highest auction price for a Le Brun work on paper other than the above-mentioned self portrait.

Intriguingly, another major competition came for oil on canvas portrait which was catalogued as 'Circle of’ Le Brun and appeared separately at Sotheby’s Master Paintings Part II sale the following day. Depicting the artist herself, it seems at least two bidders believed it was an autograph self portrait and took it to a final $393,700 including premium.

Overall the works on paper at Sotheby’s performed well with the Baillio sale generating $6.3m including premium (against a $4m high estimate) with 35 of the 41 lots sold (85%). Added to the mixed owner Old Master drawings sales, the combined $10.8m was the highest total in this category at the auction house in four years.

Van Dyck drawing record

Meanwhile at Christie’s Old Master & British Drawings sale on February 1, a number of lots drew strong bidding which helped the sale perform markedly better than the paintings sales – the $3.86m (£3.04m) hammer total fell comfortably within the auction’s combined estimate of $2.86m-$4.35m from the 176 lots (86% of which sold).

The top price came for an important portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) that broke the four-decade record for a drawing by the artist when it surpassed a $800,000-1.2m estimate and was knocked down at $1.7m (£1.34m).

Sir Anthony van Dyck drawing

Portrait of Willem Hondius by Sir Anthony van Dyck, $1.7m (£1.34m) at Christie’s.

The work depicting the printmaker Willem Hondius (the son of the Dutch publisher and engraver Hendrick Hondius) was acquired by a private collector in Stockholm in the 1970-80s, the father of the current vendor. While prints of the work existed, the drawing itself had been unseen in public for centuries.

Its reemergence meant it represented the last known drawing in private hands from van Dyck’s ‘Iconographie’ group of studies (depictions of notable figures which became a famous series of engravings).

Christie’s catalogue stated that the reappearance of the 8½ x 6½ in (22 x 17cm) black chalk, wash, pen and ink study, heightened with white, ‘marks a major addition to the work of one of the great masters of the Baroque… and a truly rare opportunity to acquire a Flemish seventeenth-century drawing of the finest quality’. The previous record for a van Dyck drawing came for another study for the same ‘Iconographie’ series, the portrait of Hendrick van Balen which Christie’s sold in London on behalf of the Duke of Devonshire in 1984. That sheet fetched £585,000 and was bought by Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

With another opportunity to acquire an original work from the ‘Iconographie’ series unlikely to emerge anytime soon, bidders were clearly prepared to go to some lengths to secure this example. Christie’s international head of Old Master drawings Stijn Alsteens said: “The sale of van Dyck’s portrait of Hondius continues Christie’s good fortune with this artist, and shows once again that exceptional works can do better than ever.”

He added: “As a whole, the number of participants at the auction, the sell-through rate achieved, and the prices obtained, confirm that drawings of all schools and at all price levels attract strong interest from private collections, public institutions and the trade.”

Francesco Salviati drawing

A nude man in profile, part of a two-sided sheet of figure studies by Francesco Salviati that sold for $420,000 (£330,710) at Christie’s.

Among the Italian drawings in demand was a double-sided sheet of figures by Francesco de’ Rossi (1510-1563), an artist more widely known as Francesco Salviati. The nude studies of male figures (one seen from the back and the other in profile) were seemingly not related to any of the known painted compositions by Salviati but, even still, they were admired for their draftsmanship with their incisive line and curvilinear hatching. They were described by Christie’s as ‘a powerful testament to Florentine Mannerism’.

While any drawing by Salviati is rare at auction, another double-sided sheet by Salviati also showing nudes with strong sculptural qualities was gifted to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021. The current sheet came from a deceased estate in Washington DC and the 161/2 x 101/2in (43 x 28cm) black chalk, pen and brown ink studies were in good overall condition despite some minor tears, loss and signs of old restoration.

Against a $300,000-500,000 estimate, the lot sold at $420,000 (£330,710).

Buyer’s premiums

Sotheby’s: 26/20/13.9% + 1% overhead premium

Christie’s: 26/21/15%