Art/Auction logo

Important Old Masters


May 25, 1999

"St. George" and the dragon by Hans Dürer

Lot 112, large detail of "St. George," one of two altarpiece panels,

by Hans Dürer, oil on panel, 40 1/2 by 15 inches

By Carter B. Horsley

In many of the major art auctions there are usually quite a number of famous artists represented, even if not always by their masterworks.

In the Old Master field, however, great works by the big names do not come up often any more and the names that predominate are pretty obscure even to most experts.

There are, of course, many "secondary" works that run the gamut of attribution categories: "Circle of," "School of," "Studio of" and "Attributed to." Every so often, such less than enthusiastic endorsements result in surprises as some collectors believe that firmer attributions are in order.

For the uninitiated, most of the offerings at Old Master Paintings auctions are quite bewildering, but they are also fascinating for stripped of the glamor label they force the potential buyer to actually look at the lot on its artistic merits. As art scholarship advances, repute often acrues to long-forgotten and overlooked artists. Reappraisals of art history do not rewrite the textbooks completely but often make for fascinating addendums.

For many collectors, these auctions are a return to their grass-roots of art appreciation, rummaging with their parents perhaps in flea markets or country antiques stores, long before their formal indoctrination with the displayed treasures of museums.

The point is not that the great artists are not great, but that availability of their works is scant, even in a time of record prices.

Perhaps more important is the fact that while attributions may change or not be as impressive as a sellor or buyer might wish the work of art does not.

Old Master Painting auctions, therefore, are not only esoteric but exciting and this auction was not exception. While it was not a resounding success with less than three-quarters of the offered lots selling, it was quite strong given the quality, a reflection of the general robust strength of the art market.

Probably the finest work in the auction, at least in terms of being a smashingly attractive painting, was Lot 112, the wings of an altarpiece by Hans Dürer (1490-1535-8) that was sold at Sotheby's in London Dec. 8, 1993 as "circle of Albrecht Dürer," the great German master. A large detail of the right wing, Saint George, is shown at the top of this article. Hans Dürer was Albrect's younger brother. The other wing depicted St. Christopher and both 40 1/2 by 15 inch panels also had paintings on their back (verso) of female saints.

These panels are the wings of an altarpiece for which the central panel of "The Lamentation" is most likely now in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, the catalogue noted, adding that "that panel bears the Dürer monogram which, while possibly added at a slightly later date, clearly points to Albrecht Dürer as the principal source of inspiration for those paintings' execution, although others have noted comparison with the work of Dürer's pupil, Hans Baldung Grien and the Saxon Court painter, Lucas Cranach I." Such "comparisons," however, do not make much sense stylistically.

"While the influence of Albrecht Dürer cannot be denied, it is upon comparison with the signed and date painting by Hans Dürer in the Jacobite Church in Nysa, Poland, that the attribution for the present lot has been suggested. The composition of the Virgin and Child in the Nysa altarpiece is based on an engraving by Albrecht Dürer...dated to 1516 and resembles his style particularly in the facial features...while the painterly interpretation of the linear design, including the highly decorated gowns, suggests Hans' own style. Another altarpiece by Hans Dürer of Christ carrying the Cross (signed and dated 1522), formerly in the Cathedral, Breslau, and now in the Nationalmuseum, Warsaw, is also based on Albrecht Dürer's woodcut from the large Passion series.

It sold within its estimates for $167,000 (including the buyer's premium as do all the quoted sales prices in this article).

There were several nice buildings by minor artists such as Peter Tillemans (1684-1734), Lot 3, a very nice harbor scene with many figures that sold within its estimate for $11,500; Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728-1808), Lot 75, a very well done and dramatic painting of a shipwreck that also sold within its estimate for $34,500; Lot 94, "Christ among the Doctors," by The Master of Fontanarosa (17th Century), a very interesting fragment that sold for $13,800 and had a high estimate of $12,000; "The Triumphal Entry of David into Jerusalem," Lot 99, a charming oil by the School of Frans Francken II (1581-1642) that sold for $19,550, almost twice its low estimate.

The catalogue's cover illustration, Lot 10, a very fine large still life, by Edwaert Collier (1640-afte 1707), had a high estimate of $300,000 and sold for $442,500.

Other highlights included Lot 60, "The Madonna and Child with Adoring Angels, a very pleasant 34-inch tondo on panel, by Ridolfo di Domenico Bigordi, called del Ghirlandaio (1483-1561), sold for $310,500, more than five times its high estimate; Lot 61, "Cupid and Pscyhe," a large oil by Bartolomeo Guidobono (1657-1709), a Caravaggioesque dark work that sold for $255,500, more than twice its low estimate; Lot 104, a very fine river landscape with travelers and a peasant family by Jan Wynants (1625-1684) that sold for $266,500 and had a $50,000 high estimate; Lot 129, "The Madonna and Child Enthroned," a very fine work on panel with an unfortunate vertical crack by Zanobi di Benedetto Strozzi (1412-1468) who, according to Everett Fahy, was formerly known as the Master of the Buckingham Palace Madonna, and which sold for $255,500, more than three times its high estimate; Lot 133, a very impressive portrait of Saint Andrew attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto (1591-1652), which sold for $145,500, more than twice its high estimate; Lot 142, "Portrait of Maie Leczinska, Queen of France," by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), a major work in need of relining and cleaning, that sold for $85,000, more than four times its high estimate.

Other strong showings included Lot 11, a portrait of a bearded gentleman in the style of Frans Hals by Judith Leyster (1609-1660), sold for $156,500, more than twice its low estimate; Lot 17, a fine Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Salvi, Il Sassoferrato (1605-1685), sold for $79,500, almost double its low estimate; two paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1724-1805), Lot 24 and 78, lovely small portraits of girls, both selling for more than double their low estimates at $68,500 and $167,500, respectively; Lot 28, "Venus Ordering Arms from Vulcan for Aeneas," by Jean Restout (1692-1768), a large and dramatic work consigned by Nancy Richardson, that sold for $189,500 and had a high estimate of $120,000; Lot 110, a not very colorful view of Arnheim by Jan Josefsz. van Goyen (1596-1656) that sold for $299,500, almost twice its high estimate.

Great paintings by the romantic French painters such as Fragonard and Watteau are in short supply for most gilded dining rooms and the like, but occasionally a very charming and lovely but modest painting of similar esprit crops up at auction, such as Lot 141, shown below, a delightful oil on canvas, 25 1/2 by 20 3/4 inches by Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743). The unsigned work had a high estimate of $50,000 and sold for $63,000.

"A Couple making Music in a Landscape" by Nicolas Lancret

Lot 141, "A Couple making Music in a Landscape,"

by Nicolas Lancret, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 by 20 3/4 inches

Actually, the auction did have two paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Lots 29 and 71. The former is a nice, small potrait of a child with rosy cheeks that sold $235,500, nicely over its high estimate of $200,000. It was consigned by the Wadsworth Atheneum. The latter was an 30 3/4 by 52 inch overdoor decoration, one of two owned by the Norton Simon Foundation that still owns the other one, "The Music of Lyric Poetry." This lot sold for $332,500, more than eleven times its high estimate.

One of the star lots of the auction was a pair of unsigned paintings, "the Piazzetta in Venice, looking East," shown below, and "The Bacino di San Marco and the Church of Santa Maria della Salute," by Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780), Lot 146. Although only 18 3/4 by 24 3/4 inches each, the paintings were quite bold compositions with wonderful effects of light for this famous follower of Canaletto, the famous painter of Venetian scenes. The pair sold for $2,367,500, almost double the low estimate.

The Piazzetta in Venice, Looking East" by Bernardo Bellotto

Lot 146, "The Piazzetta in Venice, Looking East with the Doge's Palace,

the Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, the Riva degli Schiavoni

and the Bacino di San Marco," by Bernardo Bellotto, oil on canvas,

18 3/4 by 24 3/4 inches

While the elegant realism of Canaletto and Bellotto is admirable, Francesco Guardi (1764-1835) has always been more appealing because his almost very painterly touch. Lot 63 consists of a pair of his paintings that once belonged to Vivien Leigh, the actress, and the two paintings are equally beautiful. Only 3 by 3 7/8 inches, they are fine jewels, nicely set in very impressive frames as shown below in the illustration of one of them, "A Capriccio with a ruined Turret on an Island in a Venetian Lagoon." The other painting is "A Landscape with figures crossing a Bridge, a Tower beyond." The pair sold for $134,500, and had a $50,000 high estimate. Another Guardi, Lot 145, not as nice but about three times as big, sold for $354,500, almost three times its high estimate, and another one went for double its high estimate, Lot 62.

"A Capriccio with a ruined Turret on an Island in a Venetian Lagoon," by Francesco Guardi

Lot 63, "A Capriccio with a ruined Turret on an Island in a Venetian Lagoon,"

by Francesco Guardi, oil on panel, 3 by 3 7/8 inches

More than three-quarters of the 153 lots in the auction sold, which was respectable. Among the disappointing passes were Lot 18, a very good "Head of a Sage,' by Pier Francesco Mola (1612-1666), two paintings by Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael (1566-1638), Lots 45 and 46; Lot 93, a very beautiful "Portrait of Miss Mortimer as 'Hebe,' by the Rev. Matthew William Peters, R.A. (1741-2-1814), and Lot 114, a portrait of Sibylle van Cleve, Electress of Saxony, that the catalogue said was by Lucas Cranach I (1472-1553), a not terribly good, rather odd work; two unexciting paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, Lots 136 and 137; Lot 150, a set of four large oil on canvas paintings of the seasons by Sebastian Vrancx (c. 1573-1647); and Lot 152, a pleasant Philips Wouwerman (1619-1668).

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

Home Page of The City Review