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June 22, 2012 10:05 pm
Clients don’t do the rounds of the galleries any more,” says Konrad Bernheimer, an art dealer based in Munich and London. “We live in an event society and people need an event – just that little bit more – to be tempted in.”
Four years ago, along with London colleagues Johnny Van Haeften and Jonathan Green, Bernheimer launched Master Paintings Week (June 29-July 6). It continues a tradition of dealer initiatives presenting “open house” gallery shows to coincide with the big auction seasons – its sister event, Master Drawings London (June 27-July 5), for instance, is in its 12th year.
Such events rely on critical mass. They work well in London because of the concentration of world-class galleries and auction houses within a short walking distance from one another, in and around Bond Street and St James’s. The fact that Christie’s Old Master & British Paintings evening sale on July 3 is its most promising in years will help to focus the minds of serious private and institutional collectors.
Top of the bill here is John Constable’s “The Lock” (1824), one of a celebrated series of large-scale paintings of the Stour valley that is the sublime distillation of his emotional response to the landscape of his native Suffolk, in east England. Constable sought not only to convey the appearance of the natural world but the physical experience of it through an increasingly impressionistic technique. His “Hay Wain” from the same series, exhibited at the Paris Salon the same year, was to have a profound influence on the course of French painting. This is a real museum picture and it is expected to change hands for £20-£25m.
The same sale also boasts Rembrandt’s “A Man in a Gorget and Cap” (c1626, estimate £8m-£10m) and a delectable and previously unknown little oil on copper of “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan” (£2m-£4m) by the Dutch mannerist artist Joachim Wtewael. Sotheby’s strong northern offering of July 4 includes Lucas Cranach the Elder’s impressive Feilitzsch Altarpiece, commissioned in 1511 (£4m-£6m).
Yet one of the points that both these events highlight is that wonderful, even museum-quality, works of art don’t have to cost millions. Among the most thrilling and painterly works of the season, for instance, is the “Christ among the Doctors” by the hugely talented but little known Roman Caravaggesque painter Orazio Borgianni (1574-1616), estimated by Sotheby’s at £400,000-£600,000. And, no less worthy of institutional interest than “The Lock”, is one of Constable’s rare surviving tracings that reveal much of his at times complex preparatory process (Christie’s July 3 drawings sale, estimate £10,000-£15,000).
Another point is that a large, vibrant and hitherto unpublished pen and wash drawing by Canaletto – a view of the Campo San Giacomo di Rialto in Venice, and just about as good as he gets as a draughtsman – comes with an estimate of £300,000-£500,000 (Sotheby’s Old Master & British Drawings, July 4). As Bernheimer puts it: “It only makes my job easier that the price difference between a Jan Brueghel the Younger and a Jeff Koons has become ridiculous.”
He also cites the fact that more and more contemporary artists are referencing the works of Old Masters. In the recent catalogue of Master Drawings from exhibitor Stephen Ongpin, for instance, is one of Jenny Saville’s extraordinary monumental charcoal drawings on the theme of the mother and child. This series, which captures brilliantly the dynamic energy of the wriggling infant, takes as its point of departure the Leonardo cartoon in London’s National Gallery. (Lombard painting before and after Leonardo will take a bow in the loan show Foppa, Zenale and Luini at Robilant & Voena and Stair Sainty, courtesy of PKB Privatbank, Lugano.)
The problem for all these dealers is that, as elsewhere, it continues to be far less difficult to sell the very best and the least expensive than the vast amount of material in between. As the London and Milan-based Old Master and contemporary art dealer Edmondo di Robilant explains: “At Art Basel the bigger galleries selling the biggest names seemed to be fine. It is the same for this business. We do very well with expensive pictures, making one or two big deals a month with works over £1m but we are not selling anything in the middle market.” He adds: “The industrialist worth hundreds of millions is diverting £3m into buying a picture but the notary with a surplus of £200,000 has disappeared.”
Dealer Julian Agnew believes the market is becoming even more discerning: “The middle market is tough unless things are very competitively priced.”
Edmondo di Robilant is seeing no more or fewer paintings consigned from Italy. Konrad Bernheimer of Colnaghi is, revealingly, among those sourcing more material in Spain – the splendid Rubens that he sold on the first day of TEFAF in Maastricht, for instance – and in France. The latter provided his big picture for Master Paintings Week, a magnificent and long-lost moonlit seascape by Claude-Joseph Vernet painted in Marseilles and signed and dated 1754 (about €1m).
While most Old Master and 19th-century art dealers seemed to fare better this year than last at Maastricht, some believe that the future of their business lies with Frieze Masters and its potential to attract a new and younger clientele. It is tempting to counter that collecting older art, like visiting museums and listening to classical music, is something that many people gravitate towards in their forties. The bigger threat to the dealers has to be the colossal rise in the private sales business of the auction houses, which leads us back to the critical importance of gallery initiatives.
“These events act as an icebreaker,” explains Konrad Bernheimer. People feel relaxed about walking into a gallery, whether they are a known client, someone else’s client or a complete unknown. And walk in they do – Johnny Van Haeften, for one, sees on average 100 visitors a day during Master Paintings Week. Certainly there is plenty worth seeing among this year’s £100m-plus bumper crop of paintings and drawings. New discoveries include an oil study of a young man by the young Anthony Van Dyck (c1617, Fergus Hall, £550,000), and Lowell Libson presents two previously unrecorded drawings by William Blake, the watercolour “Parental Affection” of 1795-1800 surviving in dazzling, pristine condition.
There are thematic offerings too from the 40 participating dealers. Ben Elwes presents some 40 French en plein air oil sketches of 1780-1860 from the collection of John Lishawa; Deborah Gage examines the ways in which water came to be represented in the Dutch Golden Age. Philip Mould features a timely array of British royal portraiture, while Rafael Valls focuses on monochrome works in grisaille and brunaille from 1550-1800. Collecting, as these sales and exhibitions remind us, need not all be about the “iconic” masterpiece.
Picasso Ceramics: The Madoura Collection
Works straight from where they were made, at the Madoura pottery in Vallauris in the south of France.
Blockbuster sale, including works by Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst.
Swann, New York
Prints, etchings and engravings by Degas and Corot, among others, most estimated below $1,500.
Postwar & Contemporary Art
Highlights include Francis Bacon’s “Study for Self-Portrait”, plus works by French conceptual artist Yves Klein.
Phillips de Pury, London
“Packed with blue-chip art” including “Irony of Negro Policeman” by Jean-Michel Basquiat and works by Andy Warhol and Anselm Kiefer.
Old Master & British Pictures, Drawings & Watercolours
Christie’s, London Some 500 years of European art. The leading lot is John Constable’s celebrated British landscape “The Lock”.
Old Master Paintings
Highlights include works by Gainsborough, Bernardo Polo and Andries de Coninck.
Bande Dessinée – Comics
Approximately 100 comics by masters of the “9th art”.
Old Master & British Drawings & Paintings
An eclectic selection, with Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “Battle Between Carnival and Lent”.
Treasures, Princely Taste
Sotheby’s, London Rare furniture and decorative arts. Highlights include a George III paste-set ormolu musical automaton clock (est. £1m-£2m).
19th-Century Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours
Highlights include works by David Roberts, Constable, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, among others.
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