Vermeer for sale – perhaps

A portrait of the Roman Saint Praxedis comes to auction; Banksy gets a retrospective; London antique fairs return

Is it the 37th known Vermeer? A portrait of the Roman Saint Praxedis, signed “Meer 1655”, is coming to auction at Christie’s in July. The painting, showing a red-robed saint squeezing martyrs’ blood into a vase, is a virtual duplicate of a 1645 painting of the same name by Florentine painter Felice Ficherelli, and would be one of Vermeer’s earliest works, created in his early twenties.

Many specialists remain dubious about “Saint Praxedis”, but leading scholar Arthur Wheelock Jr believes that it is authentic, and included it in the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition that he co-curated at the Washington National Gallery of Art. As Christie’s says, “The results of recent material technical analysis conducted by the Rijksmuseum in association with the Free University, Amsterdam endorses Vermeer’s authorship of the picture.”

The portrait is the highlight of a series of sales of art and furniture from the estate of Polish-born Barbara Piasecka Johnson. The widow of J Seward Johnson of Johnson & Johnson was a big buyer of traditional art – mainly religious – and her collections have been split between Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both of whom are selling them in London this summer. Proceeds will go to the philanthropic foundation in Piasecka Johnson’s name.

Christie’s has the lion’s share by volume and, in addition to the Vermeer, has 100 lots of Old Masters, furniture, tapestries and silver being sold between July 8 and 17: more is to come later in the year. The total value of the consignment is above £14m, which includes an estimate of £6m-£8m for “Saint Praxedis”.

Sotheby’s has just nine works but they are estimated at up to £12.7m in total, and include Bartolomeo Cavarozzi’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (estimated price £3m-£5m) and Botticelli’s imposing drawing, “Study for a seated St Joseph, his head resting on his right hand”, estimated at £1m-£1.5m.

The last Vermeer to appear at auction was the tiny “Young Woman seated at the Virginals” (about 1670), which is generally considered to have been retouched by a different hand. It sold for £16.2m, over an estimate of £3m at Sotheby’s in 2004, going to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn: he resold it in 2013 for about the same price.

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Even non-art people know about Banksy – the secretive, subversive street artist whose most famous exploit was nailing a taxidermied rat with a spray can to a wall in the National History Museum in London in 2004. It stayed there for a few hours before officials noticed and removed it. When Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s agent at the time, asked for the rodent back, he was told, “We have your rat on ice.”

“It had been put in the deep freezer, as they were worried about it infecting their historic specimens – I didn’t get it back for three days,” Lazarides recounts in the catalogue to a new show, Banksy: the Unauthorised Retrospective.

The rat, along with 70 other Banksy works, is in the show which opens at Sotheby’s London selling space S|2 on June 12 (and runs to July 25). All are secondary market works and all have certificates from “Pest Control” – Banksy’s authentication body – but, as the title indicates, he is not involved in the event. The show is curated by Lazarides (whose working relationship with Banksy ended in 2009) and some works belong to him; others were sourced by him or by Sotheby’s. Prices range from the low thousands to £1m-plus and include well-known works such as “Kissing Coppers”, and “Bombing Middle England”, a stencil of bourgeois bowlers playing with hand grenades.

“I see this exhibition as a validation of Banksy’s work, which 15 years ago everyone dismissed as a flash in the pan,” says Lazarides. “And it is democratic, allowing lots of people who could never afford a Banksy to see them.”

The Banksy market is complicated. The artist refuses to authenticate his street works, saying they were never intended to be sold. Last month in London, concierge company Sincura attempted to sell seven murals removed from sites around Britain. They were shown in a badly lit hotel basement and initially touted as being for live auction – at prices from £100,000 to £500,000. On his website Banksy condemned the sale as “disgusting”, and Sincura then converted it into a “silent auction”, before saying the works would go into a museum of street art instead. On its website Sincura says it has sold “£30m worth of art” but did not respond to a request for more details.

“Banksy is a law unto himself,” says Frankie Shea, founder of Moniker art fair and Moniker Projects, which specialise in street art. “He has no official gallery and now really only produces [works for sale] on commission, so this only bolsters the secondary market.” Indeed the Pest Control website proclaims: “Pest Control is now the sole point of sale for new work by Banksy, of which there is currently something/nothing available.”

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Reed Expositions, which is launching a US west coast version of its Parisian Foire International d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) next year, has done a U-turn on the dates. Initially slated for the end of May – putting it between New York’s major auctions, Frieze NY on May 14-17 and Art Basel in early June – the fair has now been rescheduled to March 26-29. This adds yet another event to an already crowded month that includes the Armory Show, Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Dubai, plus many more minor events. FIAC LA has also lost its director, Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts; her place is being taken by Aurélia Chabrillat, who formerly ran the contemporary Asian art department at Christie’s Paris.

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This week the traditional London antique fairs return. Olympia’s International Art & Antiques Fair is already open and continues until next Sunday. Then on Thursday Art Antiques London opens to the public in a pavilion in Kensington Gardens (until June 18). This year the event includes 21 Asian art dealers in a special section, with everything from Japanese screens (Gregg Baker) to modern Indian paintings (Rob Dean). The talks programme offers a special treat: the duke of Devonshire in conversation with Dame Rosalind Savill, former director of the Wallace Collection. The duke will be talking about his contemporary collection at Chatsworth and his efforts to bring the great treasure-chest palace into the 21st century.

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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