The art market: Little rat, big guns

This week sees the start of two weeks of power auctions in New York. First comes Impressionist and Modern art, with Christie’s firing the opening salvo on Tuesday with Degas’s famed “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans” leading its evening sale. The petit rat comes from a private American collection that is hoping for $25m-$35m: it last sold in 2000 when it fetched £7.7m ($11.6m). Sotheby’s sale the next evening has the first of four monumental sculptures of women’s backs by Matisse ($20m-$30m) as well as a restituted Klimt, “Litzlberg on the Attersee” (over $25m). Overall, the first week’s sales, both day and evening, are expected to fetch more than $509m. Last year, the equivalent series racked up $534.7m including commission – showing that supply is stable in this sector, but certainly not rising.

Bonhams unveiled a newly discovered Velázquez this week, which it will sell in its December 7 sale in London. The small portrait of an unidentified gentleman is dans son jus as the French say (meaning in its original uncleaned condition). It comes from the descendants of an obscure 19th-century painter, Matthew Shepperson. The work was originally attributed to Shepperson (who copied old masters) and was put into a sale in Oxford last year but withdrawn when Bonhams realised it could be by a much mightier hand. How Shepperson acquired it is a mystery. The work is not in the catalogue raisonné of Velázquez, no doubt because it was completely unknown, but the leading Velázquez specialist Dr Peter Cherry has thrown his authoritative weight behind the attribution. The estimate is £2m-£3m.

Following on from its excellent Giacometti show last year, the New York and London dealership Eykyn Maclean is holding another non-commercial exhibition, focusing on Matisse and his models. Curated by Ann Dumas (who is also co-curator of Degas and the Ballet, at London’s Royal Academy), the New York exhibition boasts 46 works, many loaned by museums such as MoMA, the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Hirshhorn.

A newly discovered Velázquez portrait of an unknown gentleman, for sale at Bonhams

Matisse’s inspirational models – the Italians Bevilacqua and Laurette, the Frenchwomen Antoinette Arnoud and Henriette Carrère, and the Russian Lydia Delectorskaya – are all seen in the show, in paintings, sculpture or prints and cut-outs. In the catalogue Dumas quotes Matisse: “After a certain moment,” he wrote of drawing the model, “it is a kind of revelation, it is no longer me. I don’t know what I am doing, I am identified with my model.”

Why would a commercial enterprise mount a non-selling show? Chris Eykyn said: “Preparing the Giacometti show we really enjoyed looking at works of art for their own sake – without the dollar sign getting in the way.” Holding such shows also garners critical acclaim and opens doors: Eykyn adds, “Of course it helps build relationships as well.”

Traditional antiques remain a weak part of the market and there is a lengthening list of dealers who have closed shop, among them Ariane Dandois, Segoura, Jeremy, Hotspur and Partridge. But there is still demand for the best pieces, particularly from a prominent collection. In New York, Sotheby’s has just dispersed 800 lots of antiques, including 18th-century French furniture, Russian and Chinese porcelain, French watercolours, German turned ivories, English silver and more besides, from the homes of “Gilded” Lily Safra, whose banker husband Edmond died in a fire in Monaco in 1999. The sale carried a low estimate of $40m before commissions, which proved pretty accurate, as it made just shy of $46m (including commission). The highest price of $6.9m was paid for a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted commode with secretaire, and indeed much of the ornate French furniture did well. However, 300 lots were bought in, including two paintings by Tissot, one estimated at $1.5m-$2.5m.

Everyone knows Venice is in danger of sinking under the sea and the organisation Venice in Peril raises funds to restore La Serenissima’s monuments and research how best to preserve the city. In a recent project, 14 photographers record their vision of Venice; the works are on view at Somerset House in London. Each artist donated one picture to the charity and they are being sold at Phillips de Pury’s in London on Thursday.

The images vary from the classically beautiful, such as Mimmo Jodice’s “Arsenale from Venice” (2010), estimated at £5,000-£7,000, to one of Robert Walker’s “Apron suite” (2010) photographs, showing the brasher side of the city (£2,200-£2,800). But see the show as well, if you can, for a more thorough view of the portfolios. Until December 11.

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

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