Canaletto, Caravaggio Fail to Sell at Christie’s Worst Old Masters Sale Since 2002

The bloodbath saw just 41 percent of lots find buyers.

Canaletto The Piazzetta: Looking East, with the Ducal Palace
Canaletto, The Piazzetta: Looking East, with the Ducal Palace.

A canvas promoted as possibly Caravaggio’s first failed to find a buyer today at a grim Old Masters painting sale at Christie’s New York. Inflated estimates, a dearth of high-quality work, and a fall in the value of the Euro, according to several dealers present, conspired to sink an auction that saw fully 32 out of 54 works fail to find buyers. Among the unlucky lots were examples by Pieter Brueghel II, Canaletto, Pieter Claesz., Guido Reni, and Theodoor Rombouts.

The sale tallied just $9.3 million, a quarter of the pre-sale high estimate of $39 million. It was the worst result of a January old master sale since 2002. The poor tally came despite the presence of prominent dealers like Johnathan Green, of London’s Richard Green Gallery, Martin Zimet of New York’s French & Company, and Anthony Crichton-Stuart, of Agnew’s, London (see London’s Legendary Fine Art Dealer Agnew’s Saved by Eleventh-Hour Investors). The house had also promoted some of its treasures using comparisons with contemporary art that some dealers found specious (see The Old Masters Market is Restoring its Image to Make it Sexy).

“The estimates were just too high,” Amsterdam dealer Salomon Lilian told artnet News. “Many of these works were known to the market, having been shown previously at TEFAF.”

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Boy Peeling a Fruit, oil on canvas

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Boy Peeling a Fruit, oil on canvas


“I came here to consider four paintings,” London consultant Hector Paterson told artnet News, adding that once he saw them, he found only one of them up to snuff. He went home with a pair of small drawings by Pietro Bianchi.

Boy Peeling a Fruit, the Caravaggio, went down in flames after less than a minute on the block. Speaking off the record, several dealers put the failure down to doubts about the work’s authenticity. (For a look at a recent dispute over a work by the Italian master, see Sotheby’s Wins Case Over $15.8 Million Caravaggio.)

Among the other conspicuous failures was the painting that graced the cover of the catalogue promoting the sale, Theodoor Rombouts’s genre painting A Merry Company, which carried a high estimate of $3 million. Dominated by a red-coated figure with his back to the viewer, the nearly-8-foot-wide painting shows a baker’s dozen of revelers eating and drinking around a table. The painting wasn’t helped by the fact that it was owned for a time by King Louis XVI’s mother and hung for a long time in the building that now houses the Hotel Ritz.

Also going begging was Guido Reni’s The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia (ca. 1614), which was back at auction not quite seven years after the last time it was on the block. New York dealer Richard Feigen got $3.6 million for the oil on copper, just under 18 inches high, at Sotheby’s London in July 2008, setting a record for Reni. Apollonia was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out; in Reni’s rendition, her tormenter stands before her holding a giant pair of pincers. Even after the auctioneer opened the bidding at a modest $650,000, the painting failed to gain any traction in the sale room.

The Renaissance sale, this afternoon, is expected to total as much as $27 million with 53 lots, considerably shy of the $44.9 million total for the same sale last year. The top estimate is $8-$12 million for Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, which Christie’s is bringing to market for the second time. The three-foot-high oil on panel failed to sell in 2013, when it was estimated at $12–$18 million. The sale catalogue indicates that Christie’s owns the work, in part or in full, though it says that “a private collector” is offering it for sale. (Update: the Bronzino fetched $9.1 million, while the sale overall totaled just $15.8 million, short of the $18-million low estimate. Just over half the lots sold found buyers.)

Salomon Lilian did find a few bright spots. “It’s very encouraging—and surprising—that the Salomon van Ruysdael went for $1.2 million,” he said, referring to Skaters on the Frozen River Lek, the Town of Vianen Beyond (1653), whose hammer price just met its high estimate.

He found hope, too, in The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, a canvas by the obscure artist Matthias Stomer, which passed its high estimate to hammer for $700,000. “It’s fresh to the market,” he pointed out. (The catalogue lists only one unnamed family in the section on the work’s history.) “That’s what gets people excited.”

Old Masters week continues with Christie’s sale of Old Master and British drawings and the second part of its Old Master paintings sale, both on Thursday. High estimates for those sales are $6.4 million and $4.2 million respectively. Sotheby’s is also holding Old Masters sales this week (see Bruegel, Tiepolo, Reubens Shine at Sotheby’s Old Masters Sales).

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Richard Feigen had bought the Reni painting in 2008. It has been updated to indicate that in fact he sold it in 2008, having bought it in 1986.

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