An Unassuming Chardin Strawberry Painting Fetches a Record-Shattering $26.8 Million at Auction, Shocking Market-Watchers

The luminous 18th-century still life is the only known instance in which he painted strawberries.

Jean Simeon Chardin, Le panier de fraises des bois displayed at the Cabinet Turquin in Paris, on January 20, 2022. Photo by Stephane De Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images.

Bidding battles in Old Masters auctions aren’t exactly unheard of, but they’re not as frequent—nor as explosive—as ones in contemporary art sales. So it was a pleasant surprise this week when a still life of a heap of strawberries set a Paris salesroom ablaze.

The work, titled The Basket of Wild Strawberries and painted by 18th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, soared far beyond its high €15 million($16.5 million) estimate to fetch a remarkable €24.4 million ($26.8 million) with premium on March 23 at Artcurial. (Presale estimates do not include fees.)

The buyer was New York art dealer Adam Williams, according to the Art Newspaper

The final price marked a new auction record for the artist, shattering the previous one of $8 million that was achieved just a few months ago for La Fontaine at Christie’s Paris, according to the Artnet Price Database. Artcurial said the result was a record for any 18th-century French painting sold at auction.

So what makes the work so special? 

The consensus, said Harry Smith, executive chairman at the art advisory Gurr Johns, is that the work is “absolutely amazing,” in part because it’s Chardin’s only known strawberry still life.

“That type of still life was the father of all the great still lifes in the second half of the 19th century,” Smith said, citing works by Cézanne and Manet. “All those beautiful works look back to Chardin. He was unique in France in the sense that he didn’t need to make grand portraits in the Rococo style like Boucher and Fragonard. Instead, he just did his own thing very quietly, and his work has fantastic simplicity.”

Smith said the price was entirely appropriate.

“For the price of the Chardin, you would could get halfway to a Cézanne, and it’s the best Chardin you could buy,” he said. “It seemed like a lot of money, but in time, I don’t think it will have been expensive. I just think it’s a great picture and Adam is a lucky man.”

The record for a Cézanne still life at auction is $60.5 million for Rideau, cruchon et compôtier (circa 1893), which was sold as part of the John Hay Whitney collection at Sotheby’s New York in 1999.

Chardin, the son of a cabinetmaker, was born in Paris in 1699 and rarely left the city. He lived on the Left Bank near Saint-Sulpice until 1757, when Louis XV granted him a studio in the Louvre.

According to Artcurial, Chardin painted approximately 120 still lifes and often depicted the same objects, particularly goblets, teapots, hares, plums, melons, and peaches. 

The strawberry picture was exhibited at the Salon of 1761, and rediscovered a century later before disappearing from public view until several 20th-century retrospectives in Paris. Over time, Basket of Wild Strawberries become one of the most famous and emblematic images of the French 18th century, and was regularly reproduced in catalogues dedicated to the artist.

The work eventually became one of the masterpieces of the Marcille collection of nearly 4,500 paintings, including 40 canvases by Boucher, 30 by Chardin, and 25 by Fragonard. 

According to the Art Newspaper, Old Master paintings specialist Eric Turquin advised on the sale and wrote the catalogue entry. He also said the underbidders were a London gallery bidding for a private American collector, and Eric Coatalem, a Parisian dealer, whose interest “pushed the picture up to €15 million.” Turquin said he will receive a percentage of the sale proceeds.

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