Contemporary art may seem to have a firm grip on the art market, but startling auction results for Old Master works suggest some buyers are trying their hand elsewhere.
The slate of Old Master sales this week in London saw some fanfare, especially for the appearance of Johannes Vermeer’s early and awkward Italianate painting Saint Praxedis, which just squeaked by its presale low estimate of £6 million (about $10.2 million) at Christie’s on Tuesday. However, the big winners were not very big at all, and they weren’t even paintings.
On Wednesday evening at Sotheby’s, a very sweet drawing entitled Study for a Seated St Joseph, his Head Resting on his Right Hand brought over £1.3 million (about $2.5 million). The work’s size? Barely over five inches by five inches. Of course, the small size is not indicative of the work’s quality or importance; it is thought to be one of only 12 extant drawings by Sandro Botticelli.
Perhaps even more impressive were two drawings from the I.Q. van Regteren Altena Collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings, amassed by the former head of the prints and drawings department at the Rijksmuseum and offered with Christie’s. The cover lot was Peter Paul Rubens’s study for the painting Samson and Delilah (1609), which proudly hangs in the National Gallery in London. Measuring just over six inches by six inches and sketched hastily in pen and ink, this tiny drawing brought a not-so-tiny price: £3.2 million (about $5.5 million).
Impressive enough, but it was another diminutive drawing that stole the show, and should have dominated all headlines for the week: Hendrick Goltzius’s The Artist’s Right Hand (1588). Few know the artist and many may not care, but this little portrait of the artist’s own hand is on par with a Dürer self-portrait. Goltzius followed the great example of Northern European draftsmanship established by Dürer and made his own through a uniquely Mannerist style.
Through bulging muscles, attenuated bodies, and anatomically impossible poses, Goltzius did it all with his right hand. This right hand, badly burned and malformed since childhood, perfectly held a burin used for printmaking. Goltzius alluded to his own hand often in his print work and so it may not be surprising that this little drawing is perhaps his most important self-portrait. The price realized was £2.6 million (about $4.5 million) against a pre-sale estimate of £300,000–500,000 ($513,000–856,000). The drawing’s size: well, not much larger than a hand.
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