Sotheby’s Raked in a Robust $26.7 Million With an Auction of Works Owned by the Eclectic Late Collector Hester Diamond
The sale featured a standout painting by Pieter Coecke Van Aelst.
Fueled by a record-setting and rare Sandro Botticelli portrait, the Old Master market proved its mettle and then some during seven live-streamed and online sales that drove Sotheby’s Masters week, which concluded on Saturday and brought in $160.5 million compared to an overall presale estimate of $127.4 million to $165.5 million.
The total hammer result was $135.7 million, solidly inside expectations. Estimates do not include fees.
The tally vanquished last year’s equivalent series that made $94.3 million, a 16 percent jump from the same sale in 2019.
Even more impressive, the featured Master paintings evening sale (even though it took place on the morning of January 28) took in $114.5 million (est. $100 million to $110.2 million), a 87.4 percent bump from the Old Masters evening sale in 2020.
The lion’s share came from the exquisite Botticelli portrait of an unidentified young man that fetched a record $92.2 million, ranking it as the second-most-expensive portrait ever sold at auction, trailing Pablo Picasso’s Dora Maar au chat from 1941 that sold for $95.2 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2006.
The Botticelli, though, eclipsed Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II from 1912, which made $87.9 million at Christie’s New York in November 2006, and Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait du Dr. Gachet from 1890, which sold for $82.5 million at Christie’s New York in May 1990.
But the sweet spot this season for Sotheby’s was the standalone single-owner “Fearless: the Collection of Hester Diamond” sale that realized $26.7 million (est. $23.3 million to $35.3 million).
Its major lot was Autumn, an extraordinarily rare-to-market, carved marble sculpture by the 17th-century father-and-son duo Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which brought a record $8.9 million (est. $8 million to $12 million).
Diamond, a self-taught connoisseur and interior decorator who died a year ago in January 2020 at 91, acquired the work in 1991 from the London dealer Anthony Roth for an undisclosed price.
It had never appeared at auction, and like many of the collector’s purchases stemmed from her dogged hunting and original research.
The nearly 50-inch-tall muscular male nude with fig leaf, hoisting a bounteous cornucopia on his brawny shoulder, had no comparable at auction. (Il Moro, a terracotta sculpture attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2002 for the equivalent of $3.2 million, but virtually no examples by the father-and-son collaboration have come to auction, according to the Artnet Price database.)
Other Diamond highlights—and there were many—included the Northern Renaissance artist Pieter Coecke Van Aelst’s A Triptych: The Nativity, the adoration of the Magi, the presentation of the Temple, which made a record $3.2 million (est. $2.5 million to $3.5 million). It was authenticated as an autograph work by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, two years after Diamond acquired it.
Other standouts were Giovanni Francesco di Niccolo di Luteri’s (called Dosso Dossi) dual oil-on-canvas works (The Plague at Pergamea and The Sicilian Games), which were commissioned circa 1518 and made a record $6.2 million (est. $3 million to $5 million) at Sotheby’s.
As with much of Diamond’s collection, the Dosso Dossi was on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Before her taste shifted to Old Masters in 2004, Diamond was a highly regarded modern art collector and widow of the noted Madison Avenue art dealer Martin Diamond, who died in 1982.
To fuel her new passion, Diamond auctioned off a trove of Modern artworks at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale in November 2004, led by Piet Mondrian’s New York, 1941/Broadway Boogie Woogie from 1941–42, which made a record $21 million, and Constantin Brancusi’s limestone The Kiss, circa 1908, which made $8.9 million.
The cover lot of that sale was Diamond’s superb Wassily Kandinsky work, Sketch for Deluge II from 1912, that failed to sell against an estimate of $20 million to $30 million.
Diamond had negotiated a guarantee on the painting, and in a post-sale comment at the time, a Sotheby’s specialist said: “The Kandinsky is a great work and we’re happy to have it.”
Returning to the 2021 salesroom, the polychrome terracotta Madonna and Child by Lorenzo Ghiberti and workshop sold for $576,600 (est. $300,000 to $500,000) and Jacopo di Cione’s serene 14th-century composition, Madonna Nursing the Christ Child with Saints Lawrence and Margaret; Predella; The Man of Sorrows, Mater Dolorosa, and Saint John the Evangelist, with Two Coats of Arms, executed in tempera and gold ground, sold for an under-estimate $189,000 (est. $300,000 to $500,000).
More compelling than the price was the arrangement the Diamond estate made with the heir of August Liebmann Mayer, a prominent German art curator who was murdered by Nazis at Auschwitz in 1944. The estate agreed to bring the work to auction, thereby resolving, in undisclosed terms, the dispute over the ownership of the work.
Diamond had rather quirky taste. Also included in the sale were a small group of contemporary works, including Barry X Ball’s Envy (executed in Mexican onyx and stainless steel), which realized $415,800 (est. $200,000 to $300,000) and Xu Zhen (Madein Company)’s Spread Forest, a colorful sculpture of a tree that went for an estimate-busting $63,000 (est. $8,000 to 12,000).
As George Wachter, chairman of Sotheby’s America, characterized Diamond in a post-sale comment: “Hester was unlike anyone else I knew… She had that true ‘collector gene’ and was intellectually curious until the day she died.”
Meanwhile, arch-rival Christie’s Old Master and British drawings sale included property from the estate of Cornelia Bessie, and had a decidedly quieter tone than the heavily marketed Hester sale. The auction, conducted online from January 14 to 28, realized $3.9 million.
Standouts included Jean-Honore Fragonard’s sublime sketch, A Young Woman Dozing, with traces of black and red chalk, which fetched $1.1 million (est. $300,000 to $500,000), and Jean-Etienne Liotard’s handsome Portrait of Philibert Cramer from circa 1770, in pastel on blue paper with period frame and glass. It made $810,000 (est. $400,000 to $6000,000.)
Cramer was a Geneva-based publisher famed for publishing the work of Voltaire, an Old Master of a different type.
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