This Rare Mannerist Painting by a 17th-Century Italian Nun Just Broke a Record at Sotheby’s, Selling for 14 Times Its High Estimate

A collector snapped up the picture for more than $260,000 in the auction house's online Old Masters sale.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Still life of birds, including a marsh tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blue tits, goldrest, lapwing and a great tit. Courtesy of Sotheby's London.
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Still life of birds, including a marsh tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blue tits, goldrest, lapwing and a great tit. Courtesy of Sotheby's London.

The market fervor for once-forgotten female Old Masters shows no sign of slowing. At Sotheby’s London on May 7, an oil painting by Italian Mannerist painter Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676) sold for £212,500 ($264,350)—more than 14 times its high presale estimate of £15,000 ($118,700).

The sale smashed the existing auction record for a work by the artist of €32,500 ($35,733), set at Dorotheum in Vienna in October 2018, according to the Artnet Price Database. Of the 12 recorded auction sales of works by the artist, only three others had hit five figures, while five failed to find buyers.

“Works by Caccia are very rare,” Andrew Fletcher, a senior director of Old Master and British paintings at Sotheby’s, told Artnet News. “She is not a name any collectors will have come across and the scarcity of her works means they are unlikely to come across her again soon. I expect something else by the artist will emerge from the woodwork in light of this result, but I am certainly not expecting an avalanche, largely because so few exist.”

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Still life of birds, including a marsh tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blue tits, goldrest, lapwing and a great tit. Courtesy of Sotheby's London.

Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Still life of birds, including a marsh tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blue tits, goldrest, lapwing and a great tit. Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

The record-setting canvas by the artist, who often incorporated birds into her paintings as religious symbols, was an unexpected highlight of the sale, which was made up of Old Master works and portrait miniatures from the Pohl-Ströher collection.

The sale totaled £3.4 million ($4.2 million), more than doubling the low end of its presale estimate (£1.5 million to £2.1 million, or $1.9 million to $2.6 million), with a sell through rate of 86 percent.

A nun from Moncalvo, Italy, Caccia was the daughter of a painter and trained as his assistant before entering religious life. After his death, Caccia ran a studio in her convent and instructed other nuns, including one of her sisters. Caccia eventually became the abbess, and her commissions helped support the religious community.

The sale’s top lot was a picture of Saint John the Baptist in a landscape by Bernardo Zenale (1436–1526), which fetched £225,000 ($279,900) against an estimate of just £20,000 to £30,000 ($24,900 to £37,300). The artist’s previous auction record, for the first work by him ever to appear at auction, was just 42,550,000 Lira ($24,767), set in 1995.

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson (known as Lady Butler, ). Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

Yesterday’s sale also included Yeomanry Scouts on the Veldt, a painting by the Victorian war painter Elizabeth Southerden Thompson 1846–1933), or Lady Butler, as she was called after her marriage to lieutenant general sir William Butler. She counted Queen Victoria among her collectors; the painting on offer was painted during one of Lady Butler’s husband’s military campaigns, and was consigned to auction by the Downtown Abbey General Trust, of public television fame. It sold for £12,500 ($15,450), against an estimate of £10,000 to £15,000 ($12,450 to $18,670).

The market for works by female old masters has exploded in recent years. In 2019, pop star and fashion mogul Victoria Beckham lent her star power to Old Masters Week at Sotheby’s New York, where 21 works by 14 female artists were sold under the banner “The Female Triumphant.” That included the record-setting $7.2 million sale of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan (1788).

Last November, another work, by Baroque painter Artemisa Gentileschi, set a new auction record for the artist when it sold for €4.8 million ($5.28 million) at Artcurial in Paris. Fletcher attributed the growing interest for such artists to the success of the Caccia painting.

“I doubt three years ago we would have seen such a price,” he said. “This was both by a female artist and an enchanting painting, easy on the eye and easy to live with—a perfect combination.”


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