‘It Felt Like Olden Times’: The Old Masters Market Roars Back to Life at Sotheby’s New York With an Impressive $91 Million Sale

Competition was surprisingly intense even on lots that were already pre-sold.

Pieter van Mol, Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s New York sale of Master Paintings & Sculpture this morning realized a total of $91 million, which exceeded the high end of presale expectations of $73.1 million to $88.6 million. Of the 55 lots offered (after two were withdrawn), a total of 41 works—or 75 percent—were sold. Eleven of the works on offer were guaranteed.

The top lot of the sale, Sandro Botticelli’s portrait of Jesus, Man of Sorrows accounted for roughly half of the overall total, bringing in $45.4 million with premium. The work was hammered down for $39.3 million, just below the pre-sale estimate in excess of $40 million.

Old Master dealer Robert Simon told Artnet News he thought the price was fair for what he said was as “a fantastic painting.”

“I love the picture, it’s very powerful, but it’s obviously not to everyone’s taste,” he said. “It’s a very confrontational painting and not a happy subject.”

Overall, Simon said it was a very successful sale and noted the presence of dealers and collectors he saw in the salesroom, with a fair amount of competition coming from in-person bidders as well as online and phone activity. “It felt like olden times,” he joked, remembering the atmosphere of pre-pandemic, live auctions.

An Egyptian Limestone Figure of a Man, Late 5th Dynasty. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

An Egyptian Limestone Figure of a Man, Late 5th Dynasty. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Simon also noted the sometimes intense, but unpredictable, bidding that erupted for some lots, starting out slow but gaining momentum. One of these—and an unusual inclusion in an Old Master sale—was an Egyptian limestone figure of a man, from the late 5th Dynasty, around 2440-2355 B.C.E. The work, which had been exhibited at the Metropolitan Art for nearly 25 years, was estimated at $3 million to $5 million.

Auctioneer David Pollack opened bidding around $2 million, and it rose steadily as Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art, competed with another specialist, until the price hit $8 million. Antiquities specialist Alexandra Olsman then swooped in with a new $8.2 million bid and won it for her client. The buyer was identified only as a private American foundation.

The competition, and the fact that Lampley is more typically seen bidding for client on multimillion-dollar Impressionist and contemporary artworks at evening sales, suggests the rare antiquity had broad appeal. The final price with premium was $9.9 million, making it the second most expensive object of the sale.

The work first appeared at auction in 1978, where it sold for $280,000, then the highest price ever achieved at auction for an ancient sculpture. 

Competition was also surprisingly intense for the 17th-century Belgian artist Pieter van Mol, a more obscure artist from the circle of Rubens. The painting Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man had been in the collection of millionaire financier J. E. Safra, of the illustrious banking family, since the late 1990s. It was estimated at $2 million to $3 million and was backed by an irrevocable bid.

Pollack opened the bidding at around $1.7 million, and it remained steady, coming down to a contest between department head Christopher Apostle and two others, before the painting was hammered down for $4.8 million to Apostle’s client. The final price with premium was $5.8 million and marked a new auction record for the artist. 

 Artemisia Gentileshi, <i>Portrait of a Seated Lady, possibly Principessa di Albano</i>. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Artemisia Gentileshi, Portrait of a Seated Lady, possibly Principessa di Albano. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Artemisia Gentileschi was also represented in the ten top lots with two works. Portrait of a seated lady, three-quarter length, in an elaborate and gold-embroidered costume, possibly Caterina Savelli, Principessa di Abano, was estimated at $2 million to $3 million and backed by an irrevocable bid; it sold for $2.7 million, including premium. And Susanna and the Elders carried an estimate of $1.8 million to $2.5 million, as well as a third-party guarantee; it hammered for $1.75 million, or $2.1 million with premium.

Another artist record was set for painter Anne Vallayer-Coster when a floral still life painting sold for $1.8 million, falling within the $1.5 million to $2.5 million presale estimate.

Two other artist records were achieved today, for Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy and Sophie Frémiet Rude. A pair of Pickenoy paintings—Portrait of a man in black holding a pair of kid leather gloves and Portrait of a lady in black holding a pair of kid leather and coral silk gloves—were sold together for just over $1 million, compared against a high estimate of $550,000. And Rude’s The death of Cenchirias, son of Neptune and the nymph Peirene, was bought for $685,500, against an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. Both the Pickenoy and Rude lots had third party guarantees as well.

And one lower priced lot went from one museum owner to another. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York was the seller of a 17th-century gilt bronze sculpture of Princess Anna Colonna Barbarini by Gabriele Renzi and Francesco Contini. It was scooped up by the Minneapolis Institute of Art for $163,800.

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