Would You Spend $3.3 Million on This Renaissance Painting?

Very rare Matteo Giovanetti panel paintings make unexpected auction splash.

Matteo Giovannetti, Saint Anthony the Great. Photo: Lempertz, Berlin.
Matteo Giovannetti, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Anthony the Great.  Photo: Lempertz, Berlin.

Matteo Giovannetti, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Anthony the Great.
Photo: Lempertz, Berlin.

Defying all expectations, two early Italian Renaissance panels by Matteo Giovannetti sold for the princely sum of €2.65 million ($3.3 million) at a German auction last week, as reported by the blog Nord on Art. The pre-sale estimate for the two paintings, which feature St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Anthony the Great, was a comparatively modest €700,000–800,000.

What accounts for the surprisingly exorbitant price tag? Giovannetti (circa 1322–1368), born in the central Italian town of Viterbo, was a court painter for the Pope in Avignon. Though Giovanetti’s frescoes adorn the papal palaces there, most of his freestanding works have not survived, and as a result rarely make their way to the auction block.

The Catherine and Anthony panels, which date from the first half of the 14th century, were last publicly sold way back in 1900, in an auction of works from the collection of the Italian Count of Cernazai. Since at least 1904, they have belonged to the family of the painter Franz von Lenbach, who may have purchased the pair from an art dealer, if not at the aforementioned auction. In the 110 years since, art historians had lost track of the Trecento panels’ whereabouts, making this sale, at Berlin’s Lempertz, an exceedingly rare opportunity for collectors to get their hands on work from the Simone Martini-school painter.

Though few examples of Giovannetti’s work on panel still exist, new research indicates that these two works were the outer panels for an triptych altarpiece by the artist that depicted the Virgin Mary with child, flanked by the portraits of Sts. Hermagoras and Fortunatus, and an Annunciation scene. The interior panels have all survived, with the main image in a private Parisian collection; the two saints reside at Venice’s Museo Correr, and Annunciation paintings are in the Louvre in Paris.

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