Old Masters Today

A monthly post featuring very subjective auction highlights, irreverent collecting ideas, and essential Old Masters news and events.

We recently wrapped up Master Drawings week in NY, which was less breakfast at Sotheby’s and more Morellian connoisseurship IRL. Have you been squinting at the top half of people’s faces and failing to recognize them? Maybe we really should be studying ears and hands. Enjoy these very subjective sales highlights from last month:


Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aelst 1502 -1550 Brussels), A Triptych: The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi, The Presentation in the Temple. Oil on panel, center panel: 105 x 70 cm, side panels: 105 x 30 cm. Sotheby’s.

1. One of the crown jewels from the Hester Diamond collection beyond the actual crystals (more on that later) was this triptych by Pieter van Coecke. Some of you might remember it from the 2014 exhibition at The Met

Roelandt Savery (Kortrijk 1576 – 1639 Utrecht), A Lion Hunting Two Deer. Oil on panel, circular panel diameter: 63 cm. Sotheby’s.

2. There were some true gems from the Estate of the late Paul Kasmin, but I’m going with this Roelandt Savery, which singlehandedly explains why he so aggressively promoted Walton Ford.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Grasse 1732-1806 Paris), A Young Woman Dozing. Traces of black chalk, red chalk, 24 x 19 cm. Christie’s.

3. Obviously I’m biased but this red chalk Fragonard drawing was possibly my favorite. This sheet from the Cornelia Bessie collection is part of a series of studies executed by Frago of young women and the execution of the red chalk is particularly compelling— reflected in the final sale price of $1,110,000 (with premium)!

Spain, Toledo, Don Juan de Cárdenas and Doña Juana de Ludeña, Duke and Duchess of Maqueda, late 16th century. Alabaster, heights: 146 and 128 cm. Sotheby’s.

4. Of the the works deaccessioned by the Albright-Knox Gallery, Luca della Robbia’s Madonna and Child went for double the estimate, but I personally loved these late 16th-century alabaster Spanish tomb effigies from Toledo. Stick some crystals on and they could have been rebranded as a Daniel Arsham.

Pillone Library binding. Vincenzo Vincenzo (c.1531-c.1569?). Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi. Venice: Ziletti, 1580. Christie’s.

5. Vellum covers decorated by Cesare Vellecio after Zaltieri’s etchings in Vincenzo Cartari, Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi (Venice: Ziletti, 1580), from the Pillone library, presented as part of the Selections from the Library of Mr. & Mrs. John H. Gutfreund 834 Fifth Avenue. Cesare Vecellio (1521-1601, a distant cousin of Titian) was commissioned in c. 1580s to decorate volumes in the Pillone library in Villa Casteldardo. Vecellio illustrated the fore-edges of the volumes and although the fore-edge in this lot has faded, the front and back covers are still pretty remarkable!

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591 – 1666 Bologna), Apollo Flaying Marsyas. Pen and brown ink and wash, 20.7 x 20.8 cm. Sotheby’s.

6. It was drawings week after all and Guercino’s Apollo Flaying Marsyas from the Collection of David and Louise Carter had quite a result, going for $315,000 (with premium) from an initial estimate of $6,000 – 8,000…so make of that what you will.

Hendrick Goltzius (Mülbracht 1558 – 1617 Haarlem), Ceres and Proserpine, with Pluto in a Chariot Behind. Pen and brown ink and brown and gray-brown wash, heightened with white, over traces of black chalk, diameter: 13.0 cm. Sotheby’s.

7. There was also this previously unrecorded Goltzius drawing…I plead the fifth on this one and leave it to the experts.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam), Abraham and the Angels. Oil on panel. 16.1 x 21.1 cm. Sotheby’s.

8. Staying with the Dutch vibes, this intimately sized Rembrandt, which has an incredible pedigree and the recent star of the Frick Collection’s Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels (May 30 – August 20, 2017) was on offer but withdrawn at the 11th hour and sold privately.

Rachel Ruysch (The Hague 1664 – 1750 Amsterdam), Still life with flowers in a vase on a ledge with a dragonfly, caterpillar, and butterfly,1698. Oil on canvas. 48.3 x 40 cm. Sotheby’s.

9. Unsurprisingly, Northern still-lives did well: there was a Willem van Aelst that went for $1.23  million (with premium) and an Ambrosius Bosschaert for $2.32 million (with premium) but I am spotlighting this flower piece by Rachel Ruysch, who got the price recognition she deserves.

10. And finally, I didn’t get to visit all the dealers in person, but I do want to spotlight sheets from Jan van Goyen’s sketchbook that were on view at Mireille Mosler. The drawings were made from his trip to Kleve in 1650. More information on this dispersed sketchbook can be found in her catalogue here.

Bargains 4 u: Irreverent collecting ideas for grad students & early career scholars

A group of Seventeen French Velvet and Metal-Thread Gaming Purses, 18th century. Christie’s. 

Ready for that third stimulus check but don’t know the best way to save it? Short of religiously scanning r/wallstreetbets for the next Game Stop stock, how about dividing it by seventeen and storing them in these French velvet purses? Bonus points if you hide them around the house for a solo Easter hunt. 

Fluorite, Sotheby’s.

Mercury is in retrograde until February 21st, so we shouldn’t be touching our dissertations, articles, book projects, and job applications until it’s over. But, if you REALLY have to, how about some fluorite to aid with concentration? This one from the Hester Diamond collection had an estimate of $400-600….with final price with premium ending up at $10,710.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), Dark Fur Double-Muff with Black Half-Mask, Etching, circa 1642, Plate: 5.8 x 8.9 cm.  Sheet: 6.0 x 9.1 cm. Christie’s.

Instead of buying yourself PPE and a winter coat, go for this Wenceslaus Hollar etching featuring both a fur muff and a mask, but only if you also throw in two months’ rent. 

Attributed to Girolamo della Robbia (Florence 1488 – 1566 Paris), Fragment of a Relief with Skull, circa 1510, glazed terracotta, 21.8 by 31.2 cm. Sotheby’s.

Can’t afford the aforementioned Luca Della Robbia? There was this lil’ fragment attributed to Girolamo della Robbia, perfect as memento mori or a paper weight to hold down all your primary source printouts.

A German Silver Double-Beaker, possible mark of Johann Reinhold Mühl, Nuremberg, 1670-73. Realistically chased and engraved as a barrel, gilt interior. Height: 12.7 cm. Christie’s.

Are we still doing Zoom apéros? If so, I submit for your consideration this silver double beaker, even sold under the estimate! I recommend pouring tequila in one and oude genever in the other because nothing matters. Mercury = Retrograde = Pandemic.

South German, Eight Surgeon’s tools, 16th century. Mother-of-pearl-inlaid and parcel-gilt etched steel. Length of implements: 21.3 x 32.7cm. Sotheby’s.

Finally, is it just me or have we all been particularly accident prone during quarantine? Next time you cut yourself on a bread knife, how about your very own early modern barber surgeon set? The sale price of $60,480 (with premium, estimate 15,000 – 20,000 USD) seems reasonable given the state of healthcare in this country.

PS: Can we get some clarity on who purchased this and should we be afraid?


* In case you missed the Old Masters/ New Generation panel discussions December 1-3, 2020, they can be re-watched here.

*  Check out the virtual research webinars organized by the Research Centre for Arts in Society (AiS) at the University of Groningen. They’ve got a stellar line up including talks by Ruben Suykerbuyk (the recently appointed curator at the Boijmans), Ann-Sophie Lehmann (University of Groningen), Joanna Woodall (The Courtauld Institute of Art), and Aaron Hyman (Johns Hopkins University).

* The virtual seminars and partner events from Master Drawings New York 2021 are all online here, and some of the galleries have extended their exhibition dates, notably Christopher Bishop (until February 12) and Didier Aaron (until February 26).

* TEFAF Maastricht postponed their date again to September 11-19 (previews Sep 9-10). It was previously changed to May 2021 from March. I only bring this up since Salon du Dessin in Paris is doubling down on their June 9-12 date…seems a bit optimistic?

* The legendary Old Masters dealer, Richard Feigen, passed away last weekend due to complications from COVID-19.

* CAA 2021 in that sterile Hilton in Midtown is NOT happening in person, but all of the prerecorded sessions will be available from Feb 5th to March 15th, with live Q&As on Zoom from Feb 10-13. Check out the schedule here.

* The Austrian police just released some images of the 50 works stolen/missing since last May from a benedictine abbey in Kremsmünster, Austria. Check out the story and the images here!  

* And finally, the Botticelli. In case you missed it, it went for a hammer price of $80 million to a telephone bidder represented by Lilija Sitnika, who works the Russian desk. The same mysterious owner purchased a *few* more things: Master Of Marradi’s The Death of Lucretia at the Banquet of Lucius Junius Brutus, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s La Cascade de Terri, and Antoinetta Brandeis’s View of the Piazza San Marco. What a hang that will be.  

If you’re sad that you didn’t get to see the Botticelli in person, don’t worry, Sotheby’s kindly made an IG filter with Poplar Studio so you can see how it would look in your living room (see below). It’s highly entertaining, trust me.

This week’s coda, courtesy of the Jan 10, 2021 Metropolitan Diary in the NYTimes:

How to Buy Art

Dear Diary:

I was in New York City for my annual exhibition at an art fair. During a lull, I watched people walk by my booth and listened to scraps of conversation.

“My theory about buying art,” I heard one woman walking by say to another, “is, if you love it, can afford it and it doesn’t scare the dog, you buy it.”

— Joel Soroka

J. Cabelle Ahn is a PhD Candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University where she specializes in eighteenth-century French graphic arts. Her dissertation is titled “Multiple Exposures: The Exhibition of Drawings in Eighteenth-century France,” and her project maps public and private drawing displays from late seventeenth-century Florence to early nineteenth-century Paris. Beyond French drawings and prints, her research interests include early modern culinary history, artistic exchanges between the Netherlands and France, history of the art market, and the impact of the Old Masters in contemporary art. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. 
Website:  https://www.cabellerina.com/
IG: @cabellerina 

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