Old Masters Today #2

A monthly column featuring mostly lowbrow auction highlights and essential Old Masters news and events.

March, so we meet again. No matter where you are based, we’ve all more or less hit the anniversary of global lockdown measures. While most of us can’t travel due to the pandemic, I’ve looked across the pond to *curate* this month’s post for your enjoyment and/or chagrin!


Piero del Pollaiuolo (1441 – c. 1496), Portrait of a Youth. Tempera and oil on panel. 49.2 x 35.5 cm.; 19 3/8 x 14 in. Sotheby’s.

The highlight of Sotheby’s upcoming sale, Modern Renaissance: A Cross-Category Sale Live Auction, is Piero del Pollaiuolo’s Portrait of a Youth, which was once in the same collection as Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel (the latter set the artworld ablaze at the beginning of this year). The two masterpieces were in Sir Thomas Ralph Merton’s collection and it bears mentioning that he was the OG Q in MI6 (and um…he saved them from some questionable spy ink choices) The painting left Merton’s collection in 1985, with the then-attribution of Cosmo Rosselli. Works attributed to Pollaiuolo have not been on the market since 2012, when a painting was sold at Koller Auktionen, and a drawing at Sotheby’s (which sold for $1.4 million with premium and is now at the Getty). 

Willem Kalf (1619 – 1693), Barn interior with a woman churning butter. Oil on Copper. 17.6 x 14.3 cm. Sotheby’s.

Another batch of Dutch art is on the market with the Juli and Andrew Wieg Sale at Sotheby’s and while I’m pretty drawn to this compelling drawing for a stained glass window, I’m spotlighting here a Willem Kalf genre painting on copper, since we’re almost churning butter at home after one year into the pandemic…if we’re not there already.

Dans le goût du XVe siècle, La Vierge à l’Enfant entourée de deux anges, Tempera and Gold on Panel. 71 x 41 cm. Artcurial.

From February’s Vente Maîtres Anciens & du XIXe  Siècle at Artcurial (which I did not cover in last month’s post) this altarpiece, with an estimate with € 1,500-2,000 sold for over 53 times the initial estimate, going for € 80,600! It’s not my area of expertise at all so if anyone wants to @ me regarding the historical value of this altarpiece, feel free.  

The Netherlands, Convertible Travel Spoon and Fork, 18th century, 50.6 g. Drouot. 

Some criticize the art world for catering to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but if it’s this silver spoon, I might rethink it. Stretching the definition of early modern here but I am obsessed with this TRAVEL SPOON. Which led me down a rabbit hole: folding spoons are a genre of dec arts?!

Geoffroy Dumonstier 1510-1573), The Nativity, pen and black ink, blue wash, framing line in pen and black ink, arched top. 14.3 x 9.2 cm (5 5/8 x 3 5/8 in.). Christie’s 

Since the first anniversary gift is paper, so I would be remiss not to include a drawing in this pandemic anniversary post. I’ve got a soft spot for the Fontainebleau School so I’m drawn (pun intended sorry) to this Dumonstier from an upcoming private collection drawing sale at Christie’s. The lines! The wash! 


French 17th century, Head of a pipe in form of a warrior wearing a casket, silver mount. 8 cm, Sotheby’s.

Some true gems in the two-part Pierre Le-Tan Sale but let’s start with this PIPE in the form of a head! As in the smoke will come out of his lil’ FOREHEAD. For 378 euros, it’s the same price as some ~high-end~ vapes. 

Probably Italian 18th century, Head of a horse, white marble, 22 cm, Sotheby’s.

This *probably* Italian 18th century marble head of a horse really spoke to me because I lived in Carroll Gardens. Imagine waking up with this in your bed, The Godfather-style.  

Probably French 15th century, Virgin and Child, marble, 27 x 24 cm. Sotheby’s.

One more from the Pierre Le-Tan sale: This headless torso (which went for 10x its estimate) is supposed to be a 15th century virgin and child but the hands-on-hands reminds me of Lorraine O’Grady’s glove dress from her performance of Mlle Bourgeoise Noir at the New Museum in 1981 (on view at the Lorraine O’Grady retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, which I would highly recommend) or Maison Martin Margiela’s very hands on  Backless Top, Made Out of Vintage Leather Gloves, Spring-Summer 2001!

Denis Diderot et Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de Lettres. Paris, Neuchâtel: 1751-1780.

Hopefully this will be the last academic semester that we have to Zoom, but in case you still haven’t quite figured out the best background flex, what about the entire set of the Encyclopédie? Nothing says you’re a fun-loving, easy-going person like this as your backdrop. 

Cave à liqueurs, 19th century, Drouot

Finally, there’s really no date on this and I don’t even care if it’s early modern or not, but I submit to you the latest contender in furnishing your home bar: this liquor cabinet in the shape of a carriage!! Move over François-Xavier Lalanne’s Grasshopper and Hippo Bars, imagine filling this gorgeous carriage with Armagnacs, Floc de Gascogne, and my personal favorite RinQuinQuin.


In addition to Society of Architectural Historians annual conference (April 13-17) and RSA Virtual (April 13-15), I’m highlighting these events below: 

April 1. Aaron Hyman’s talk, “Print, Painting, and the Contours of the Baroque.”

April 7 & 15.  Second half of lectures by Rebecca Zorach at UNC for the lecture series themed: “The Designs of Nature: Form, Matter, and the Making of Art in Early Modern Europe.”

April 8-9. Conservation and the Making of Art History Conference at The Clark 

April 9, 16, 23. Art Museums and the Legacies of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures.

April 22. Roman Grigoriev (The Hermitage Museum and European University at St. Petersburg), “Rembrandt in Russia in the 19th Century: Prints and their Collectors.”  

April 29. Conversation between Krzysztof Pomian and Peter N. Miller on Pomian’s book, Le musée, une histoire mondiale (Gallimard, 2020).

If you missed it, I highly recommend re-watching Joanna Woodall’s talk, “Contemplating the Unspeakable in 17th-Century Netherlandish Art,” from March 10. 


  • The deaccessioning floodgates continue, this time Brooklyn Museum is offloading their Chinese imperial cloisonée and jade objects. While we could endlessly debate what the term early modern might mean for Chinese art, I’m provisionally including the early part of the Qing Dynasty. 
Rachel Ruysch (ca. 1690 – ca. 1720), Still-life with Flowers in a Glass Vase,  Oil on Canvas, 65.0 cm × 53.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  
Damien Hirst at Pinault Collection, Venice. Photo by author, 2017 

So Damien Hirst’s polarizing and quite frankly, despised, works from “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,”(Pinault Collection, Venice, 2017)  are going on view at Galleria Borghese (10 May-10 October, 2021). Works from the critically panned exhibition will be installed alongside masterpieces from Galleria Borghese, and I hate everything because the world is on fire. 

Listen, I know there’s a tradition of displaying contemporary art in dialogue with Old Masters such as at Versailles and the short lived iterations at the Monnaie in Paris, and I’m sure this will a blockbuster. But as the Telegraph reviewed Hirst in 2017, “Ugh.”

This week’s coda: The Work of Art in the Age of Cryptoreproduction…

If you have checked the news or logged into social media anytime in the last month, you’ve likely been inundated with headlines dominated by these four unassuming consonants: NFTs.

Earlier this month, Mike Winkelmann (i.e. Beeple) sold his jpeg file of extremely problematic drawings made consecutively over 5,000 days (which he minted as an NFT) for 69.3 million at Christie’s with premium. The success of Beeple’s The First 5000 Days have since garnered even more of a maelstrom of interest in NFTs, recently peaking with Elon Musk’s techno track NFT, complete with inside cryptobro jokes. 

Why should we care? First of all, Aronson Antiquairs in Amsterdam has gotten into the NFT game, besmirching the legacy of Delftware. I don’t even think it’s worth reproducing but they printed Beeple’s Everydays on a 17th-century tulipvase. See the image here at your own peril.

Moreover, in addition to the fact that the art market (which was already opaque to me) continues to defy all semblance of rational behavior, it is curious to see the lingering resonance or memefication of Old Master paintings. Par exemple, my lil’ dixhuitiémiste heart dropped when I saw David’s Sabines *remixed* as seen below. Unfortunately, arrhythmia resulting from excessive consumption of NFT-related content does not yet make you eligible for vaccination. 

Open Edition by Slimesunday, The Last Stand of the Nation State, #386/415, 2020.

And fine, maybe the Sabines do not fall under “Old Masters” but Bernini sure does:

Trevor Jones Art, The Bitcoin Angel (Open Edition), edition of 4157.

It’s gone a bit mad—for example, a collective called Global Art Museum have made NFTs of masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Cleveland Museum of Art…for a hot second. I’m not sure what any of this means but if I have to deal with bubble currencies, I’d rather buy the OG bubble currency: assignats.

100 Francs, 50 pounds, 5 pounds (x2) and 15 sols (sold combined for 50 euros), Artcurial 

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 | Instagram

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