Seven new artist records were set at Christie’s ‘Old Masters Sale’ this week, as well as a new record for a tiny drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) at ‘The Exceptional Sale’ in London. Christie’s specialist Clementine Sinclair explained that “this is a bigger sale than we would normally have, and I think that’s partly due to the fact we didn’t hold an Old Masters evening sale last July, so there was some pent-up demand of collectors wanting to sell.”
At the ‘Old Masters Sale’, Bernardo Bellotto’s (1721/2-1780) ‘View of Verona’ was the undisputed star lot, being introduced to the salesroom with a virtual reality video that explored the painting’s surface. Although it sold below the low estimate of £12 million, the bid of £9 million (£10.5m with fees) from a phone bidder still set a highest price for the artist.
Describing the painting, Christie’s specialist Henry Pettifer said “it marks a highpoint in the career of Bernardo Bellotto. It is a picture that defined his artistic vision.”
But it was a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) that set the salesroom alight. Lengthy competitive bidding saw ‘Venus and Cupid’, painted between 1620 and 1630, sell for double its top estimate at £2 million (£2.4 million with fees). This is the second highest price paid for a Gentileschi at auction.
Measuring only 7cm square, a study of a bear’s head also broke records for a da Vinci drawing sold at auction. It was executed in silverpoint around 1480 and is one of only eight da Vinci drawings still in private hands. The hammer came down to a single bid of £7.5 million (£8.8m with fees) from a man and woman in the saleroom who wished to remain anonymous.
“I think the buyer should be very happy to have that for only £7.5 million,” said Matthew Landrus, a Leonardo expert and Fellow at the University of Oxford. “I hope the new owner will continue to exhibit it, as it’s part of a series of studies that show Leonardo’s interest in understanding a bear, its movements, anatomy, and comparative anatomy between bears and humans.”
The charming drawing was sold by American collector Thomas Kaplan, owner of the renowned Leiden collection of Rembrandts. He purchased it based only on a faxed image in 2008. “He couldn’t come to see the drawing at the time so I faxed it to him—not the actual drawing, I did photocopy it first—and he bought it from the fax!” recalled London-based Old Master paintings dealer Johnny van Haeften.
The winning bid surpassed the previous record for a da Vinci drawing set by the ‘Horse and Rider’, a slightly larger silverpoint drawing, which sold for £8.1 million in 2001. In 2017 Christie’s sold the sensational ‘Salvator Mundi’, a painting supposedly by da Vinci, for £341 million – the highest auction price achieved for any work of art.
“These prices are absurd,” concluded Jean-Luc Baroni, an old master drawings dealer. “You’re buying a name. It’s nothing to do with the love of drawings.”