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Art Market

Old Masters prove lacklustre at auction – but a late medieval painter is golden

21 December 2023

For auction houses in Europe the year is always rounded off with a series of Old Master sales – and it was no different this month, as Christie’s and Sotheby’s stayed in lockstep with perfectly adequate offerings. One of the biggest surprises for a certain type of auction watcher was the reappearance of a painting known as The Adoration of the Kings. In October 2021, the painting was sold in an online sale hosted by Christie’s Amsterdam. The work was attributed then to ‘circle of Rembrandt’ – but when it was included in the evening sale on 6 December at Sotheby’s London, the work had taken on the much more lustrous attribution of ‘Rembrandt’, tout court.

When the work sold at Christie’s it made €860,000. When it appeared in London this winter it came with an estimate of £10m–£15m and a much longer catalogue note (it remains axiomatic for the big auction houses, despite the changes wrought on catalogues by the internet, that value is still shown by word count).

The Adoration of the Kings (c. 1628), Rembrandt. Sotheby’s London, £11m

The attribution of paintings to Rembrandt has always been fraught. Throughout the 20th century, many works moved in and out of the oeuvre of the artist. In 1968 the Dutch Research Council established the Rembrandt Research Project to establish a definitive corpus of work that belonged to the artist. In 2011, the board voted to end the project despite the fact that roughly a quarter of Rembrandt’s works hadn’t been investigated. The project, which came to an end with the publication of volume six of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings in 2014, remains one of the greatest achievements of connoisseurship in the 20th and 21st centuries. But there are many works left to be fully investigated – Rembrandt’s oeuvre is notoriously large.

Research is frequently the key to adding value to works in the Old Master category – either by suggesting reattribution or by unearthing other details that make a painting more friendly to the market. A particularly pleasing example of this occurred in 2008 when Christie’s was able to identify the sitter in a work by Charles II’s court painter John Michael Wright (1617–94) as the poet John Dryden. The painting made £156,500 against an estimate of £30,000–£50,000. But in recent years, big ticket Old Masters haven’t always reached the heights that the auction houses expected from them. One of the most notorious examples in recent memory was Christie’s failure to sell Poussin’s Ordination, which carried an estimate of £15m–£20m, in December 2010.

This fate did not befall The Adoration of the Kings – but then, the auction houses have always had a way with Rembrandt. In 2018, Sotheby’s sold a small oil study of a young man depicted as Christ in prayer for £9.5m (estimate £6m–£8m). Over the summer, Christie’s sold pendant portraits of Jan Willemsz. van der Pluym and Jaapgen Carels for £11.2m for the pair (well over the high estimate of £8m). Yet despite the extensive research brought to bear upon The Adoration of the Kings, it only creeped over its low estimate to realise £11m (including fees). A good investment for owner who bought it in Amsterdam – but not a resounding success.

Saint Helena (early 14th century), Pietro Lorenzetti. Tajan Paris, €4.7m (part of a pair)

On 15 December, Tajan held its Old Masters sale in Paris. The splashiest lots were two works by Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1306–45). Gold-ground paintings don’t normally reach the market highs of later works – but these depictions of Saint Sylvester and Saint Helena were particularly exciting as they had just been discovered by Eric Turquin, the same man who identified the small panel by Cimabue that has just entered the collection of the Louvre. Pietro is known to have painted some 30 works and is probably best known for his Maestà, or Virgin Enthroned with Child and Four Angels  (1315–20), now in the Diocesan Museum in Cortona, and the Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1335–42) altarpiece he completed for Siena Cathedral.

Saint Sylvester (early 14th century), Pietro Lorenzetti. Tajan Paris, €4.7m (part of a pair)

The two panels at Trajan showed the emotional honesty that is characteristic of Pietro’s work. An American collector bought the pair for €4.7m, against a low estimate of €1.9m. They are works of rare beauty and suggest that despite the festive excitement, there are still collectors buying at auction who haven’t lost their heads and know the worth of something truly special.