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Velazquez Portrait Sells for $4.7 Million at London Auction

Velazquez Portrait
A newly-discovered portrait by the 17th-century Spanish painter Velazquez. Described as being from about 1630, it sold at Bonhams in a Dec. 7 auction of Old Master pictures in London. Source: Bonhams via Bloomberg

A rediscovered painting by Velazquez sold for 3 million pounds ($4.7 million) at an auction in London today as wealthy international collectors battled for trophy Old Master paintings.

The head-and-shoulders portrait of an unknown middle-aged man had been found among a group of paintings entered for sale at the Oxford branch of Bonhams in August 2010. The well-preserved canvas was identified as a Velazquez by the Dublin-based scholar Dr. Peter Cherry and described as dating from about 1630.

It had formerly been owned by the obscure 19th-century U.K. artist Matthew Shepperson. The painting was re-offered at the company’s Bond Street headquarters with an estimate of 2 million pounds to 3 million pounds. It was bought by New York dealer Otto Naumann., who was in the room and beat a telephone bidder.

“I was amazed,” Naumann said in an interview. “I was prepared to pay double that. It was very dirty. Maybe people were worried how it would clean. It was bought for stock. I will do what dealers do, restore it and try to get more.”

Works by 17th century Spain’s greatest artist rarely appear for sale. The auction record for Velasquez is the 8.4 million pounds given for a half-length canvas of Saint Rufina at Sotheby’s in London July 2007.

Yesterday evening, Christie’s International offered a slimline selection of 36 Old Master paintings that raised 24.1 million pounds, with 72 percent of the lots successful. Five records were achieved, headed by the 6.9 million pounds given by a telephone buyer for the large figure-packed canvas, “The Battle between Carnival and Lent” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

The Flemish renaissance painting, based on a 1559 work by the artist’s father, had been bought by its seller for 3.3 million pounds at the same auction room in December 2006.

International Bids

The successful bidder was a client represented by Cecile Bernard, head of Christie’s Paris Old Master department, underbid by a Russian-speaker on another telephone.

Buyers hailed from expanded international clientele of nine different countries, said Christie’s.

Following a presale exhibition in Hong Kong last month, an Asian commission bidder claimed four lots in the range of 100,000 pounds to 400,000 pounds. Trade bidding, unless on behalf of private collectors, was subdued.

New private buyers from emerging economies tend to start buying from auction houses rather than commercial galleries. Dealers, many of whom had a quiet Tefaf Maastricht fair in March, were priced out of the most desirable works and were unwilling to take on middle-range pictures, some of which have fallen in value.

Investment Security

“Collectors want the security of really good pictures,” said the London-based dealer Jean-Luc Baroni, who paid a record 2.3 million pounds for a 17th century painting of an old man leaning on a window sill by the 17th-century Dutch artist Govaert Flinck that hadn’t been seen at auction for 150 years. “Dealers are finding it difficult. No one wants to buy the tired things.”

The most highly estimated lot at Christie’s failed to sell. Goya’s portrait of Don Juan Lopez de Robredo, the splendidly waistcoated embroiderer to King Carlos IV of Spain, had been valued at 4 million pounds to 6 million pounds.

Offered by a Spanish collector, this formal portrait of a portly middle-aged man was deemed one of the artist’s less appealing subjects and didn’t attract a bid. It last appeared at auction in 1992 when it also failed to sell.

Sotheby's Sale

A pair of Johann Zoffany portraits of the 18th-century actor David Garrick sold for 6.8 million pounds in London tonight as private collectors continued to dominate the auction market for Old Master paintings.

The 1762 works, showing the actor and his wife relaxing in the grounds of his house at Hampton on the banks of the Thames, were estimated by Sotheby’s at 6 million pounds to 8 million pounds. The portraits had been entered by Edward Lambton, the son of the late Conservative politician Antony Lambton, and had hung on loan at Tate Britain since 2007.

They were bought in the room by the London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox on behalf of a private collector.

Quality Old Masters are in short supply at the moment. Sotheby’s, like Christie’s the previous evening, offered a compact catalog. The 38 lots raised 20.1 million pounds with fees, with 68 percent of the works successful. The presale estimate was 17.7 million pounds to 24.2 million pounds, based on hammer prices. About 20 lots were valued at less than 200,000 pounds and half of these failed to sell, reflecting credit-strapped dealers’ reluctance to buy middle-range works for stock.

Trade, Taste

“It’s a healthy discipline to know that we can’t rely on the trade,” George Gordon, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Master paintings, said in an interview. “Taste is evolving and people are sensitive to estimates.”

A 17th century Dutch genre painting of figures in an interior playing cards by Jan Steen sold for a record 4.9 million pounds. It was offered with a third-party guarantee at a low estimate of 4.5 million pounds and drew a single phone bid.

Some sellers who were re-offering paintings had to take losses. A 16th-century Lucas Cranach the Younger three-quarter-length portrait of an aristocratic lady had been bought by London dealer Colnaghi for a record 1.8 million pounds in July 2007. It was sold on to a collector, who re-entered the painting with an estimate of 800,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds.

It fetched 1.4 million pounds from a telephone bidder. By contrast, the 1779 painting, “Virgil’s Tomb by Moonlight” by Joseph Wright of Derby had never been offered at auction before.

In its original frame and boasting an unbroken family provenance, this was knocked down to the London dealer Patrick Matthiesen for 1.5 million pounds against an upper estimate of 800,000 pounds.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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