All the sharpest eyes of the art trade had singled out this head- and-shoulders portrait as the star turn of New York's winter Old Master week, before the auction took place. It was just a question of who would pay how much. Secrecy, as usual, was a key ingredient. Rich bidders leant over backwards to hide their interest in the picture in case it upped the price; Sotheby's refused to give any hint as to who was selling it.
Pillsbury is one of the most dashing of American museum directors. He used to run the Yale Center of British Art and was offered the directorship of the London National Gallery last time it became vacant - he declined the offer when he saw how the idea of an American director enraged the British art establishment. He now runs the Kimbell, which has the second-highest endowment of any museum in America, after the Getty Museum in California. He follows his personal taste and is prepared to pledge vast sums for his favourites - sometimes controversially. He has the confidence that comes with being born rich; Americans bake their cakes with Pillsbury flour.
He was still writing his press release when I rang up. 'News travels fast across the Atlantic,' he said, laughing, and launched into rolling periods - newly coined - to describe the remarkable qualities of the picture. 'It is a very beautiful, rare thing. Its fine state of preservation is striking, as is the extraordinary realism of the figure in his ecclesiastical garments.' Then he added: 'I am hopeful that you or someone will one day identify the artist. I don't have any idea who it is - he must have been very talented.'
A key ingredient of the price is the painting's early date. It belongs to the very beginning of portraiture; the frame is dated 1496. There are hinge marks on the right-hand side that indicate it was originally attached to another picture. An altarpiece, painted on a panel, and hinged to a portrait of the benefactor who had paid for it, was an arrangement pioneered by Rogier van der Weyden that became very popular in the Netherlands. It was known as a diptych; sometimes the husband and wife would be hinged either side of the altarpiece to make a triptych.
This particular portrait was completely unknown to scholars when it was first shown to Dirk de Vos, curator of the Bruges Museum, four years ago. 'I'm pretty sure that I was the first scholar to see it,' he told me. He was in the process of preparing a book about Hans Memlinc (circa 1430-94), the most popular painter of his time in the Netherlands, and immediately identified the picture as a very late work by this artist, dismissing the '1496' date on the frame as having been added later. None of the experts I spoke to in New York agreed with the attribution. 'It's one of Memlinc's finest posthumous paintings,' one dealer said with a laugh. Even Sotheby's, which loves to use a grand name if it is at all possible, opted for 'School of Bruges'. There was a suggestion that the artist was French, but this may have reflected a whisper that the picture had been found in France.
A picture of such obvious quality does not just turn up from nowhere, though that is what Sotheby's would wish one to believe. 'I can't say anything at all about its provenance,' George Wachter, the head of Sotheby's Old Master department, told me. Pillsbury said he had been told that it was consigned to Sotheby's by a European collector but had come from Peru. George Goldner, the curator of paintings at the Getty Museum - who was also very interested in the picture - had been told it came from France.
Both these distinguished curators were so anxious not to reveal their interest in the painting - which could have pushed up its price - that neither had spoken to de Vos in Belgium. He knew its origin, of course. It had been brought to his museum on behalf of a 'great' European family; Mr de Vos thought that he shouldn't actually tell me the name but he did reveal that the family had connections in both Italy and Spain.
That began to explain the mystery which had surrounded the picture's origin in New York. Both Italy and Spain have fierce regulations to prevent the export of important works of art. Paintings are regularly smuggled from both countries and always appear on the market with odd stories about their origins which don't quite add up. Usually they are said to come from a 'Swiss private collection'.
The identification of the sitter, or benefactor, is a lot easier than that of the artist. The picture is elegantly inscribed in gold: 'Ja. Hobrecht' and must depict the much admired Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht. His career as a priest, choirmaster and composer was pursued in Bruges, Antwerp, Bergen-op-Zoom and Ferrara - where he was invited to make music for the court and died in 1505.
There were three competitors bidding over the dollars 2m mark for the picture - including, besides Pillsbury, the New York dealer Hermann Schickman and a private American collector. Schickman probably represented the Getty interest; he is a close friend of George Goldner and has been known to buy a picture Goldner liked and hold on to it until the museum made up its communal mind to buy. The last occasion was a Titian which turned up at Christie's, London in December 1991; Schickman, in partnership with the London dealers Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, bought it for pounds 7.48m, waited on tenterhooks for six months, and then sold it to the Getty. Schickman had to take the gamble on his own this time, since Hazlitt's American representative - Wheelock Whitney III - was bidding over the telephone for Ted Pillsbury.
Even Ian Kennedy, Old Master expert for Christie's, agreed that the Kimbell portrait was the only major picture in New York's January Old Master sales - which traditionally group the best American Old Master offerings of the year. But bidding on the other pictures demonstrated a resurgence of interest on the part of American collectors; London dealers were also big buyers - but this, as Wachter of Sotheby's pointed out to me, reflected their faith that the pictures could be offloaded on Americans at a later date. American taste, which favours the Dutch school and pretty, not too religious, Italian paintings, dictated prices.
The British trade seems to have been responsible for the dollars 1,542,500 ( pounds 1.02m) which was paid for a very dirty still life of fruit, oysters, butterflies and nuts by Jan Davidsz de Heem. Sotheby's had estimated this picture at dollars 350,000 to dollars 450,000. Dealers find a veil of dirt irresistible; under it their X-ray eyes detect a masterpiece. A clean picture vaunts its qualities to all and sundry and is therefore much less interesting.
A German pharmaceuticals millionaire, Herr Diethelm Doll, who bought the Jan van de Cappelle seascape that made pounds 2.64m at Christie's in December 1991, was selling good Dutch pictures at both Sotheby's and Christie's; they had to be sacrificed to pay for the Cappelle, it was suggested in the trade. The resurgence of American buying was a stroke of luck for him. A cool
still life of bread, wine, olives and pewter by Pieter Claesz made dollars 770,000 ( pounds 511,600) against an estimate of dollars 400,000-dollars 600,000 at Christie's; and a Wouvermans landscape, estimated at the same level, brought dollars 442,500 ( pounds 294,000) at Sotheby's. Doll withdrew a van Goyen landscape, also valued at dollars 400,000-dollars 600,000, from Sotheby's after making a private sale before the auction.
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