ART MARKET / A poseur on a truly lavish scale: The last great role of tycoon Peter Sharp was as art connoisseur. The sale of his collection should be interesting, reports Geraldine Norman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOW MUCH art do you have to buy to convince the world that you're a connoisseur? Sotheby's is expecting to raise something over dollars 12m ( pounds 8.3m) when it sells the collection of the late Peter Sharp in New York on 13 January. There are 77 lots in the sale, ranging from Old Master paintings to Renaissance bronzes, French furniture and 18th-century natural history books with lavish illustrations.

'Sharp was a character actor,' one of his college acquaintances told me. 'He was a highly amusing poseur who knew just when to raise a supercilious eyebrow.' His last pose appears to have been the 'connoisseur'; he worked on it assiduously from around 1982 to his tragically early death at 61 from cancer in April last year.

Peter Sharp was an immensely wealthy New York property tycoon. He owned the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan and quantities of other domestic and commercial property across America. It was an inherited business - his mother at one time owned 22 hotels, according to an article by his old friend Alexis Gregory in a recent issue of Art and Auction magazine . His properties, worth an estimated dollars 250m ( pounds 170m), have been left to endow a charitable trust that will carry his name; his children have inherited his possessions and are selling up.

Divorce appears to have been behind the alteration in Sharp's pose. Under the influence of his wife Allison he had white walls, contemporary paintings, early American and English furniture. This look disappeared around 1982, to be replaced by Old Masters. His children anonymously disposed of the remaining contemporary paintings at Christie's last November. A 16ft Morris Louis canvas of 1961 with dribbles of coloured paint across the corners reached dollars 354,500 ( pounds 244,500) and a Frank Stella of similar size, a bright geometric patchwork of colour dating from 1969, made dollars 134,500 ( pounds 93,000).

The designer of Sharp's new image was the Milanese interior decorator Renzo Mongiardino. Famed for the historic fantasies he compiles from fake materials, Mongiardino goes way over the top. For Sharp, he created an interior that mixed masculine strength with palatial richness, concentrating primarily on the styles of the Renaissance and Neo-Classical periods - French furniture this time.

Sharp then gilded the lily by going out and buying very expensive antiques and Old Masters from top New York dealers and sale rooms. It was a serious spending spree. He even made himself an instant library with multi- volume colour plate books in rich old leather bindings to go with Mongiardino's fake marble shelving. These form the first section of Sotheby's sale and include Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands of 1730-47, estimated at dollars 200,000 to dollars 300,000 ( pounds 138,000 to pounds 207,000), and Thornton's Temple of Flora, estimated at dollars 70,000 to dollars 100,000 ( pounds 48,000 to pounds 69,000). They were bought at Sotheby sales in 1987 and 1984 respectively.

Then comes his furniture, including a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted ebony table and matching cartonnier - an elegant 18th-century version of a filing cabinet - which is expected to sell for dollars 800,000 to dollars 1m ( pounds 550,000 to pounds 690,000). Among the bronzes are two figures attributed to the Florentine sculptor Tacca depicting the mythological lovers Roger and Angelica; they made 2.6m French francs ( pounds 260,000) at a Paris auction in 1987 and are now estimated to fetch between dollars 120,000 and dollars 180,000 ( pounds 83,000 to pounds 124,000).

But the real drama is going to occur with the Old Masters. Most have been recently on the market at high prices - normally a sure recipe for failure at auction. However, Sotheby's are projecting the collection as representing the taste of a great connoisseur. If that carries weight, collectors may scramble for possession.

In fact, the selection of paintings reflects something beyond Sharp's taste, or pose, or whatever. He became an enthusiastic patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the 1980s. He sat on many departmental patrons' committees and contributed more than dollars 1m ( pounds 690,000)to refurbishing a gallery which is now named after him. His Old Masters were selected and vetted by the museum's curators, Everett Fahy and Keith Christiansen, on the understanding that they would eventually be donated to the museum.

The story associated with a pair of scenes by Bernardo Cavallino (1616- 1656), as told by Alexis Gregory, is a good illustration of the curators' influence. Both paintings depict badly behaved old men from the Bible, taunted by their relations - Lot and his Daughters and The Drunkenness of Noah. Gregory tells of going to see the pictures in a warehouse with Sharp when they were priced at dollars 700,000 ( pounds 480,000). Sharp was not impressed and the two paintings were consigned to a Sotheby's auction where they were bought for dollars 1.7m ( pounds 1.2m) - by Sharp] He explained to Gregory afterwards that 'both Keith and Everett felt the Met had to have them and I got carried away'.

The Princess of Wales and her brother, Earl Spencer, will be interested to note that two of the paintings from the Spencer collection, dispersed by their stepmother, Raine, ended up with Sharp. An oil sketch of the Adoration of the Magi attributed to Rubens by both the most famous contemporary Rubens scholars, Julius Held and Michael Jaffe, but to Van Dyck by the Van Dyck expert Erik Larsen, was spirited out of the Spencer collection by the New York dealer Eugene Thaw - who sold it to Sharp. It is estimated that it will fetch between dollars 400,000 and dollars 600,000 ( pounds 276,000 and pounds 414,000).

The Wildenstein Gallery was the link for a vast allegorical painting of Liberality and Modesty from the studio of Guido Reni (1575-1642). It was bought in 1758 by the first Earl Spencer, who hung it in the Great Room at Spencer House as a pendant to a painting by Andrea Sacchi which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.

The sale also contains some of the great dealer 'discoveries' of the 1980s. New York dealer Bob Haboldt picked up the 3in by 4in Adam Elsheimer Flight into Egypt in a sale in Monte Carlo for only Fr333,000 ( pounds 33,000) in 1986; the leading scholars agreed it was authentic and it is now estimated that it will fetch dollars 400,000 to dollars 600,000 ( pounds 276,000 to pounds 414,000).

There is also a clever oil of a boy drinking from a wine glass, now attributed to Annibale Carracci and estimated to fetch dollars 700,000 to dollars 900,000 ( pounds 483,000 to pounds 621,000). The London dealer Derek Johns bought it at a Bonham's auction for pounds 5,500 ( pounds 3,800) in 1985. It had been consigned to Bonham's by another canny dealer called Buffy Parker who had got it at a Lawrence's of Crewkerne, Somerset auction for pounds 209.

There was quite a furore at the time. The rise in price hangs solely on the probability that it is really by Annibale's own hand, rather than that of an associate or copyist. Lawrence's believed it was a copy after a similar Carracci painting in the Christ Church collection in Oxford - it had been shown to Sotheby's and Christie's by its owners in the 1970s and turned away. So it described the painting as 'After Annibale Carracci'; Bonham's thought the same and called it 'A Carracci' - using the initial alone is auction code for a doubtful attribution. Johns cleaned it and showed it to scholars. The consensus of opinion turned out to be that the painting is from the hand of the master.