International Art Market: Painting once auctioned for pounds 209 sells for pounds 1.5m

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The Independent Online
A PAINTING that made pounds 209 at an auction in Somerset in 1984 was resold for pounds 1,478,190 in New York two weeks ago, the most spectacular price in a highly successful run of Old Master paintings sales. A Boy Drinking, whose face is seen cleverly refracted through a wine glass, was painted by the 17th-century Bolognese artist, Annibale Carracci. The Cleveland Museum fought with the Los Angeles County Museum for possession and emerged the victor.

At the Somerset sale it was thought to be a copy of a similar painting owned by Christ Church College, Oxford, but was bought by a canny dealer, Buffy Parker, and put into a Bonham's sale in London in 1985, where it sold for pounds 5,500. That time it was bought by Derek Johns, the London dealer, who successfully proved the painting's authenticity.

Johns sold it to Peter Sharp, the New York property tycoon whose art collection was dispersed by Sotheby's following his death in January 1993. Buyers competed fiercely for his collection, but Sharp had paid top dollar - mainly in the 1980s - and some items fell in price. A two-foot high bronze youth by Tiziano Aspetti had made dollars 770,000 ( pounds 527,000) in 1988, but dropped back to dollars 640,500 ( pounds 435,000); while no one was prepared to pay over dollars 500,000 ( pounds 340,000) for two brilliantly painted biblical scenes by Bernardo Cavallino, which had cost Sharp dollars 1.7m ( pounds 1.2m) in 1989.

Overall, the New York Old Master paintings sales went very well, with a Van Huysum still life of flowers and fruit selling for dollars 2.6m ( pounds 1.8m) and a Canaletto view of Venice for dollars 1.4m ( pounds 950,000).

It was the London National Gallery, however, which paid the top price of the month: dollars 5.25m ( pounds 3.57m) for a double portrait of The Vicomtesse Vilain and her Daughter by the French neo-classical painter, Jacques-Louis David, from Colnahgi's in New York. It was painted in Brussels in 1816 and had remained in the Belgian sitter's family until last year.

It was the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which paid the top Old Master drawing price of the month - a reputed pounds 900,000 for Rubens' Portrait of the Earl of Arundel, using brown ink over red and brown chalk. The Earl of Arundel was a famous art collector during the reign of Charles I and the Ashmolean owns most of his antique sculptures. The drawing came from a French private collection, with the sale negotiated by Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox, the London dealers.

In the New York sales, the best Old Master drawings found buyers at respectable prices - a Rembrandt sheet of studies of an old man's head sold for dollars 332,500 ( pounds 226,000) and a Tiepolo rendition of Venetians gambling for dollars 206,000 ( pounds 140,000) - but a high proportion of the lesser drawings on offer failed to find buyers, 43 per cent at Sotheby's and 35 per cent at Christie's. The absence of Italian buyers was an important factor.

The buoyancy of the New York market was underlined by the decorative arts sales last week, timed to coincide with the prestigious Winter Antiques Show. The sale last Saturday of the Bertram and Nina Little collection of American folk art was a runaway success, earning dollars 7.4m ( pounds 5m) where the high estimate had been dollars 3.6m ( pounds 2.4m). The Littles have been collecting folk art since the 1920s and are famous for researching the field. The New York Museum of American Folk Art spent dollars 745,000 ( pounds 507,000) on a pair of portraits of Connecticut worthies painted in about 1790 and attributed to Reuben Moulthrop; a carved and painted blanket chest from Northampton, Massachusetts, made dollars 354,500 ( pounds 241,000). Both items had been estimated around dollars 150,000 ( pounds 102,000).

(Photograph omitted)

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