WHAT more suitable than a Dutch auction for a Dutch picture? The price on Pieter de Hooch's Courtyard of a House in Delft, which belonged to the Byng family of Wrotham Park, Hertfordshire, has been falling steadily for six years and only found a buyer last week. When it went to the Washington National Gallery for the 'Treasure Houses of Britain' exhibition in 1985-86, it was known that one would have to think in terms of pounds 15-20m to interest the owners in selling it.
Then, around 1990, Christie's offered the painting privately to big-time buyers, such as the Getty Museum and New York's Metropolitan with a price tag of dollars 20m (about pounds 12m). There were no takers, so it was decided that it should be auctioned. In the catalogue of Christie's 11 December Old Master picture sale, it had a published estimate of pounds 4.5m- pounds 6.5m. It ended up selling to the only interested bidder, the Noortman Gallery of London and Maastricht, at pounds 4.4m.
The trouble with the picture is the deformed and twisted face of the little girl in the foreground; she is seated on a step with a sweet little puppy on her knee. The rest of the painting may be a masterpiece, but who could live with that face? Christie's first hope was that the face had been overpainted by some ham- fisted restorer - a little judicious cleaning and the girl might look pretty. Herbert Lank, London's leading private restorer, was called in to report on the condition of the painting. But no luck. 'The paint is in an excellent state of repair,' he wrote; only one or two vine leaves over the doorway had been retouched.
I bumped into Julian Agnew, the Bond Street dealer, in front of the picture. He kindly lent me his magnifying glass to look at her, pointing out that the craquelure, fine networks of cracks in the paint surface, continued quite normally in the area of the girl's face. 'It has to be original,' he said.
But there is another way of looking at her: perhaps she has been overcleaned by a zealous restorer. Johnny van Haeften, one of London's leading dealers in Dutch pictures, told me that de Hooch's original glazes - the layers of tinted varnish with which a master adds the final subtleties of finish to a picture - had probably been lost around the eyes and mouth; it would be quite 'legitimate' to restore them.
George Goldner, curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, said you couldn't get away with that. 'The picture has been widely published as it is. Everyone would notice if the face was changed.' If the painting had been dirty, he suggested, it would have been easier; then changes would be seen as part of the cleaning process. The de Hooch was cleaned very recently, probably for the Washington exhibition.
John Whately, who runs Noortman's London gallery, told me bravely that 'many de Hooch paintings have ugly little girls'. But he added: 'It may have slight damage in the glaze. We will probably get it looked at by the restorers at the Rijksmuseum. If there is glaze missing, we will do something.'
De Hooch was three years older than Vermeer and is closer to him in inspiration than any other Dutch painter - especially in his paintings of the 1650s, when he was working in Delft. This painting dates from 1658. Whately calls it 'probably the second-best de Hooch in the world' - after the very similar painting in the National Gallery, London.
It belonged to Napoleon's first wife, the Empress Josephine, then entered the magnificent collection of Edward Solly (1776-1844), bought by the National Gallery in Berlin. It left Berlin around 1830 and was bought by George Byng of Wrotham Park in 1837 for 510 guineas. Wrotham is now in the Green Belt, and Byng's heirs cannot bolster their finances by selling land for development. It has to be art. They sold a pair of celadon vases with Louis XV ormolu mounts for pounds 242,000 at Christie's in the autumn, and a bronze group of Venus and Adonis (circa 1700) for pounds 132,000, as well as the de Hooch.
The Noortman Gallery should have little difficulty selling it. Most of their rival traders admit that it was a bargain, and the market for Old Master pictures seems to be pulling strongly out of recession - to judge by European auctions over the last few weeks. After the 1987-90 boom and the 1990-92 recession, it is quite difficult to remember what a 'normal' art market is like. It is certainly not normal for everything to sell, regardless of its quality and condition. That was something that only happened at the height of the boom.
It is normal for there to be very few buyers over the pounds 1m mark, and for particularly attractive paintings to command a premium, especially if they have not been on the market recently. That is what has been happening over the last few weeks, and a lot of pictures have been changing hands - but by no means everything on offer.
The Getty Museum of Malibu, California, is the richest Old Master buyer in the world, with an endowment of around pounds 2bn. It paid pounds 4.95m for Goya's Bullfight, Suerte de Varas at Sotheby's on 9 December. Painted for a friend in Paris when Goya was 78, it is a remarkable piece of impressionistic drama and was universally admired. It had never left the family and was sent for sale by the Marquesa de la Gandara, who now lives in Switzerland. Sotheby's estimated pounds 4m- pounds 6m; the Getty got it cheap because no one else could afford it. On the other hand, the opportunity to buy one of the best Flemish still-life paintings seen on the market for years, estimated at pounds 150,000- pounds 200,000, attracted all the serious Old Master buyers to Paris on 4 December. It was by a comparatively minor master, Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647), and depicted a basket of fruit and flowers on a ledge with the usual engaging insects. It had an 18th-century frame still held in place by iron nails and had belonged to the same family since the second half of the 17th century. The auctioneer brought down the hammer at 7,550,000 francs ( pounds 932,000) to an unnamed telephone bidder.
Whenever a great picture turns up unexpectedly in a minor auction, the bidders who have bothered to get there compete much more fiercely than they would at Sotheby's or Christie's. This also happened with a Spanish still-life painting at Bonhams in Knightsbridge on 10 December. It was the work of Luis Melendez (1716-1780), who sprang very belatedly into fashion in the 1980s.
Everyone who was anyone began to buy him. The London National Gallery bought a Still Life with Plums, Figs and Bread in 1986. The picture at Bonhams depicted Sea Bream, Oranges, Garlic, a cloth and kitchen utensils on a wooden table; estimated at pounds 200,000- pounds 300,000, it soared to pounds 935,000, setting a new auction price record for the artist and selling to a Spanish collector.
By comparison, the big and exceptionally well painted Rubens Entombment at Christie's - lots of Rubens, comparatively little studio assistance - looks quite cheap at pounds 1,045,000. It was bought by Dr Alfred Bader of Milwaukee, a collector who has recently become an art dealer as well. He delighted Sotheby's by spending pounds 4.18m on a Rembrandt portrait last July and has subsequently sold it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Entombment is too gory to appeal to the average private collector; it will probably end up in a museum too.
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