THE London auction rooms yesterday demonstrated the wild unpredictability of art prices, writes Geraldine Norman.
A painting of The Immaculate Conception that Sotheby's had attributed to Velazquez and valued at pounds 7m was left unsold when the bidding stopped at pounds 4m; a big landscape by the Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp, Orpheus charming the Animals - the animals were wonderfully charming - which was forecast to fetch pounds 300,000 to pounds 500,000 was sold for pounds 4,181,500.
The truth is that auctioneers cannot predict how enthusiastic potential buyers will prove months in advance, or how seriously art scholars will rate the material on offer. If the auctioneer has leeway to estimate low, it often generates spectacular bidding.
The Velazquez had been sent for sale by Charles Bailly, a Paris dealer, who bought it in 1990 at a Paris auction for 18m francs (pounds 1.8m). It had been described as 'circle of Velazquez' in the Paris auction catalogue and estimated at pounds 30,000-pounds 40,000. Bailly took the gamble that he would succeed in proving that it was a genuine Velasquez and be able to sell it for an awful lot more.
In the event American scholars backed Bailly's attribution, but two former directors of the Prado in Madrid, voted against; they thought that it was a 17th-century painting by an artist who worked in Seville at the same time as Velasquez. There is probably no way of proving this one either way. If the painting is genuine, it is a very early student work - possibly, as Bailly has suggested, Velazquez's first recorded painting.
The Cuyp has never been at auction before and was unknown to scholars until a few months ago. It was nestling in a private collection in Spain where it was thought to be by a minor artist called Jacob Savery. Cuyp (1620-1691) is regarded as one of the greatest Dutch landscapists of the 17th century. This is an early work, still influenced by his father Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, who is thought to have painted in the two charming leopards in the foreground.
Everyone wanted it and four of the world's leading dealers in Dutch art went into partnership to buy the painting, Johnny van Haeften of Duke Street, St James's, Otto Naumann of New York, Konrad Bernheimer of Munich and Artemis, the London- based art investment group. 'We each pay a quarter and have four times as many possible clients to sell to,' van Haeften explained after the sale.
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