The international auction world — and local art world for that matter — is both a treasure hunt and a minefield.The one reliable constant is a hunger by the ultra-rich for the diminishing pool of significant objects and the one variable is the under or over-estimation of what a work will change hands for. Even experienced auctioneers can be surprised by a frisson in the auction room which becomes a dizzy marathon when more than two bidders have set their sights on a quarry.
Take for example a 31 by 23 centimetre oil painting: Three Peaches on a stone ledge with a Painted Lady Butterfly. It was painted by Adriaen Coorte (1665-1707) a lesser-known Dutch painter of sublime, uncrowded and tiny still lifes. Only 60 are known to exist. The painting had been in one family’s possession for over 150 years and had found its way to Australia in 1956.
It was duly despatched to Bonhams’ parent company in London where it concentrated the acquisitive instincts of a number of connoisseurs of Dutch 17th painting who unanimously pronounced this little gem one of the finest examples of Coorte’s oeuvre. It sold in December 2011 for £2,057,250 ($A3,900,598) a record for the artist’s work.
Another head-turning sale was an even smaller object. Just six months earlier, (June 2011) two international bidders competed frantically over the phone for a natural pear-shaped pearl offered by Leonard Joel Auctioneers in Melbourne. Its estimate was $A2000–$2500. It sold for $A120,000!
What made this pearl so special? Firstly it was formed without human intervention and secondly it was 26mm, making it one of the largest of its kind in the world. But there are less pragmatic reasons for its drawing power. With a pearl of this beauty and rarity, there is always mystery. Where did it come from? How many necks has it graced? How did it find its way to these shores? It also prompts some rumination among gem and jewellery lovers — or even those who are simply dazzled by the imprecision of the auction market — over the parting of such a substantial sum for the excretion of a small marine mollusk.
The two bidders may have had another pearl in mind: one which only resurfaced in 2004 after disappearing in the late 16th century — the Mary Tudor Pearl. It is currently being offered for a staggering $US6,200,000 by a jewellery firm in Bond Street London, called Symbolic and Chase, with a provenance which name-drops Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539), Philip II of Spain (1527-1598),and Princess Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII. The Mary Tudor Pearl was recently showcased in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which will only add to its allure.
Yet another remarkable discovery was made in 2011. This time inside a bag of pipe fittings in a workshed on a Queensland cattle farm. It was a brass equal-hour horary quadrant which used a system of solar alignments to measure time. It was dated 1396 and engraved with the badge of England’s King Richard II (a stag with a coronet around its neck). It turned out to be the second oldest British scientific instrument in existence. There are only five, two of these are in the British Museum. Curiously even with its modest estimate of £150,000-200,000 ($A280,00-380,000) it failed to find a buyer.
More recently a laser-eyed valuer from Leonard Joel Auctioneers in Melbourne spotted a hitherto undocumented oil by Eugene von Guérard, View of Mt Sturgeon and Mt Abrupt from the Crater of Bald Hill. Von Guérard was an Austrian painter of landscapes of such clarity and detail we can only surmise there was a genetic inheritance from his father Bernhard — a painter of miniatures for Emperor Franz I of Austria.
Like many of his canvasses, this one was commissioned in 1869 by a grazier from the Western District, Victoria, and thus encourages some comparison with the clients of Dutch and Flemish interior painters of the 17th century, who wanted an inventory of their possessions which hinted at their worldly achievements. It sold for a very comfortable $A329,400.
And from the comfortable to the dizzying eight figures paid for a gemstone on steroids called the Blue Belle of Asia (pictured above), a cushion-cut Ceylon sapphire nestling in a cascade of diamonds. She weighed in at 392.52 carats and Christie’s Geneva auction house sold her last November for $US17,564,156. Its provenance would have been especially interesting to that stratum of wealthy gem collectors who become faint at any whiff of a royal association.
It had been discovered in paddy fields in Ratnapura district of Sri Lanka in 1926 and found its way to the British Motor Magnate Lord Nuffield (1877-1963) the founder of Morris Motors. It was rumoured that it had been purchased with a view of presenting it to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on her coronation day on May 12, 1937.
Its last recorded public appearance was in 1970 when the Swiss-based gem-dealer Theodore Horovitz had the opportunity to examine it. Paintings however, still trump gemstones, regardless of rarity, and 2014 saw Édouard Manet’s Le Printemps (1881) achieve $US65.1 million through Christie’s, while Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) sold for a spectacular $US44.4 million, almost tripling its high estimate of $15 million and becoming the highest price ever paid for a work by a female artist.
Francesco Guardi’s Venice, the Bacino di San Marco with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace (c.1780s) was the most ascendant of the old masters to sell in 2014, realising $US16.9 million at Christie’s in July. It had last been on public display in 1954 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and had once been owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Not to be outdone, Sotheby’s, describing it as “one of the last great Turner masterpieces remaining in private hands” sold J.M.W. Turner’s Rome, from Mount Aventine (1935) for $US47.4 million. Its pre-sale estimate had been $US24 million, but because four bidders had set their hearts on it, it escalated to a record auction price for a pre-20th century British artist.