New York to Maastricht: spring in the step for Sculpture in 2014

2014 has opened with another opportunity for repeated puns on the word bronze. Of those of you who attended the opening for the great Royal Academy BRONZE exhibition at the end of 2012, who can forget Boris Johnson’s continual Olympic references to bronze becoming gold etc. etc. during his opening speech. If you thought you had escaped any more word play of this sort, the latest show at the Frick Collection in New York, Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection (28 January -15 June), provided reviewers with another occasion to show their skill: the FT wins my prize with ‘For the love of bronze and tin cans’.

The exhibition is a must for all art world bronze enthusiasts and there is none more enthusiastic about a great Renaissance or Baroque bronze than the auction houses or the dealers – where there’s bronze there’s brass!! And the New York January auctions provided confirmation of this from the outset of this year. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s did their best to hide their best sculptures in themed sales. Christie’s went first on 29th January with the second presentation of a Renaissance sale. This includes principally Old Master paintings. This year’s sale lacked the novelty of the first offering, which was reflected in the result of the only major bronze, a candle holder in the form of a mermaid which just sold around the low at $209,000. More impressive was the repeat of strong prices for Della Robbia, with the exquisite roundel of St Jeromeselling for $485,000. The next day there was an invitation to the Courts of Europe at York Avenue. Here at Sotheby’s lots of excitement had been generated during the view around a bronze group of Samson slaying a Philistine attributed to Willem van Tetrode. Fresh to the market, everyone seemed to have a theory on the attribution. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and this particular sweet morsel sold for $3,300,000 and is said to be joining one of the ultimate private collections of bronze delicacies currently at the Frick. Of note also was the four times low estimate paid for the set of four marble reliefs by Bertel Thorvaldsen which sold for $2,405,000.

These few strong auction results from a chilly New York (thankfully spared any serious snow blizzards this year) provided some encouragement for the sculpture market which now looked forward to the dealers taking centre stage at TEFAF in Maastricht.

Just before that, however, there were some significant auctions that contributed to the sculpture scene in London. Moore, Rodin and Giacometti was the cry from the London Impressionists auctions. This holy trinity continue to dominate the top prices in the Evening Sales. A 47cm high Giacometti Walking Man topped the billing at Sotheby’s in February, selling for nearly £8,500,000 and a small Rodin Penseur made over £4,000,000, whilst at Christie’s, a beautiful Moore Mother and Child with Apple doubled its estimate at over $5,000,000 . 

The Opulent Eye is Christie’s 19th century furniture and decorative arts auction where they offer sculpture. This approach may have restricted the potential to develop the market for the best sculpture of the period (a potential that Sotheby’s London is hopeful will yield results when it re-introduces 19th and early 20th century Sculpture auctions in May this year), but at King Street on 6th March sculpture managed to shine out amongst the bling of the furniture. Leading the sale were the white marbles which have been performing strongly in recent months. Marbles by Barzaghi and Caradossi doubled their estimates, whilst a double portrait marble relief by Henri Triquetti made ten times the low estimate. Down the road in New Bond , sculpture appeared in two mixed Sotheby’s auctions. Three unusual and very rare 16th century silver reliquary busts made a strong impression selling in an auction entitled Of Royal and Noble Descent on 23rd January for a combined total of £559,500, far outstripping the estimates (but seemingly with even greater potential as they were to be seen already in Maastricht 6 weeks later, shining even more brightly). And just the week before the exodus to the Netherlands, the top seller in a 1000 lot single owner sale at Sotheby’s was an unattributed Florentine 16th century marble relief of Hercules and Antaeus, which squeezed every penny out of the bidding to sell for £350,500; 10 times the estimate. So the art world turned towards the mecca of the dealers with some cause for optimism.

Sculpture and Works of Art have always featured prominently at TEFAF, but since the late 1980s much of the late Gothic wood sculpture and northern antiques have been replaced by more kunstkammer, early medieval and Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. The arrival of Daniel Katz, Sam Fogg, the Tomasso brothers, Coll & Cortés and most recently Bacarelli and Botticelli have bolstered the longer standing works of art dealers such as the Kugel, Blumka and Böhler, Laue and Brimo de Laroussilhe. So there was a lot to see and as usual the best things go quickly. Leading the pack were the Spanish dealers from Madrid, Coll & Cortés, whose stunning pair of busts of the Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa by Pedra da Mena were snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for €3,000,000. Red dots appeared here and there, but it didn’t appear to turn into a full rash, at least not in the first couple of days. Senger Bamberg sold an impressive large crucifix and Danny Katz sold an engaging painted plaster self-portrait of Jean Carriès. Looking at the later sculpture on show, Robert Bowman held a retrospective show of works by Auguste Rodin, just a foretaste of an exhibition to be held in his London gallery: Rodin in Private Hands.

The dealers and auction rooms were thrilled to see the publication of a large and traditional catalogue of the Baroque and Later Ivories at the Victoria and Albert Museum by the indefatigable curator, Marjorie Trusted, in January, but it comes at a moment of great concern for the art market, and the museum world in general, since the US government announced in February that it is banning the commercial importation of all African ivory of any age. We will have to wait to see what impact this has on the market, but for now such leading dealers as the Blumka Gallery are faced with the prospect of not being able to take their property back to New York. But to end on a more positive note, Blumka’s co-exhibitor Julius Böhler Kunsthandlung made a major ivory sale at Maastricht with the outstanding figure of St Sebastian, newly attributed to Francis van Bossuit.

Main image: Detail, Pedro de Mena, Ecce Homo, polychrome wood with reverse painted glass eyes and hair eyelashes, h. 64cm.,exh. Coll & Cortés, Tefaf Maastricht 2014, (photo: Tefaf Maastricht)

Aurora Corio