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5 December 2011  |  Fine Art   |  Article

The Ultimate Connoisseur

James AlabasterBeginning my career at Christie’s in 1973, I joined the Old Master Picture Department, a subject for which I have a tremendous passion,  then moved across to the Valuations Department in 1976 where I have remained ever since. We in the general valuation team are essentially Christie’s front-line troops; we are always ready at any time to go anywhere, see anyone, and value anything. From porcelain to furniture and from fine art to silver, we run the whole gambit of art. Most importantly, we are also Christie’s first point of contact with the client so it is imperative that we are able to identify the works of art we come across, accurately and with the correct attribution. It is an immense responsibility but one which brings with it great reward. The connections we make at the valuation stage pave the way for future business, establishing long-lasting relationships between us as the auctioneers, and the clients who choose to consign with us.

The processes of valuations are highly complex and involve a well thought-out formula. This is applied from the moment we enter a property to evaluate, in a structured way, the contents of each room so that no stone is left unturned, to when we depart.  We spend the majority of our time ‘on the road’, visiting magnificent houses and palaces, meeting some fascinating people for whom we then produce comprehensive and detailed valuations of what we have found.  This can mean working long hours especially when taking into account the time travelling, and being away from home and out of the office for weeks at a time is all part of the job.  You have to be extremely dedicated.  When I am not carrying out valuations, I spend my holidays visiting galleries and museums throughout Europe, in order to nurture my valuer’s eye and to keep my expertise alive and well. Ultimately, the most important elements of my role as a valuer are always to follow my own instincts, to be humble in front of works of art and not too quick to dismiss them, and to never lose the passion and hunger for looking at and absorbing great art, remembering that you are only as good as what you have seen.

Some Discovery Highlights

1. In 2007 I carried out a routine valuation at a country house and began walking round the many rooms, some of which were in total darkness with their curtains drawn. On pulling- back the curtains in the Drawing Room, the light streamed in and fell upon a little jewel of a painting in the right hand corner of the room. I had “the surprise” of my life and from the quality of the painting, I could tell it was something special and on closer inspection discovered it to be Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684-1721) La Surprise, executed in 1718. One of the greatest of early 18th century French painters, and inventor of the “fête galante” genre of painting, Watteau provided the link between the Baroque and the Rococo. Previously listed as a copy, I was the first to recognize that it was in fact the original Watteau, an incredibly rare piece being one of the few works created before his untimely death in 1721 from tuberculosis. Having disappeared during the turmoil of the French Revolution, only to resurface later in England, remaining with the vendor’s family until my discovery in 2007, this was the first time that the picture had come to auction for over 200 years. When thought to be a copy it was valued at a respectable £5,000, however, our estimate was £3,000,000 - £5,000,000 at auction and  it went on to realize an exceptional £12,361,250 (with premium) at Christie’s, King Street, London on 8th July 2008 (Sale 7609) Lot 21.

2. Whilst on a valuation last year, which was being carried out for insurance purposes, of property that had been lent to the National Trust, my eye alighted on a ravishing portrait of Anne Sophia, Countess of Carnarvon (d.1695). It had previously been listed by the National Trust as being by a Follower of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), however, I followed my own instinct and discovered that it was in fact by the hand of the great master himself. I told the client that he owned a fully autograph original by van Dyck, of which he was totally unaware, and he subsequently consigned it for sale. It fetched £1,609,250 (with premium) at Christie’s, King Street, London on the 6th July 2010 (Sale 7862) Lot 59.                                                   

3. One of my earliest discoveries took place while I was carrying out an insurance valuation for Sir John Hanson in 1985. I was absolutely amazed to discover a stunning work by Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto (1697 –1768) hanging above the chimney-piece in his Drawing Room. When I made my assertion that the work was a genuine Canaletto, the client told me ‘not to worry’ as he had shown it to  the leading Canaletto expert who had said that it was at best a studio work. I returned to Christie’s to carry-out further research on the picture but I was unable to find it mentioned anywhere in the literature on the artist. Two years later, the client telephoned me wanting to sell the painting.  It turned out to be one of the best Canaletto’s to come to the market in recent times, and the composition was identified as ‘The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with the Embarkation of the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740’. It was sold at Christie’s, King Street, London 11th December 1987, Lot 146 for £480,000 to the Walpole Gallery in London.  It was subsequently purchased by an American collector who later sold it at Christie’s, New York on 15th May 1996 Lot 135 for $1,982,500 (with premium), well over double its original value, so Christie’s had two bites of that particular cherry!


Related Departments
Old Master & Early British Paintings
Old Master Drawings

JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU (Valenciennes 1684-1721)
La Surprise: A couple embracing while a figure dressed as Mezzetin tunes a guitar
oil on panel
Price Realized: £12,361,250
July 2008, London, King Street


SIR ANTHONY VAN DYCK (Antwerp 1599-1641 London)
Portrait of Anne Sophia, Countess of Carnarvon (d. 1695), full-length, in a green dress with white silk bows and pearls, and gold-embroidered curtain beyond
oil on canvas
Price Realized: £1,609,250
July 2010, London, King Street


GIOVANNI ANTONIO CANAL, IL CANALETTO (1697-1768)
The Rialto Bridge, Venice, from the south with the Embarkation of the Prince of Saxony during his visit to Venice in 1740
oil on canvas
Price Realized: $1,982,500
May 1996, New York