Piero Corsini

Collecting stories: Piero Corsini

With his formidable knowledge of Baroque and Renaissance art, the New York gallery owner developed an enviable reputation for making rediscoveries. A sale of Old Master paintings from his collection is offered online from 23 September

Piero Corsini was one of the most successful and charismatic art dealers of his day.

Noted for his skill at spotting misattributed Old Master paintings, he sold his rediscoveries to major museums, establishing an illustrious reputation along the way.

This autumn, Christie’s is organising a curated sale of paintings and drawings that remained in storage long after Corsini’s death. Spanning the Renaissance to the 19th century, Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini will take place online from 23 September to 7 October. Estimates start from just £1,000 and many of the lots carry no reserve.

Francesco Da Ponte, also called Francesco Bassano (1549-1592), or Jacopo Da Ponte, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. Oil on canvas, 34⅞ x 51⅞ in (88.5 x 131.6 cm). Estimate £20,000-30,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

Francesco Da Ponte, also called Francesco Bassano (1549-1592), or Jacopo Da Ponte, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. Oil on canvas, 34⅞ x 51⅞ in (88.5 x 131.6 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

Born in 1938 in Florence — the cradle of the Renaissance — Corsini was well placed to make a life from Old Master paintings. By the age of 18 he had begun acquiring works of art, and he went on to open a private gallery in the city.

In 1981, after 25 years in Florence, Corsini relocated to New York with his family and launched a new gallery from a brownstone on East 63rd Street. 

‘He had an insatiable curiosity for collecting and a connoisseur’s intuition for discoveries’ — Old Masters specialist Maja Markovic

By then Corsini had a formidable knowledge of Baroque and Renaissance art. As described in his New York Times  obituary, one of his greatest rediscoveries was a painting of the Madonna and Child that was initially catalogued as ‘School of Jacopo Bellini’. After paying $100,000 for the work, Corsini restored it and presented it to scholars. They agreed with his intuition — it was an autograph Bellini.

In 1985 he sold the painting to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for roughly seven times the amount he had paid for it.

The dealer’s friend, the art historian Frank Dabell, explained the lengths Corsini would go to in his quest for discovering ‘sleeping’ works: ‘For an item in a small New England sale, Piero would get into his brown station wagon and drive up the coast to resolve his hunch, to inspect and to purchase. Often in vain, but occasionally in triumph, he would return to 63rd Street, to the tail wags of Camilla the brown labrador.

‘The signature, he knew, lay in the brushstrokes,’ continued Dabell, recalling the dealer’s eye for misattributions. ‘Comparison was the order of the day — scouring books and studying photographs in the Frick Art Reference Library. It was like Christmas Day when a new painting arrived at the Corsini Gallery.’

Francesco Albani (1578-1660) and studio, The Rape of Europa. Oil on canvas, 55⅜ x 74.5 in (145.5 x 189 cm). Estimate £20,000-30,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Francesco Albani (1578-1660) and studio, The Rape of Europa. Oil on canvas, 55⅜ x 74.5 in (145.5 x 189 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

After 16 years in New York, Corsini moved to Monaco where he founded another gallery in 1997. He passed away in the city in 2001, aged 63, survived by his wife and three children.

‘He had an insatiable curiosity for collecting and a connoisseur’s intuition for discoveries,’ says Christie’s Old Masters specialist Maja Markovic. ‘The paintings in this sale are part of his legacy and that journey of discovery.’

The collection of 107 works to be auctioned at Christie’s is led by two paintings by the Venetian baroque artist Sebastiano Ricci, both carrying estimates of £25,000-35,000.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and Clemente Spera (c.1661-1742), A Capriccio with Figures Conversing by Classical Ruins. Oil on canvas, 25¾ x 34½ in (65.5 x 87.8 cm). Estimate £25,000-35,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and Clemente Spera (c.1661-1742), A Capriccio with Figures Conversing by Classical Ruins. Oil on canvas, 25¾ x 34½ in (65.5 x 87.8 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

One is A Capriccio with Figures Conversing by Classical Ruins (above), which shows a group of young men gathered around a well, and features a fantastical setting of ruins painted by Ricci’s Milanese collaborator Clemente Spera. 

The other is The Temptation of Saint Anthony (below), a subject the artist favoured for the duality of its theme of purity versus evil.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Oil on canvas, 36½ x 50 in (92.7 x 126.8 cm). Estimate £25,000-35,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Oil on canvas, 36½ x 50 in (92.7 x 126.8 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

Another highlight is A Moonlit Mediterranean Harbour with Fishermen Pulling in Their Catch  by the Italian painter Francesco Fidanza (below). The atmospheric, nocturnal seascape shows the direct influence of the artist’s French mentor, Claude-Joseph Vernet, and is offered with an estimate of £15,000-25,000.

Francesco Fidanza (1747-1819), A Moonlit Mediterranean Harbour with Fishermen Pulling in Their Catch, with a Full-rigged Pinnace and Other Shipping Beyond. Oil on canvas, 21⅜ x 39⅜ in (54.2 x 100.1 cm). Estimate £15,000-25,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Francesco Fidanza (1747-1819), A Moonlit Mediterranean Harbour with Fishermen Pulling in Their Catch, with a Full-rigged Pinnace and Other Shipping Beyond. Oil on canvas, 21⅜ x 39⅜ in (54.2 x 100.1 cm). Estimate: £15,000-25,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

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Further highlights include The Flight into Egypt (below left) by François Perrier, which shows the impact Rome’s 17th-century naturalist painters had on the French artist, and Baldassare Franceschini’s Orpheus (below right), which demonstrates the artist’s skill as a colourist, as well as works by Francesco and Jacopo Bassano and Francesco Albani.

François Perrier (1590-1650), The Flight into Egypt. Oil on canvas, 30¼ x 26⅞ in (76.9 x 68.5 cm). Estimate £8,000-12,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
François Perrier (1590-1650), The Flight into Egypt. Oil on canvas, 30¼ x 26⅞ in (76.9 x 68.5 cm). Estimate: £8,000-12,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Baldassare Franceschini, Il Volterrano (1611-1690), Orpheus. Oil on canvas, 27⅝ x 21⅞ in (70.2 x 55 cm). Estimate £10,000-15,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online
Baldassare Franceschini, Il Volterrano (1611-1690), Orpheus. Oil on canvas, 27⅝ x 21⅞ in (70.2 x 55 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Discovering Old Masters: The Legacy of Piero Corsini, 23 September-7 October 2020, Online

The Corsini Collection is open for viewing at Christie’s King Street galleries in London from 24-30 September.