10 Old Masters that changed the art market
From the visionary to the controversial, record-breakers to national treasures, a selection of landscape-changing works offered in Christie’s salerooms across more than 250 years
1. The last Leonardo da Vinci — a once-in-a-lifetime record-breaker
The greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century, Salvator Mundi, the last confirmed painting by Leonardo da Vinci to exist in private hands, was offered at auction at Christie’s on 15 November 2017. The work, which had previously been owned by King Louis XII of France, King Charles I, King Charles II and King James II of England, had vanished for almost 200 years.
The painting first resurfaced in London, where a 1913 catalogue described it as a copy of the lost original. In 1945 it was sold for just £45 before disappearing again. Sixty years later, in 2005, an eagle-eyed purchaser spotted the work for sale at an estate clearance sale in the US. After several years of painstaking restoration, scientific analysis and academic research, it was presented to the world’s leading Leonardo da Vinci authorities, including experts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and the University of Oxford — who reached a broad consensus that it was the missing original.
The work, one of fewer than 20 autograph paintings in existence by Leonardo da Vinci, was unveiled to the public in 2011 at the National Gallery in London. The once-in-a-lifetime auction of Salvator Mundi, which followed a global exhibition that had seen thousands of people come to view the painting, produced an extraordinary 19-minute bidding battle before it was finally bought for $450,312,500. This stunning figure was a world auction record for an Old Master painting, a world record for any work of art at auction, and more than double the previous high, which was set for a work by Picasso in May 2015.
2. The artist’s son who made the cover of Time magazine
The 1965 sale of Rembrandt’s Portrait of the Artist’s Son Titus, circa 1655, is the stuff of legend, but not for the reasons one might expect. For Peter Chance, then Christie’s chief auctioneer, that sale remains ‘the worst moment’ of his working life.
In 1815, a British restorer named George Barker missed his boat home and took refuge in a farmhouse near The Hague. Barker spotted the Rembrandt on the farmhouse wall, and offered to round up the bill for the night’s lodgings to one shilling — if the farmer would agree to throw in the painting. Once in Britain, the work entered the Spencer Collection at Althorp in Northamptonshire, where it remained until its sale at Christie’s 150 years later.
Prior to the introduction of the paddle system, buyers were allowed to choose their own bidding signals. The American industrialist and collector Norton Simon sent a letter to Christie’s before the sale of the Rembrandt, explaining, ‘If he is sitting he is bidding; if he stands he has stopped bidding. If he sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is bidding again until he stands up again.’ Unfortunately, Chance misinterpreted Simon’s sitting and finger-raising, and sold the work to Marlborough Fine Art in London for 700,000 guineas.
When the hammer came down, the enraged collector approached Chance’s rostrum and demanded that bidding be reopened. Simon went on to win the auction, spending an additional 60,000 guineas to secure the work. But if the industrialist’s obscure bidding tactics were intended to help him hide from press attention, he now became the focus of the sale. When the painting made the front cover of Time magazine that year, Simon became an unlikely star. Today the portrait hangs in Simon’s museum in Pasadena, California.
3. A fresco labelled ‘whereabouts unknown’ — until our specialist turned detective
Sometimes the simplest actions can lead to fantastic discoveries. In 1964, the renowned Christie’s Old Master specialist David Carritt was browsing a copy of a recently published catalogue of works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the Italian fresco virtuoso, when a line stopped him short. The entry for An Allegory with Venus and Time stated that the work ‘formed part of a ceiling of one of the grandest houses in Mayfair, present whereabouts unknown’.
The Tiepolo’s last listed owner was a German-Belgian banker named Henri Louis Bischoffsheim. Carritt swiftly set about tracing Bischoffsheim's London address to 75 South Audley Street, and discovered that the plush Mayfair townhouse had since become the embassy of the United Arab Republic (as Egypt was then known). Carritt telephoned the embassy, which invited him to view the work.
Upon arrival, the specialist was delighted to find the painting in situ on the drawing-room ceiling. With the realisation that the painting would be impossible to save in the event of a fire, the work was painstakingly removed five years later, and a copy was inserted in its place. The masterpiece was purchased by the National Gallery at auction in 1969; the funds raised were used to finance the conservation of ancient Egyptian monuments in the Nile Valley.
4. The emotionally charged scene that sealed El Greco’s ‘comeback’
The painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco, was lauded in his lifetime for his ghostly apparitions. Yet within a century he had fallen foul of contemporary tastes. By the 1800s the Cretan-born painter was considered a dangerous eccentric, and his works were described by scholars as ‘faulty’.
At auction at Christie’s in 1887, El Greco’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple sold for a paltry 24 guineas — the equivalent of around £2,100 today. Not long after the auction, the buyer donated it to the National Gallery.
By the 1900s, however, El Greco was beginning to make a comeback. His figurative scenes inspired Post-Impressionists including Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin; Pablo Picasso was profoundly influenced by his altarpieces. Today El Greco is regarded as a prophet of Modernism and a forerunner of Expressionism, Cubism and even Abstract Expressionism.
By the time his The Entombment of Christ came up for auction at Christie’s in 2016, the artist’s rehabilitation was complete. The work had languished in a private Spanish collection for hundreds of years, and remained unpublished until the 1950s. Despite measuring only 28 x 19.4 cm, the emotionally charged scene sold for just over $6 million, well beyond its upper estimate and beating the artist’s previous auction record at Christie’s. El Greco’s place in the art historical canon was irrevocable.
5. The only portrait of Shakespeare completed during his lifetime
In 1848, in an attempt to clear his mounting debts, the Duke of Buckinghamshire was forced to sell the entire contents of Stowe House, his country seat. The sale sparked huge interest, as for the first time Stowe’s doors were opened to the public. Shuttle coaches from the local train station and refreshments were laid on for the masses — much to the lament of the press, which reported that the British public was gawking at ‘an ancient family ruined’, as if it were ‘a picnic’.
One of the highlights of the 40-day Christie’s sale was a portrait of William Shakespeare. Although the identity of the artist remains a mystery, it is thought to be the only portrait of the Bard completed during his lifetime. Purchased for the princely sum of £372 and 15 shillings by Lord Ellesmere, the painting would, eight years later, be the first acquisition by the newly established National Portrait Gallery in London.
In another twist of fate, Thomas Woods, the son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, was so inspired by the sale that he decided to become an auctioneer. In 1859 Woods joined George Christie and William Manson as a partner in their firm, creating Christie, Manson & Woods — still the official name for Christie’s.
6. The Duchess and ‘The Napoleon of Crime’
Thomas Gainsborough’s sultry portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire — then aged 28 and notorious for her colourful love life — had been missing from its home at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for years when it was spotted, in the 1830s, above the fireplace of an elderly schoolmistress. After passing through several dealers and collectors, the picture landed at Christie’s in 1876. The work caused a sensation when it went up for auction, and visitors queued to see the Duchess flirtatiously clutching a pink rosebud.
Purchased by the London-based dealer William Agnew, the work became the most expensive painting ever to have been sold at auction; onlookers in the packed saleroom ‘stamped, clapped and bravoed’ when the hammer fell at 10,100 guineas.
But just a few days later, the work was stolen in a crime that rocked the nation. Cut from its frame in Agnew’s Bond Street gallery, the painting remained hidden in a false-bottomed trunk in the United States for 25 years. The perpetrator was a notorious Victorian thief named Adam Worth, also known as ‘The Napoleon of Crime’.
In 1901, having confessed to his felonies, Worth arranged to meet William Agnew’s son at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago. With the help of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Worth returned the work to Agnew for a $25,000 ransom, stating, ‘The Lady must go home.’ The painting was then sold to J.P. Morgan, in whose family collection it remained for nearly one century. When in 1994 the work was acquired by the Duke of Devonshire and returned to Chatsworth House, the Duchess’s 200-year peregrination was complete.
7. A record of biblical proportions
According to the Bible, Lot was intoxicated and seduced by his beguiling young daughters in order to preserve the human race — a fitting subject for one of the most monumental canvases by Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens. In the work — one of the few masterpieces by the artist still in private hands — Rubens paid homage to his predecessors Caravaggio and Michelangelo.
The painting had hung in a South London family home for 20 years before its owners decided to part with it in 2016. The work defied all predictions at auction, more than doubling its estimate after an intense 14-minute competition between anonymous telephone bidders. The price finally topped out at £44 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold, and smashing Christie’s record for the highest price ever achieved for an Old Master painting at the time.
The sale sparked days of speculation about the painting’s possible new owners, until the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it had acquired it on a long-term loan, with the help of a charitable trust. At the Met, the work was reunited with Rubens’ Venus and Adonis, next to which it had once hung at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
8. Made in Italy, treasured by Britain
In 2012 Christie’s was asked to sell a gold-panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, the 14th-century Sienese master of fleshy realism. The painting — created around 1320, when his fellow Tuscan Dante Alighieri was finishing The Divine Comedy — had recently been identified as the only example of Lorenzetti’s work in the United Kingdom realised without studio assistance.
The painting was sold to an overseas buyer for more than five times the £1 million low estimate, setting a world auction record for the artist. The National Gallery stepped in to point out the national importance of the work, and an export ban was placed on the painting until a UK buyer could match the hammer price.
Amid a climate of economic downturn and slashed funding, this seemed an all-but-impossible task — until a gallery in Hull, in the north of England, made a call. With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Bradshaw Bequest, set up specifically for the purpose of acquiring a pre-1800 work, the money was secured. Christ between Saints Peter and Paul underwent a year’s conservation at the National Gallery in London before travelling to Hull, where it took centre stage at the Ferens Art Gallery.
9. Sold for £29 million — a world record for a work on paper
In 1508, a fresh-faced Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to redecorate the Stanza della Segnatura, his personal library and office at the Vatican. Next door, Michelangelo was just beginning work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Eager to make his mark on the Holy See, Raphael designed four monumental schemes that are now considered, collectively, his masterpiece.
In 2009, Christie’s was asked to sell an auxiliary sketch by Raphael that makes up part of the scene still visible on the Pope’s chamber walls. The drawing, one of the best of Raphael’s surviving sketches, conveys such emotion in so few marks that its arrival at auction in London caused a furore.
The opportunity to own such a rare piece of art history was too much for two anonymous telephone bidders to pass up; they fought it out until the gavel finally fell at a monumental £29 million. The sale set a world record for a work on paper, and cemented Raphael’s place as the master of the High Renaissance.
10. The Rembrandt that needed a little ‘improving’
In 1795, three years after the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Christie’s sold the contents of his studio. Over the course of four days in March, 411 pictures from his collection were offered. The catalogue described it as ‘Comprising the Undoubted Works of the Greatest Masters of the Roman, Florentine, Bolognese, Venetian, French, Flemish, and Dutch Schools, In the most perfect State of Preservation.’
Reynolds had purchased Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders from his friend, the philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke, in about 1769. Reynolds bequeathed the painting to his niece, Lady Inchiquin, but it was subsquently sold to a person named Wilson for 156 guineas to help pay off Lord Inchiquin’s debts.
The work resurfaced in Paris in the late 19th century, and was sold to a German collector who in 1911 donated the work to a Berlin museum. In 2015, two of the museum’s scientists noticed pigments on the canvas that didn’t exist in Rembrandt’s day. X-ray analysis soon showed that large swaths of the canvas had been repainted.
A lack of underlying damage confirmed the scientists’ theory: Reynolds had clearly thought that the work needed improvement, and had taken it upon himself to make the necessary modifications. Among the alterations, Susanna’s feet had been repositioned; one of the elders’ faces had been repainted; and the entire background had been reworked. The revelation reshaped our understanding of the painting, and highlighted the close links between scientific and art historical inquiry.