A rare Raphael chalk drawing of a woman's head sold for a record £29.1 million, or $48 million, at Christie's in London – the highest price paid all year for a work of art at auction. In the same sale, Christie's sold a Rembrandt portrait that hadn't been seen in public for nearly four decades for a record £20.2 million pounds, or $33.2 million.
Raphael's 'Head of a Muse' sold to an anonymous buyer for double its high estimate, a sign that collectors are willing to chase after older masterpieces even as global prices for living artists remain shaky. The work's price outperforms a Henri Matisse table scene that Christie's sold this spring for $46.5 million and an Andy Warhol screenprint of 200 dollar bills that Sotheby's sold last month for $43.7 million.
Raphael's black-chalk preparatory drawing depicts a serene figure with Cupid's bow lips that also shows up in the background crowd of one of the artist's seminal frescoes, 'Parnassus.' That mythological panorama of the god Apollo holding court on Mount Parnassus is one of four frescoes Raphael created around 1511 to adorn the Vatican library, Stanza della Segnatura. 'Head of a Muse' is the artist's last example from the Vatican library commission still in private hands. (Other drawings tied to the same commission belong to the Louvre.)
The drawing is also appealing because it evokes the golden era of papal patronage when Pope Julius II employed two of the Renaissance's great masters, Michelangelo and Raphael, to redecorate nearby rooms in the Vatican. Michelangelo, the reigning art star, got the Sistine Chapel; Raphael, his younger rival, got the library.
Raphael eclipsed the sale's expected star, Rembrandt van Rijn, the Renaissance master known for his psychologically complex portraits and earthen-hued palette. Rembrandt's 1658 depiction of a confident young man in a beret and sash, 'Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With Arms Akimbo,' still fared well, selling for $33.2 million, over its $28 million low estimate. Estimates do not include the auction house's fee, which is 25% on the first $50,000, 20% up to $1 million and 12% above $1 million.
Rembrandt was in financial straits when he painted 'Portrait of a Man.' The artist had declared bankruptcy two years earlier, in 1656, and was eventually compelled to sell off his art collection and house in Amsterdam. Critics say Dutch society no longer craved his painting style, a mix of rough brushstrokes with subtle lighting and unflinching honesty. The identity of the sitter in the portrait, a man with a self-assured gaze, is unknown.
The Rembrandt sale may also have been aided by the storied history of its prior owners, including George Folliott, a Regency-era collector who exhibited the work at the British Institution in London in 1847. Mr. Folliott's grandson auctioned off the work at Sotheby's in 1930 for $18,500. Shortly after, it was bought for around 10 times that sum by George Huntington Hartford II, a supermarket heir who later donated the work to Columbia University. Rembrandt's portrait famously hung in the president's office until student protesters briefly took over the room in 1968 and staff decided to put the painting into safer storage. The current seller is pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson.
Elsewhere in the sale, Christie's got $15.1 million for Il Domenichino's 'Saint John the Evangelist,' a pious depiction of the saint sporting golden curls and a cherry-red mantle that was priced to sell for at least $11 million. Overall, Christie's brought in about $111.4 million, surpassing its $102 million high estimate.
Rival Sotheby's will hold its evening sale of Old Master and British paintings on Wednesday, led by Sir Peter Paul Rubens' 'Portrait of a Young Woman, Half-Length, Holding a Chain,' a work dating to around 1603 that is priced to sell for at least $6.5 million.
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