In London, John Constable Sets Auction Records


This week in London the auction houses join dozens of galleries by hosting sales of old master & British paintings during the city’s Old Masters Week.

Christie’s evening session on July 3 totaled $133.4 million for 54 lots, near the high end of the $95.5 million–$138 million estimate, with 84-percent of the offered works finding buyers (96-percent by estimated value).

Nearly a quarter of the auction’s earnings came from the sale of John Constable’s The Lock (1824), which shows a man operating a lock in preparation for an oncoming boat’s passing. The painting stands at about 5 feet tall and was last on the auction block in 1990 at Sotheby’s London, where it sold to the Baron and Baroness Thyssen for a record price of $21 million.

It had been on view since 1992 at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, a facility built by the Spanish government during protracted and sometimes dizzying negotiations with the Baron regarding the country’s acquisition of the collection. (The Baron’s 2002 obituary in the New York Times quotes Robert Hughes, who criticized the Baron’s maneuvering as a “dance of the seven veils.”)

Ultimately, the government paid a bargain $350 million for the collection (in 1993), though The Lock remained in the possession of the Baron’s fifth wife, Carmen, who brought it to auction this week. It sold for $35.2 million—close to the high estimate of $39 million and a record for the artist. It shares the title of most expensive old master painting sold at Christie’s with George Stubbs’s Gimrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey (1765), which brought the same price in July of last year.

Christie’s sale was also boosted by a group of 10 paintings consigned by Pieter and Olga Dreesmann that added $39.7 million to the evening’s total. In advance of the sale, Christie’s sent the collection on a world tour that included stops in Doha, Moscow, New York, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. The group was led by a portrait of a man in 16th-century costume by Rembrandt, thought to have been painted when the artist was in his early twenties. It sold to an Asian buyer for $13.2 million, near a low estimate of $12.5 million.

A few Dreesmann lots exceeded presale expectations: an unfinished, undated 17th-century painting attributed to Gonzoles Coques fetched $378,500 (est. $110,000–$150,000), and a still life with flowers and shells by Balthasar van der Ast brought a record $4.1 million (est. $1.3 million–$1.9 million).

In addition to those for Constable and van der Ast, records were set for several other artists, including Pietro Lorenzetti ($8 million), Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael ($7.3 million), Pieter Jansz. Saenredam ($5.9 million) and Juan de Zurbarán ($4.3 million).