A gavel raps smartly on a mahogany podium; the crowd snaps to attention, looking up in anticipation. Are we in the midst of a court case perhaps? No: this is the evening sale of Old Master and British Paintings at Sotheby’s, and the only things on trial tonight are the pictures. The saleroom is packed – it’s Old Master Week, when the auction houses sell their very best works from that period, and dealers and collectors from all over the world converge on London to join in on the action. Many of said dealers and collectors are here tonight, competing for the very best of Sotheby’s offerings. A hand lifted here, an eyebrow raised there, and the bids go up in their thousands. As the lots go by, there are a few surprises. A (rather odd-looking in my humble opinion) French portrait of Louis XI, King of France, with no attribution surpasses its estimate of 400,000-600,000 to fetch £735,650. Another portrait with no attribution (this time of King Edward VI), catalogued as ‘Circle of William Scrots’, sails beyond expectations of 500,000-700,000, the bidding ceasing at £1.5 million.
But I daresay no one was prepared for lot 24 – The Surrender of the Royal Prince during the Four Days’ Battle, 1st – 4th June 1966 by Willem van de Velde the Younger, one of history’s most talented marine painters. This extraordinary canvas depicts the defeat of the English by the Dutch in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Beneath the stern of the Royal Prince (the English ship) floats a small galliot where a tiny figure sketches – this is Willem van de Velde the Elder, recording the surrender which his son would go on to paint so beautifully. This picture is not only a showcase of incredible skill, it is an accurate and important historical document; the van de Veldes were ‘quite literally early war artists’. They paid paramount attention to detail, relying on black chalk construction drawings of ships to ensure absolute accuracy in the finished painting. This painting’s condition is excellent, and its provenance is remarkable, having only been in the ownership of 3 families since the late 18th Century. It once belonged to the 3rd Duke of Bridgwater, whose collection of European Old Masters was arguably the finest that had ever been in Britain. Seconds, then minutes tick tensely by, and before long fierce competition has driven up the price to almost twice the high estimate. When the hammer finally falls at £4.7 million, the room breathes a sigh of relief, while whispering and craning their necks around to see who the buyer is.
The bidder is later revealed to be acting on behalf of a Dutch private collector, so this magnificent van de Velde is likely now on its way back to Holland where it was probably first created, over three centuries ago. For more information: see Sotheby’s Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale catalogue (04/07/2012), or go to http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2012/old-master-british-paintings-evening-sale/overview.html All images courtesy of Sotheby’s