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Painting attributed to El Greco smashes pre-sale estimate at Bonhams Old Masters Sale
Bidders on the phone and in a packed saleroom entered a tense battle for the striking work. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- An oil painting of Saint Peter attributed to Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, sold for £791,650 against a pre-sale estimate of £40,000 – 60,000 at Bonhams yesterday, 5th December 2012.

Bidders on the phone and in a packed saleroom entered a tense battle for the striking work, which made over ten times the pre-sale estimate. Other pieces in the sale, which realised a total of £2 million, also exceeded their estimates with a portrait of a gentleman by Dutch painter Jacob Adriaensz Backer selling for £103,250 against an estimate of £20,000 – 30,000.

Certain stylistic features in the Saint Peter painting, such as the painter’s three-dimensional and naturalistic handling of the figure are comparable to works that El Greco painted in his late Roman and early Spanish period.

Andrew McKenzie, Director of Old Master Paintings said, “The painting was a totally new discovery on our part which was the result of our extensive research. Owing to the notorious difficulties in distinguishing between those authentic works that can be absolutely verified to be by El Greco and workshop variants, we attributed the painting to the artist in our catalogue description with an appropriately cautious estimate. However, the enthusiasm we received both prior to and during the sale was a resounding endorsement of this attribution and we are delighted with the outcome.”

In the words of José Gudiol, 'Faced with the problem of placing undocumented canvases in their right position in the chronological sequence of El Greco's work, and with no more to go on than what is revealed by their style, the art historian is always assailed by a certain amount of worrisome hesitation...his decision, despite the fact that has been reached after infinite consideration, has only the value of a working hypothesis. To form some idea of the difficulties this entails, we need only consider the disparity of the opinions uttered and published regarding the dates of these undocumented works.' He thus concludes that 'The task of distinguishing between a truly authentic work and a workshop copy sometimes - not always, fortunately - goes beyond the bounds of human possibilities.' J. Gudiol, Domenikos Theotokopoulos El Greco 1541-1614 (London, 1973), p. 297.

Certain specific stylistic features of the present painting are nonetheless highly comparable to works that El Greco painted in particular in his late Roman and early Spanish period, when his rendering is very three-dimensional and naturalistic. Perhaps the most notable comparison can be made to the artist's Disrobing of Christ in Toledo Cathedral Sacristy. Executed between 1577-1579 this large altarpiece is one of El Greco's finest paintings and a work of the foremost importance in the history of European art. Most striking is the similarity between the treatment of the nose, ear and forehead with several of the heads depicted above Christ, but especially the bearded figure who lies at a similar angle, third from the right (see the detail in José Gudiol's volume, op. cit., fig. 70, p. 84). Further comparison can be drawn from the figure in the same composition who is crouching lower right (op. cit., fig. 73, p. 89). The same treatment of the eyebrows and beard may also be discerned in the artist's 1577 Assumption, in three of the figures to the lower right of the composition (Chicago Art Institute, see op. cit., fig. 56, p. 72). A further work that bears close comparison is the head of the full-length Saint John the Baptist in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, a work which was also executed in the period 1577-79.

Bonhams | Domenikos Theotokopoulos | El Greco | Andrew McKenzie |

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