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Two masterpieces by El Greco never previously offered at auction headline Sotheby's sale
Domenios Theotokopoulos, called El Greco, Christ on the Cross, oil on canvas, est. £3-5m. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- On the evening of 3rd July 2013, Sotheby’s London will stage an unprecedented auction event, by offering for the first time in living memory, two masterworks by El Greco in the same sale. More than 400 years since they were executed, these two rare and important paintings, estimated at £3-5 million each, will make their auction debuts. The sale includes other outstanding works including a remarkable set of six monumental gold ground frescoes by Giandomenico Tiepolo from the Palazzo Porto in Vicenza (est. £3-5 million), Claude-Joseph Vernet’s magnificent ‚lost‛ view of Avignon (£3-5 million) and the most comprehensive collection of still lifes - including some of the earliest known examples of the genre, by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder and Jan Brueghel the Elder - to appear at auction in many decades. Comprising 48 lots, the Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale has a combined estimate in excess of £23.7 million. It contains three works owned by Dr Gustav Rau, one of the greatest collectors of the twentieth century.

Alexander Bell, International Head of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department commented: “There is something profoundly moving about El Greco’s art. He was an extraordinarily visionary artist – undoubtedly one of the most powerfully expressive in Western Art - and his works continue to talk to us today. To have the opportunity to offer our clients two totally fresh, museum-quality El Grecos in the same sale is quite something. These works make a fascinating juxtaposition. Christ on the Cross is a powerful and dramatic large scale altarpiece. Saint Dominic in Prayer, from the legendary collection of Dr Gustav Rau by contrast, is a small, introspective work for private devotion. The composition of the humble kneeling figure against the luminescent sky is one of El Greco’s greatest inventions. A complete cycle of six luminescent gold-painted Tiepolo frescoes, also owned by Dr Rau, will be sold along with other works from his collection by Sotheby’s to benefit UNICEF Germany.”

Saint Dominic in Prayer (est. £3-5m) is one of the artist’s finest depictions of saints, notable for its encapsulation of his extraordinary imagination and highly individual technique. In this work El Greco depicts Saint Dominic simply dressed in his black and white habit in a moment of quiet piety in the wilderness. The very personal and earthy portrayal of the saint, juxtaposed against his transcendental surroundings, make Saint Dominic the intercessor between us and the divine. From his arrival in Spain in 1577, El Greco’s paintings tackle this question of the dualism between heaven and earth. There are four known versions of this composition, probably dating from circa 1600 onwards - the other three are in the collection of Placido Arango in Madrid, the Sacristy of Toledo Cathedral and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Previously in the collection of the Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga and dating from the period of El Greco’s maturity, around 1600-1610, the monumental Christ on the Cross is the last of only three surviving large-scale versions of this composition by the great master. The others are in the collection of the Museum of Art, Cleveland and the collection of the Marqués de la Motilla in Seville. The original source for the figure of Christ is almost certainly a drawing by Michelangelo now in the British Museum, which El Greco would have known from early in his career. Combining the international mannerist tradition with his own mystic expressionism, the work creates an image of great power ideal for spiritual contemplation. A record price at auction for El Greco (£3.85 million) was achieved for a reduced autograph version of this composition at Sotheby’s in 2000, which is now held by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Frescoes by their very nature rarely appear at auction, but the Old Masters and British Paintings Evening Sale will offer a perfectly detached, complete cycle of six magnificent frescoes by Giandomenico Tiepolo. Painted in a wonderfully intense gold palette, these works literally glow with radiance. Estimated at £3-5 million, they recount the glories and achievements of the Porto family of Vicenza from the 11th to the 17th centuries. Painted around 1760 by Tiepolo for the Palazzo da Porto Festa (built by Andrea Palladio), they illustrate the political shifts and events of Medieval and early modern Europe.

The frescoes were meticulously removed from the Palazzo circa 1900 when they were acquired by the Berlin industrialist and collector Eduard Simon, who had been advised by the renowned curator and historian Wilhelm Von Bode who founded the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. Simon installed them in his home in Berlin, which was designed by the renowned architect Alfred Messel. The frescoes were acquired in 1966 by Dr Gustav Rau.

Gustav Rau (1922-2002) was a truly unique collector. Scion of a family of industrialists, he initially followed his father into the automotive business, but at the age of 40, decided to train as a doctor with the intention of working in the developing world. He sold the family business and moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he lived and worked for two decades, building a hospital at Ciriri and serving as a doctor for the surrounding community. Totally self-taught, Rau also developed a great passion for art. Several times a year he would leave his isolated village in Africa to return to the salerooms of Europe – often walking from Heathrow to Mayfair to save money on transport – to attend auctions. His taste and eye for quality were extraordinarily wide ranging and diverse and over several decades, he established one of the greatest art collections of the twentieth century, comprising over 2,000 works of art, the greater part of which he bequeathed in 2001 to UNICEF Germany. Proceeds of the sale will be used to fund long-term assistance programs for children, and especially to further assist the Ciriri hospital in eastern Congo.

Last offered at auction more than 200 years ago and exhibited only once since then, Claude-Joseph Vernet’s outstanding View of Avignon from the right bank of the Rhône is estimated at £3-5 million. The work is Vernet’s only recorded painting of his birthplace, the city of Avignon, and was described by noted art historian Giuliano Briganti in 1970 as ‚one of Vernet’s finest views‛. Executed in 1756, the painting was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1759 and was engraved by Pietro Antonio Martini in 1782. In the late 18th century it passed through a number of distinguished French collections including the celebrated collection of Pierre Louis Paul Randon de Boisset (1708-1776), Receveur général des Finances, and that of Ange-Joseph Aubert (1736-1785), Joallier de la Couronne. When compiling her seminal catalogue of Vernet’s works in 1926 Florence Ingersoll-Smouse traced the painting only to 1790, its subsequent history unknown, and reproduced it via Martini’s engraving. It remained ‘lost’ until it was discovered in 1954 in a private collection near Bristol and sold by Arthur Tooth & Sons in London.

The Evening Sale boasts a quite remarkable survey of still life painting from some of very earliest examples of the genre dating from the beginning of the 17th Century, to the late 18th Century. The paintings of flowers in oils arose as an independent genre quite suddenly in the Netherlands just after 1600, due in part to an upsurge in interest in the natural world in Post-Reformation Northern Europe, combined with new developments in optics.

Executed in 1607-8, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Still life with irises, tulips, roses, narcissi and fritillary in a ceramic vase is one of his best known compositions. Estimated at £600,000-800,000 it is one of Brueghel’s earliest works and an important addition to his oeuvre, painted concurrent with, or shortly after a small version in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The composition is typical of the years 1605-10 when the artist painted a small number of similarly arranged bouquets in ceramic vases. Critics and collectors alike have admired Jan Breughel’s flower pieces from their very inception and their popularity has never waned.

It is generally accepted that Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder is likely to have encountered Jan Brueghel and his work in 1606, because his flower pieces from that year onwards show an awareness of Brueghel’s style. Still life of roses, marigolds, aquilegia, violets, convolvulus, hollyhocks, peonies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, Jacob’s ladder, lily of the valley and carnations in a wan-li kraak porcelain vase with a butterfly and a snail on a ledge, is however one of his very earliest works, painted circa 1601-5, estimated at £400,000-600,000. It bears many similarities to a work in the Fairhaven collection at Anglesea Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

Appearing at auction for the first time in over 100 years, Rachel Ruysch’s recently rediscovered masterpiece, Still life of roses, tulips, a sunflower and other flowers in a glass vase with a bee, butterfly and other insects upon a marble ledge of 1710 is expected to realise £1-1.5 million. The work, without doubt the most significant addition to her oeuvre in recent years, epitomises the final and greatest stage of Dutch flower-painting of the Golden Age, of which Ruysch was one of the finest protagonists. It was commissioned from the artist by Pieter de la Court van der Voort for 1,300 guilders and painted at a pivotal moment in Ruysch’s career. From the first decade of the 18th century, she made several pairs of still lifes and this work and its companion piece were held in the celebrated De la Court van der Voort collection in Leiden and later owned by the prodigious Leipzig collector Gottfried Winckler (1731-1795).

Still life with apricots and cherries by Luis Meléndez, one of the greatest European still life painters of the 18th century, is estimated at £1-1.5 million. The work, executed in 1773, was included in an exhibition of the artist’s work held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The work is a variant of a painting from Meléndez’s celebrated commission of 44 still lifes, produced for the Prince of Asturias (the future Charles IV of Spain), the majority of which are today in the Prado Museum. The painting is being sold by Rosendo Naseiro, who assembled one of the greatest collections of Spanish still life painting ever known.

The sale also features A view of the Valkhof at Nijmegen seen from the west, with a ferry crossing the river Waal, a superb example of Salomon Van Ruysdael’s mature style. Painted in 1647, a year before the Treaty of Munster gave the Dutch Republic an enduring peace in which to enjoy its mounting prosperity, the work presents a boundlessly optimistic view of a settled world that was at ease with itself. The work, is estimated to realise £1-1.5 million.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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