Excitement when the market discovers old treasures…

[05 Nov 2019]

On 27 October an auction house in the Oise region north of Paris hosted an event that sent ripples throughout the art world: the offer of a rare and newly-discovered Cimabue painting. The result represents a new world auction record for a ‘Primitive Christian’ painting.


                   Cimabue (c.1240/50-c.1302) –Le Christ moqué

Behind the public sale of this small wood panel depicting Christ Mocked is the story of a chance discovery… of the kind the market loves. Philomène Wolf – the auctioneer of the Acteon team charged with selling the contents of a house belonging to a 90 year-old woman in Compiegne – explains that “the painting was discovered during the inventory. Among the furniture and common objects, two paintings attracted our attention, and particularly this ‘icon’ with a gold background.” What the owners saw as a simple icon, hanging not far from the kitchen hob, turned out to be the work of CIMABUE (c.1240/50-c.1302), a major pre-Renaissance artist active in Northern Italy towards the end of the 13th century. Indeed, Cimabue is considered the painter who introduced the basic innovations that became the foundations of Western art by breaking with the conventions of Greek representation. He gave unprecedented form to drapery and cloth and instilled real life into the portrayal of scenes and characters not previously seen in Byzantine art.

Analysis of the gold background ‘icon’ revealed it to be an egg tempera painting on a poplar panel that originally belonged to polyptych painted around 1280 consisting of eight similar sized scenes of the Passion of Christ. The set was dismantled by a 19th century dealer wishing to obtain a better price from its sale. Another auctioneer at the Acteon Senlis auction house in Chantilly, Dominique le Coent-de Beaulieu, says “the work was originally part of an 8-panel devotion painting, two panels of which are known today: the Flagellation in New York’s Frick collection and Virgin and Child with two angels at London’s National Gallery. “Before their respective entries into these museums, the two paintings were kept in private collections. The Christ Mocked panel is the third known work from the set, leaving five more to be discovered…”

cimabue vierge

Cimabue (c.1240/50-c.1302) – The Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels. National Gallery

Before the sale, the auctioneer confided that “buyers for this type of object are few”. However the story surrounding the work’s discovery attracted a number of highly specialised and wealthy collectors and, in the end, the panel, humbly estimated at $4.4 – 6.6 million, climbed to $26.8 million (incl. buyer’s fees). The opportunity was too good to miss as Cimabue is one of the rarest artists on the market, with scarcely a dozen works attributed to his hand.

Cimabue’s place in the History of Western Art and the scarcity of his works largely justifies the price paid for this 25.8 x 20.3 cm panel: more than $51,000 per cm², but much less than the $150,000 per cm² paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in November 2017. At $27 million, the result was France’s best art auction result since October 2017 ($29.5 million for Alberto Giacometti’s 1960 Grande femme II), the most expensive Early Chistian (or Primitive Christian) painting ever auctioned in the world and the eighth most expensive ‘old’ painting, behind the Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents (2002) and his Lot and his Daughters (2016), Pontormo’s Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (1989), Rembrandt’s Portrait of a man with arms akimbo (2009), Raphael’s Portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici (2007) and Canaletto’s Venise, the Grand Canal (2005).


Rembrandt (1606-1669) –Portrait of a man with arms akimbo, 29,5m$

It was also the only artwork in that list to sell in France, the other results having been hammered either in London or New York. For thierry Ehrmann, Founder/CEO of ArtMarket.com: “This is the third French Art Market success in two weeks, proving the country’s capacity for market audacity. After a sensational record of $22.3 million for a painting by Nicolas de Staël at Christie’s Paris during the FIAC (Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs)) and the huge success of Sotheby’s Univers Lalanne sale, a small panel, attributed to one of the fathers of the Italian Renaissance, has sold in Senlis. France has proved it is not only capable of offering exceptional art to visitors to its museums, it can also offer exceptional works in its auction rooms”.

Another marvel of Renaissance art has been announced at the French auctioneer Aguttes on 14 November: a Madonna and Child with Saint George and a musician angel by Bernardino LUINI (Vierge à l’enfant avec Saint Georges), Leonardo da Vinci’s principal student. The provenance of the masterpiece is none other than the Francis Cook collection, which previously owned Salvator Mundi, the most expensive artwork ever publicly sold. Salvator Mundi was attributed Bernardino Luini before being attributed to Da Vinci. The work is carrying an estimate of €2 million and should upgrade Luini’s current auction record set just a year ago at 1.2 million (nearly $1.4 million) for a Figure of Saint at Christies (Paris).