Restituted paintings, particularly a stormy scene from the life of St Clare, light up Christie’s, as Dürer poses a riddle.
It is natural, I suppose, to experience a little twinge of sadness on learning that the heirs to a restituted work of art have immediately put it on the market; natural, but unfair. One can know nothing of the family’s present circumstances, still less of motives or individual tastes. Indeed, they may have no personal relationship, as it were, with the object, having been separated from it two or more generations ago.
Harry Fuld (1872–1932) was perhaps lucky to die when he did, on a business trip to Switzerland. Descended from antique dealers, he had made his own fortune in what has become known as telecommunications and was a major collector of Modern and some older art. His widow and sons inherited the collections, which were confiscated and sold off by the Nazis. After the war, his heirs had only limited success in getting back what should have been theirs and it is only subsequent generations that have had their rights recognised. The two paintings that turned out to be the stars of Christie’s main London Old Master sale in December had been returned to the family earlier last year.
Peter Harry Fuld (1921–62), the younger of the two sons, was so affected by his experiences as an emigrant and refugee, which included a spell of internment on the Isle of Man, that he set up a foundation to support young emigrants in London and Germany who face racial and other discrimination. Perhaps some of the proceeds from the sale will be directed to this.
The two predella panels were painted in tempera and gold by a Sienese master, Giovanni di Paolo (about 1399–1482). A predella is a run of four or more small scenes below the main subjects of an altarpiece – in this case, an altar dedicated to St Clare, the companion of St Francis of Assisi.
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Giovanni di Paolo was a fine miniator, or illuminator, who may have trained with the Limbourg brothers when they were in Italy, but some of his panel paintings are truly remarkable for their fantasy; as Sir John Pope-Hennessy commented: ‘Few experiences in Italian painting are more exciting than to follow Giovanni di Paolo as he plunges, like Alice, through the looking-glass.’ Here, his 8in by 11½in panel of the saint receiving the robe of her Order of Poor Clares from St Francis was comparatively conventional and it sold for £3,611,250, but the 7in by 11¾in Saint Clare rescuing the Sailors (Fig 1) was distinctly surreal.
This posthumous miracle is recounted in De conformitate vitae beati Francisci ad vitam Domini Iesu by Bartolomeo da Pisa, issued at Assisi in 1399: ‘Several Pisans were surprised by a terrible tempest during a dark and gloomy night on their way to Sardinia. The strong storm had already broken the stern of the ship, so that all those on board saw themselves close to death and invoked the Virgin Mary and many saints with shouts and lamentations. As their prayers were unanswered and they feared to sink, they started to invoke St Clare of Assisi: If she would free them from their perilous danger, they promised to make a pilgrimage from Pisa to Clare’s church, barefoot, in penitential robes, and with a pound of wax in their hands.’ Either in the form of three guiding lights or in person, as here, the saint obligingly flew to their rescue.
The painting is almost naïve, yet full of life, with the flying spray and the sails being ripped away. Unsurprisingly, the price far outran that of its companion, reaching £5,313,750.
Although di Paolo was at work during the dawn of the Italian Renaissance, his art seems to be backward-looking in that context. Donatello (1386–1466) was a slightly older contemporary, but his sculptures belong to a different world.
There was little trace of the medieval in a 14½in-high polychrome gesso bust of a young boy, which sold for £431,250, also at Christie’s. One might guess from the open mouth that the boy was singing – perhaps he was intended as an angel or decoration for a choir gallery; this was a product of the new Humanism. Christie’s was not confident in the attribution, dating the bust to between 1420 and 1440 and pointing to Desidero di Settignano or another of Donatello’s followers. The estimate was to £30,000.
The German engravers of Dürer’s generation belonged to a different world again. Daniel Hopfer (1470–1536) is believed to have been the first to use etching to make prints. Previously, the techniques had been employed to decorate armour and Hopfer had been trained by an Augsburg armourer. A shield and sword survive that were decorated by him. It is thought that he was etching prints from about 1500, using iron plates, which needed great care to avoid rust marks.
In Christie’s early-December sale of Old Master prints, there were two by Hopfer, sold together. One – a sheet of grotesque and devilish heads measuring only 3½in by 5¼in – was a rarity; the second was a design of ornamented stripes, perhaps for armour decoration or dagger sheaths. They sold for £13,750 against a £3,500 estimate.
Dürer was the first printmaker to date an etching – three, in fact – in 1515. However, it was one of his great engravings that took the honours here: a fine impression in generally good condition of the 9¼in by 7¼in Melencolia I of the previous year, which reached £187,500. Many books and papers have been written about the meaning of this strange image, so full of astrological, scientific and architectural objects, without reaching any fully convincing explanation. I like the idea that this is actually the point. Melancholy may be induced by the impossibility of achieving what one wishes – in this case, deciphering the riddle.
The cheapest lot in this sale, incidentally, was a rare early mezzotint depicting Nuremberg tailor Johann Langstein. Dating from 1670–1722, the print was the work of Georg Fennitzer (1646–1722) of the same burg, and sold for £50.This 19th-century, cotton-based, hand-woven wool Mahal minahani design rug from north-west Persia, measuring more than 13ft by 8ft, was one of two rugs sold by the Carpet Restoration Studio on the opening day of the London Antique Rug & Textile Art Fair in Battersea Park for four-figure sums.
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