The good news: For the first time since 1961, an Old Master painting was auctioned in America for more than a million dollars. At Christie's tonight, Jan van de Cappelle's scene of a harbor sold for $1.65 million.
And now the bad news: Of the 20 Dutch, Italian and French paintings by masters offered tonight, only seven found buyers and the two star lots were among the unsold items.
Tonight's big seller -- "The Visit of the Stadholder, Prince Frederick Hendrik, to the Fleet of the States General at Dordrecht in 1646" -- was the only one of the top paintings from the collection of Oklahoma oilman Samuel T. Fee to meet his expectations.
He was first disappointed in the bidding for "The Arrival of Henri III at the Villa Contarini" (circa 1750) by Giambattista Tiepolo, which stopped at $1.5 million. Fee had hoped the picture would bring more than $2 million, nearly double the previous auction record for the 18th-century Italian artist.
A rare oil on canvas of Warwick Castle in England, painted by the Italian 18th-century master Canaletto, climbed to $1.9 million, more than one million dollars shy the presale estimate of $3 million, and also failed to sell. The record for the artist is $660,000 for "A Capriccio of Buildings in Whitehall" paid in January 1984 at Christie's here.
Although Old Masters sell in Europe and Britain for millions of dollars -- "The Adoration of the Magi" by Andrea Mantegna fetched $10.45 million in London only a few weeks ago -- this has not been the case in the United States. The standing record in the United States, against which all other sales are judged, is the $2.1 million bid in 1961 for Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer."
In explaining the disappointing night, Christie's president David Bathurst said, "Most of the pictures here tonight have been on the market in the past seven years, which is not a good sign. Anyone who may have wanted them already had a chance to consider them not too long ago.
"The Old Master field," he noted, "consists of a very small group of scholarly collectors rarely smitten by auction fever."