How to leverage flattery
Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746) is a French painter who enjoyed huge success during his lifetime thanks to his portraits, in which he knew how to leverage flattery.
La belle strasbourgeoise
His body of work, spanning a 60-year career, would grow to be substantial. There are thought to be 1500 works . The pinnacle of his creation is perhaps “La belle strasbourgeoise”, a painting from 1703 which is housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, depicting a woman with a mysterious smile, luxuriously dressed, looking out at the viewer. Largillière seemed to have been susceptible to the lure of profit to the point of providing the same work twice – albeit a common practice among the old masters.
Suning Art museum, Shanghai
Another version of this same painting was auctioned on 15 September 2020 in Paris for 1.5 million euros, the record price for the artist. Against all expectations it was bought by Shanghai’s Suning Art Museum, a private museum which incidentally is primarily focused on Chinese ink works.
The mistress to the Duke of Orléans
On 27 January 2022 Sotheby’s will be auctioning the portrait of a lady in New York as part of its old masters paintings sale, with an estimate of 1 million dollars. It is very likely that the painting depicts Marie-Madeleine de Vieville, the Marquise de Parabère (1693-1755), who has gone down in history as the mistress to the Duke of Orléans when he was regent of France, while Louis XV was still a child.
She is depicted as the Roman goddess of fruit and abundance, Pomona. She is shown holding a pomegranate. The male figure in the background could even be the Duke himself. Up until 1941 the canvas belonged to an art lover of German origin who lived in France, Jules Strauss. This banker with vast collections was also unlucky enough, given the times, to be Jewish.
Pauline Baer de Pérignon
It is his great-granddaughter, Pauline Baer de Pérignon, who has conducted a long inquiry tracing this ancestor. She has proven that the painting wasn’t sold but rather looted to profit the Reichsbank in Nazi Germany, which was then decorating its walls with prestigious paintings. The work was transferred to the National Gallery in Berlin in 1953 and to the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden in 1959, where it was exhibited until late 2020.
The Vanished Collection
But they hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Jules Strauss’s great-granddaughter, who writes in “La collection disparue” – an account published by Stock in 2020 – about her hunt for this looted treasure. The book was even recently translated in an American edition (The Vanished Collection. New Vessel Press). “I’ve been interested in the collection since 2016 and I worked on it full time for three years,” she explains. “My great-grandfather had already sold his impressionist collection, among others, in 1936.
Tiepolo and Largillière
I found a little drawing by Tiepolo which had been looted and sold in a private transaction, then this Largillière, which I was able to keep in my home for a few months. It was very emotional. But there are nineteen heirs. I was obliged to separate myself from it.”
Corinne Hershkovitch, a lawyer who specializes in looted artworks, acted as an intermediary with the Dresden museum to push for restitution. “The signature was obtained in December 2020. We had to invoke diplomatic channels. The museum’s curator and the mayor of Dresden were relatively opposed to the restitution of this painting. In their view it had been there so long that it belonged to them forever.” (See here an other interview of Corinne Hershkovitch).
And yet Largillière is not the most highly prized French artist from the 18th century, especially given his highly prolific output. According to the private dealer in Paris, Etienne Bréton, “the market for Largillière is closely linked to the market for 18th-century French furniture. In this field demand has very noticeably dropped since the end of the 20th century.” According to the Artprice database, the vast majority of paintings auctioned in recent years have not exceeded 500,000 euros.
This large-scale painting (147x104cm), which is not without its charm, is described by Sotheby’s as “beautiful and enchanting” (no Sotheby’s expert responded to our request for an interview).
The portrait of the Marquise de Parabère presents two advantages through its provenance. The first and foremost has to do with the fact that this painting spent many years hanging in one of Europe’s highly prestigious museums of old master paintings. The second is that the painting has been promoted by a book published in France and the United States about its former legitimate owner.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
The market is currently driven by a regular flow of restitutions. Up until now the biggest was most likely the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, sold in 2006 in a private sale to the famous New York art lover Ronald Lauder (founder of the Neue Galerie museum in New York and son of cosmetics queen Esthée Lauder) for 135 million dollars.
Among recent restitutions in a more modest price range, in 2020 the French judiciary admitted that two canvases by the modern painter André Derain, which up until then had been exhibited at the Musée de Troyes and the Musée Cantini in Marseille, and which had belonged to the dealer René Gimpel, had been looted. They were returned to the heirs of the legitimate owner and auctioned at Christie’s in New York in November 2021 for 545,000 and 131,000 euros respectively.
The portrait of the Marquise de Parabère has been guaranteed. In other words the auction house has made sure that the sellers will pocket a specific sum regardless of interest at the time of the auction. This sum has not been publicly disclosed, but it will in all likelihood be close to the estimate. So there will be no big surprise at the drop at the time of the auction.
Another well-publicized painting from the sale on 27 January 2022 at Sotheby’s has also been guaranteed. It is a rare painting by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, made towards the end of his life. “Man of Sorrows” is a depiction of Christ in which the craftsmanship is particularly unappealing. It has an estimate of 40 million dollars.
Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel
Last year his “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel”, which had a very modern composition, reached a record price for this great master: 76 million euros (92.2 million dollars) (See the report about it here). The exhibition on Botticelli at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, “Botticelli, artiste et designer” (See here the report about the show) which closes 24 January 2022, clearly shows how the Renaissance artist’s studio functioned as a site of production with various different hands… This could explain the weakness in the execution of “Man of Sorrows” compared with other paintings by this Renaissance giant.
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