Sale sizes up Asians' taste for Renaissance art
Updated: 2013-01-28 11:51
By Michael Barris in New York (China Daily)
An auction of Christian-themed Renaissance paintings this week in New York could roil the art market if coveted Asian buyers enter the bidding, an expert with the auction house conducting the sale said.
A bidding battle involving Asian collectors, who have mostly been cool to religious-themed works, "could radically change the market", said Nicholas Hall, a specialist in Old Masters paintings for Christie's.
The auction house has been working for weeks to attract Asian interest in its pair of star properties to be auctioned on Wednesday: Fra Bartolommeo's The Madonna and Child, priced to sell for between $10 million and $15 million, and Sandro Botticelli's Madonna and Child with the Young St John the Baptist, with an estimated price of $5 million to $7 million.
Notwithstanding the Christian themes, the works' classic representation of motherhood could resonate with Asian buyers, Hall said.
Bartolommeo's depiction of the infant Christ eagerly grasping mother Mary's veil and pulling himself up to receive a kiss, "is such a vivid rendering that you're scarcely aware it is a religious picture," Hall told China Daily at Christie's in Manhattan.
The Botticelli painting conveys a similarly tender mother-child sentiment. A veil, signifying purity, falls over the Madonna's head. "It happens to be that there are very discrete halos around the protagonist. You would have no idea that it is a religious picture."
Amid the popularity of Chinese contemporary and classical art, Asian buyers historically have shown little interest in Christian-themed Old Masters. But in recent months, when collectors from Asia bought a nonreligious work by Rembrandt and another by Michelangelo, that indifference has seemed to fade.
"It just so happened that this year some of the greatest things we had were Renaissance paintings by artists such as Fra Bartolommeo and Botticelli, and their subject matter happened to be religious," Hall said.
Wednesday's auction is partly the result of nearly three years of regular trips to Hong Kong by Christie's experts to promote Renaissance Old Masters paintings to Asian art buyers. Hall said talks he had with potential bidders at the Christie's gallery in Hong Kong revealed that Asian collectors were well-acquainted with the style.
"The familiarity with names of artists such as Botticelli and even Fra Bartolommeo was much greater than I'd anticipated," he said.
Further proof of such awareness, the specialist said, lies in the expansive Renaissance in Florence exhibition now on display at the National Museum of China. A joint presentation of the Beijing museum and Italy's Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, the 67-piece show includes paintings, sculptures and artisanal works, most of which have never been seen in China.
"I saw photographs from the show," Hall said, "and it included many religious pictures - and it was drawing large crowds."
Optimistic about the appeal of Old Masters to Asian patrons, Christie's in November showcased the Botticelli and the Fra Bartolommeo paintings at a dinner for Asian collectors at Hong Kong's convention center. Hall found that Asian buyers have "a real genuine interest in Old Masters paintings," particularly those by "artists of the first rank."
"What Asian collectors are most drawn to is the quality of the painting and the importance of the artist," Hall said. "To be able to have something like a Botticelli, who is now one of the most famous of all Renaissance painters, is of interest to Asian collectors."
If there is to be a reward for these efforts, it will come on Wednesday in Manhattan, Hall said.
"We certainly generated interest during our tour in Hong Kong. But it remains to be seen whether that translates into bidding in the auction room."