Things have begun to look much better on the U.K. auction front, even if it is not yet possible to attend auctions in person. This month’s selection includes quite a few body parts, principally Roman or Indian, as well as several foxhounds, some cute gogottes, and even a fearless vegetarian dinosaur.
The most expensive lot on view is a very small box, while other treats include a couple of Orientalist pictures, iconic Russian works of art, even a postwoman whose appearance is not quite what one expects. And it all ends up with several rounds of drinks.
Unsettling Rituals and Reminiscences of the Raj
Apologies must first go to vegetarians and those of a more sensitive nature who may find one of the accompanying illustrations upsetting—but it was the most expensive of the three lots featured here, all of which are related to the Indian experiences of General Sir George Nugent, England’s, or more precisely the ruling East India Company’s, Commander in Chief from 1811 to 1813, and those of his wife, Lady Maria.
Made in Calcutta, dating from around 1800, and sold at $94,995 in a Bonhams sale of June 11 focussed on Indian and Islamic art was a watercolour of a famous fakir, Jurah Geer Berah Geer, whose well-known, documented, and oft-repeated but bizarre public rite—and/or performance, as the cataloguer observed—was to eat an entire live sheep.
A watercolour depiction of the fakir Jurah Geer Berah Geer’s bizarre public rite of eating an entire and initially live sheep, sold for $94,995 at Bonhams.
He seems to have carried out this extraordinary ritual for very many years, and there are plenty of references to it by English residents in India around that time. Among them is one by a Major-General Hardwicke, who watched it in March 1796 and a great many years later, in 1832, gave a lecture on the subject to the Royal Asiatic Society that was later still published and illustrated with a lithograph after “original sketches made on the spot by a native artist.”
Others saw the ritual at Lucknow, and Indian artists produced various versions of the performance for British consumption. One such, again dated to circa 1800 and depicted in the same seven stages as that seen here, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections in London.
Sold at $66,520 was an ink and watercolour of the hook-swinging ritual known in Bengal as charak puja—one that was endured to honour a female deity, Mari-amma. A devotee would be beaten on the back by a priest until his flesh was numbed, at which point metal hooks would be attached to his body and he would be raised on the gibbet and swung around, trying not to show any pain and even to shout and laugh, sometimes scattering flowers on those watching below.
The ink and watercolour depiction of a Bengali hook-swinging ritual that honoured a female deity, Mari-amma, sold at $66,520.
Lady Nugent found the ritual shocking and wrote in her journal, “Easter Sunday. Awoke at daylight, by all sorts of noises, this being the commencement of one of the great Hindoo holidays, called the Churruk-Poojah. To church early.... I could not help thinking these Pagan noises were a real profanation of the day, but it can’t be helped.”
On the following day she wrote at much greater length. “First, as in all holiday meetings, there were groups of dancing people...parties of men, with very little clothing on, squatting on the ground... Groups of opium eaters, sitting in a circle, and looking like drunken skeletons.... But the most shocking sight is the swinging.... It seems these swinging people, like many others who do penance, are hired by the priests, who make vows, and have the option of performing by proxy.
“As I turned, with horror and disgust, from the wretch who was swinging, to Sir E. East’s...great amusement, a man thrust his head in my face, with his tongue out, and a great iron rod passed through it. I started back, and he made signs for a rupee, which was given him.”
Used on the cover of a 2014 Oxford University Press edition of Lady Nugent’s East India Journal, an 1812 watercolour, sold at $79,180, depicts Lady Nugent being carried along in a palanquin and attended by 24 bearers and attendants.
Sold for $79,180 was this panoramic depiction of Lady Nugent being carried along in a palanquin and attended by 24 bearers and attendants.
In her journal she remarks, “I could not help thinking I looked like a successful candidate at an election,” but she offered more detail in a letter to a friend. “You would have laughed if you could have seen me going out yesterday. I have a little carriage called a Tonjon. It is a sort of Curricle Body fixed upon Poles and carried upon men’s Shoulders and I had no less than 23 men attending me—8 to carry the Tonjon, a Surdar Bearer and his mate to direct them, four men carrying silver sticks before me and calling out my Titles and condescension in treating the World with my appearance.... Then a man carrying a Chatta, a large umbrella with Fringe and silver ornaments. Another man with a sabre in his sash called a Jemendar and 7 Hircarhas or Messengers. The use of these last I can’t understand.”
Express Return of the Orientalists
Offered at Sotheby’s on June 11 was a further selection of Orientalist paintings from the Najd Collection, the first part of which was offered last October in a $43 million sale that was reported in January’s issue of M.A.D.
Inscribed and dated 1890 and painted on German artist Gustav Bauernfeind’s return to Munich after his third and final stay in Palestine, where he had been resident during the years 1884-87, a busy canvas, Procession in Jaffa, depicts a group of dervishes and Sufis leading a religious procession, perhaps pilgrims embarking on the annual Hajj to Mecca.*
With flags flying, the crowd advances through a busy, narrow street on market day, and in the far distance, on the right, the Mediterranean gleams in the evening light.
Gustav Bauernfeind’s Procession in Jaffa, sold at $2,145,170.
In addition to using a sketchbook, Bauernfeind, when looking for suitable subjects, made secret use of a Detektiv, a miniature camera that he hid in his waistcoat, with the lens peeping out through a buttonhole.
Bauernfeind (1848-1904) often interrupted his painting tours because of financial issues and challenging living and working conditions, along with frequent bouts of illness, and large-scale works such as this by him are few.
As a trained architect he took particular delight and interest in the streets, mosques, and other buildings he saw in Palestine, and in this view, said the cataloguer, architectural accretions of 700 years of settlement, from 12th-century Christian gates and fortifications to Mamluk and Ottoman additions, can be seen. Here, typical Ottoman houses with overhanging mashrabiya windows abut arches and fortifications built by the Crusaders. In the distance, overlooking the harbour, is the minaret of the al-Bahr Mosque, or Sea Mosque, the oldest in Jaffa.
Procession in Jaffa was last seen at auction in 1977, at Christie’s. This time it topped the low estimate to sell at $2,145,170.
A mid-estimate $778,335 secured The Scholar by the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935). An oil on panel painted in Paris in 1901, and last seen at auction at Phillips in London in 1985, it may have been inspired by Deutsch’s encounters with scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar madrasa—today’s Al-Azhar University.
It depicts a scholar reflecting on the passage he has just read in his Qur’an and marking his place in the text with his forefinger. It is a work that the saleroom identified as a splendid example of the detail and technical precision that distinguishes Deutsch’s work.
The Scholar by Ludwig Deutsch, sold at $778,335.
The polished surfaces and hallucinatory realism of his paintings, said the cataloguer, were founded on a vast collection of photographs he amassed in Cairo, along with hundreds of props, also acquired while abroad, that filled his Paris studio and feature in many of his paintings.
* If Procession in Jaffa looks vaguely familiar, it is because in the January 2020 “Letter” I illustrated Market in Jaffa, a very similar looking work by Bauernfeind—also part of that magnificent Najd Collection of Orientalist paintings formed by Saudi billionaire Nasser al-Rashid—which sold at Sotheby’s for $4.82 million.
One Big Beast and Lots of Little Gogottes
Triceratops was the big beast in a Christie’s sale of May 4-21 called “Sculpted by Nature: Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites.” This dinosaur of the late Cretaceous period (68 to 65 million years ago) was a contemporary of Tyrannosaurus rex, and along with that creature of nightmares suffered what appears to have been a very sudden extinction—though in recent times Triceratops seems to have been making something of a comeback, at auction at least.
Well over 6' long and with 38" long horns at its brows, this skull of a Triceratops, sold at $213,800, was said by the cataloguer to be emblematic of the creature’s strong defensive and counter-attacking threat, and among the most recognizable skulls of any animal, alive or extinct.
Despite that fearsome appearance and the creature’s size, as much as 30' feet long and weighing in at anything up to 12 tonnes, the Triceratops prorsus was a herbivore, and one that roamed in a region that is now east of the Rockies, the actual site of the find being the Hell Creek formation in Montana.
This fearsome-looking skull is that of Triceratops prorsus, a fearsome-looking dinosaur that was prepared and equipped to defend itself but was otherwise happy to graze alone. It brought $213,800.
The diet of Triceratops, as evidenced by its toothless beak, primarily comprised palm fronds, and those fearsome horns were intended to help it protect itself from predators such as Tyrannosaurus rex.
A single strike from a brow horn could potentially gore an attacker in the neck or heart, perhaps fatally, and the bony frill gave an additional layer of protection—though there is also speculation that it may have originally have been brightly coloured and could have served either as ornamentation for a mating ritual, or even to help regulate its body temperature.
And now for something completely different. Not for the first time, auction appearances of those curious mineral formations known as gogottes prompted much higher than predicted bids.
Thirty million years in the making and the result of calcium carbonate binding with extremely fine quartz grains in the mineral-rich waters of the Fontainebleau region of northern France, the three pieces illustrated here are very different but fine exemplars of natural sculptures that had their origins in the Oligocene era.
As early as the late 17th century, said Sotheby’s, gogottes were “lauded for their aesthetic by the highest echelons of French nobility.” Louis XIV even ordered extensive excavations around Fontainebleau to unearth specimens that could decorate his palace gardens, and a few gogottes are still to be seen at Versailles.
Declaring them “dynamic snapshots of elemental metamorphosis,” the auction house also noted their influence on Impressionist and Surrealist sculptors such as Henry Moore and Jean Arp.
Thirteen Fontainebleau gogottes were offered, and all were sold but sometimes at sums very different from those suggested by the estimates. Valued at a little more than $1000 and roughly 9" across, one very simple-looking example (A) that served as the sale’s opening lot was bid instead to $45,815.
A. Gogotte, mineral formation, Fontainebleau, France, 9" wide, $45,815.
Two others reached that same level—a rather complex-looking example (B) that stands a little over 14½" high and a curious, 11" tall example that looks to me like a creature in a strange headdress (C). Neither had been valued at more than just a few thousand dollars.
B. Gogotte, 14½" high, $45,815.
C. Gogotte, 11" high, $45,815.
Iconic, Dramatic, and Deceptive Russian Works of Art
Recent times have seen some lots making a relatively rapid return to auction. Not all have fared well, but in an online Sotheby’s sale of Russian pictures that ended on June 2 the price on Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Bay of Naples was almost double the high estimate and a reflection of continuing demand for the work of one particular Russian artist.
It was in 2008 that its consignor acquired the picture in a Swiss auction held by Galerie Koller of Zurich, paying close on a million Swiss francs—pretty much the same in dollar terms today—but on this occasion this great oil on canvas work of 1878, a picture that is almost 7' wide, sold at close on three times that sum for $2,875,970.
By 1878 when Aivazovsky painted The Bay of Naples, said Sotheby’s, “he had not just found fame both in Russia and abroad, he had come to define the genre of seascape painting and redefine its place in Russian art.”
“Instantly recognizable...it combines many of the elements for which he is best known,” said the cataloguer, including “the diffuse sunlight filling a hazy sky which here occupies two thirds of the canvas, and the reflection of light on the calm, only slightly rippling water.”
Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Bay of Naples sold for $2,875,970 as part of an online Russian pictures sale held by Sotheby’s that finished on June 2.
“The sea in all its states...and the play of light on water are the central motifs in Aivazovsky’s oeuvre. He was equally brilliant at depicting stormy seas in dramatic moonlight, often juxtaposing mankind with nature in true Romantic fashion, as at rendering the effects of sunlight on calm water.”
A very different Russian art form was to be found in another online Sotheby’s sale that ended on June 17. In a wide-ranging sale of Russian works of art, a 20th-century icon of Christ Pantokrator, sent for sale from an American collection, made around five times the suggested sum at $470,680.
This was, however, a Fabergé icon, one of gem-set silver and enamel work, its oklad or ornamental cover repoussé decorated in Art Nouveau style and enamelled in opaque olive-green and steel-blue, and the foliate motifs of the frame set with various cabochon gems, including amethyst, moonstone, topaz, and peridot.
This well-travelled Fabergé icon sold for $470,680 as part of a recent Russian works of art sale at Sotheby’s that ended June 17.
In Fabergé’s stock, priced at 500 roubles, it had at one time been considered by Tsar Nicholas II as a gift for the King and Queen of Montenegro, intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the king’s rule and their golden wedding anniversary in August 1910.
Perhaps because two such costly icons were required, it was not in the event purchased and remained in Fabergé’s showrooms until acquired as gift, as detailed in the inscription that it bears: “To our brother Nikon Alexandrovitch Molchanov / and his wife Maria Alexandrovna as a memento from / sisters and brothers / 28 April 1916.”
A key figure in the Russian tea and sugar trade for 50 years, Alexander Molchanov moved to Harbin in China following the 1917 revolution in Russia, and some years before his death in 1945, he bequeathed the icon to his daughter, Lydia. In later years Lydia moved to Canada before finally settling in the United States, and the icon has remained in the family until now.
I picked just one other lot from this 250-lot sale as a curious contrast. Sold at $21,965 was what looks at first glance like a box of cigars, complete with paper labels and tax stamps. It is in fact a silver and champlevé enamel box, around 4½" wide, and was fashioned in St. Petersburg around 1870.
A trompe l’oeil cigar box of circa 1870 that made $21,965 at Sotheby’s in a Russian works of art sale ending on June 17.
Not Every Pyxis Tells the Real Story
The octagonal box illustrated here is only around 5" high, but it was a star turn in a Sotheby’s sale, “Arts of the Islamic World and India,” that ended on June 10, and it made a very big price indeed, $661,885.
It belongs to a miscellaneous group of wooden boxes, caskets with truncated pyramidal lids, games boards, and even cupboard doors that have traditionally been thought to have their origins in the 14th or 15th century in the Moorish-ruled part of Spain that we refer to these days as Andalusia.
The rare Almohad or Nasrid pyxis, or box, of 12th- or 13th-century Andalusian origin, that sold for $661,885 at Sotheby’s.
They are connected by their use of a technique known in Spanish as taracea, a term derived from the Arabic that in this context is principally an overlay rather than inlay technique using diminutive tesserae to create a “geometrical incrustation.”
These tesserae were made of different coloured woods, as well as bone or ivory that might be left its natural colour or stained, usually green and more rarely blue, as in the case of the present box.
None of the few recorded examples of such work are dated, but there are cogent reasons, said the cataloguer, to date this and five other such octagonal boxes to the late 12th or early 13th century.
This is based on form, decoration, and technique by comparison with Moroccan works that range in date from the mid-12th to the mid-14th centuries, and, most compellingly in this instance, through scientific dating of the wooden matrix of the box.
The hardwood (possibly walnut) octagonal body and lid of this box are overlaid with natural and blue-stained bone, and the main fields of the body decorated with openwork ivory plaques with a cross-and-star design and triangular-patterned borders, along with micromosaic borders of chequered lozenges and “dentated merlons.” The top incorporates copper fittings, and the base features an eight-pointed star.
Top and base views of the box.
Something unusual and much, much cheaper that caught my eye in the Sotheby’s catalogue is also pictured. Sold at $4780, rather less than had been suggested, this curious lot proved to be an Ottoman archer’s arrow rest, of Turkish origin and dated to the 16th century.
The oblong bowed plate is made of snakeskin, backed with leather and with a silvered border, while the arrow rest itself is of walrus ivory, attached by a wooden bracket with painted gold decoration of floral scrolls.
A 16th-century Ottoman archer’s arrow rest, sold at $4780.
Return of the Bitch Pack
Last seen in their New York rooms in February 2010*, an 1896 canine group portrait by John Emms, The Bitch Pack of the Meath Foxhounds, came back to auction in the London rooms of Bonhams on June 3—albeit behind closed doors whilst the coronavirus lockdown rules remained in force. It sold this time out at $283,180.
The Bitch Pack of the Meath Foxhounds by John Emms (1844-1912) sold for a cut price of $283,180 on its return to auction at Bonhams in London on June 3.
Departmental catalogue notes reminded us that Emms was at his very best when painting dogs and used to walk to the kennels every day, returning to his studio with one hound after another as he made preliminary sketches in working up his overall composition.
As a young man Emms had worked as a studio assistant to Frederic, Lord Leighton, but it was his skill in portraying animals, particularly dogs, along with his own active engagement in hunting, that led to many important commissions in this line. In 1880 Emms married Fanny Primmer, daughter of a Lyndhurst, Hampshire, gentleman, and soon thereafter built his own large house and studio in that county.
Emms cut a flamboyant figure, it is said, always dressed in a long black cloak and matching wide-brimmed hat, and along with his growing family he led a somewhat bohemian life. When times were good, and after selling a painting, said the catalogue notes, he would take Fanny, their three daughters, and son up to London to stay in the best hotels and live life to the full.
During the early 1900s, however, Emms suffered a stroke that left him unable to work. He subsequently took to drinking heavily, and with the family’s finances by then in decline, he died in 1912.
There is a pack of foxhounds recorded in the County Meath area of Ireland (just north of Dublin) as early as 1723, but the Meath Hunt itself came into being in 1817. At the time this canine group portrait was put on canvas the hounds were in the overall care of John Watson, a long-serving and distinguished Master of Foxhounds.
*In that 2010 Bonhams New York sale, the painting had sold for a more substantial $482,000, but the record for an Emms painting was set in 2006, when in those same New York rooms his 1898 portrait New Forest Foxhounds—also illustrated here for close canine comparison—sold at a huge $843,250.
John Emms’s painting New Forest Foxhounds sold at $843,250 by Bonhams in New York City in 2006.
That Must Have Cost an Arm and a Leg!
Quite where and when that familiar saying had its origins is open to debate, but in modified form—an arm and a foot—it should serve well enough for this opening report.
The arm in question was a Roman bronze piece that formed part of an online sale at Sotheby’s that ran May 20-27, and in which a well-known London dealer, Daniel Katz, put up for auction some 140 lots of pictures and sculpture from his stock.
Some other dealers have gone down this path in recent times, and in a story filed by Alex Capon for the U.K. weekly Antiques Trade Gazette, Katz explained the reasoning behind for his own “Refining Taste” auction. “As I near my 72nd birthday I want to slow down my business and work differently, turning my focus to my interests in philanthropy, academia, music, dance, and neurology. This is an opportunity for others to start collecting. An opportunity for people who are spending more time in their homes right now to explore and buy something reasonably priced and beautiful, and...to enjoy them as much as I have.”
Ten of those Katz lots, said the Antiques Trade Gazette, helped raise funds for two national charities, but this near-life-size arm, the very first lot to be offered, emerged as the principal target for the remote bidders and trebled the high estimate in topping this $2.78 million sale at $214,370.
Dated to the 1st century A.D., the arm with a clasped hand on which the fingernails are finely delineated may once have held some form of tribute, said the catalogue notes. It appears that the arm was cast separately from the rest of the figure and at some later time broke off directly below the shoulder into which it had once been socketed and soldered into place.
Was this the arm of a young man or that of a goddess? This Roman bronze lot sold for $214,370 as part of U.K. dealer Daniel Katz’s sale at Sotheby’s.
The complete figure, it was said, could have been a youth holding a lamp or tray—but there was an alternative suggestion or theory. Could that arm have once been clasping a bow, and might it have belonged to a figure of the goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus and sister to Apollo?
Said to date from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., the virtually life-size bronze foot in a solea, or sandal with elaborate strapping, may be all that now remains of another Roman statue. Part of a recent auction held by antiquities and coins specialists TimeLine of Harwich, Essex, it presents footwear, the saleroom suggested, that may have been worn by an actor or a young slave.
More precisely, it was said to be a possible variant of the Greek trochades or sandal. Such footwear, they explained, would have been removed when the wearer reclined in what was then the fashionable manner at a feast—and it seems that to ask the host for the return of your sandals was a polite way of announcing one’s intention of leaving such repasts.
Roman and dating from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., the virtually life-size bronze foot in a solea, or sandal with elaborate strapping, sold for $118,775 at TimeLine Auctions.
I should also add here a note about this saleroom’s very impressive online catalogue presentation of their lots for this June 2-7 auction. I was able to see a revolving, three-dimensional image of the lot and even had the option to watch and listen to a few observations on the lot made by Tim Wonnacott, a well-known auctioneer, antiques expert, and star of many well-known “antiques” TV shows.
He referred to it as a “wacky object to have on a side table,” but if that notion appealed to the purchaser, they would have had to hand over a substantial $118,775 to seize the opportunity and the sandal.
Luminous Jenny, a Naked Postwoman, Ponies, and a Shrimp
Described by the saleroom as a tour de force of Luminism, the Belgian post-Impressionist movement of which artist Jenny Montigny (1875-1937) became a founding member, Montigny’s Fille au jardin was also reckoned by Sotheby’s to be the finest work by the artist ever seen at auction.
Sold far over its estimate at $249,570 as part of a sale of European pictures that ended on June 18, this was an oil painting of 1902 that, like the other five examples of her work on offer, had a family provenance and was last seen in public in a 1988 exhibition devoted to Montigny and two other female artists of her generation.
The painting’s luminous, idyllic quality, said the saleroom, is achieved by a highly energetic pattern of linear brushstrokes, juxtaposed to give a shimmering effect.
Jenny Montigny’s Fille au jardin, sold for $249,570.
Montigny was born in 1875 in Ghent, where her father was a professor of law at the university. Montigny’s interest in art was kindled when, in the city’s fine arts museum, she saw The Ice-Skaters by Emile Claus. Lacking any support from her parents, who wholly disapproved of her artistic interests, and as a result, living alone, Montigny nevertheless arranged to take lessons with Claus, and they remained lifelong friends.
During World War I Montigny moved to London, exhibiting with the Women’s International Art Club at Grafton Galleries, but while the Ghent museum did in 1913 acquire one of her works, The Gardener, it would seem that her talents have not until recently been widely recognised.
This painting was very much the star entry, but also pictured here is a self-portrait in pencil and charcoal that, estimated at around $1900, sold instead for $31,200.
The self-portrait by Montigny that realised $31,200.
Another work in the auction that came from a Belgian collection, though this time the work of a Polish artist, Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929), is of similar vintage to the Montigny lot, being signed and dated 1908—but there any similarities end.
When I first glanced at it online, it appeared to be a closeup portrait of a well-dressed, balding but impressively mustachioed man. But then I saw that in the background there stands a naked postwoman, handing a package to a stooping fellow in a long cape!
The Postwoman by Jacek Malczewski, bid to $132,585.
According to the saleroom, the man appears to be the artist himself, and the woman bears a resemblance to Malczewski’s muse and lover, Maria Balowa. The background is also said to be reminiscent of the family residence in Wielgie, Poland, where the artist spent his childhood.
Regarded as one of Poland’s finest artists, said Sotheby’s, Jacek Malczewski combined symbolism, mysticism, and nationalism into a body of highly original works, some of which explore the theme of death in an allegorical manner and portray death as a young half-naked woman with a scythe in her hands.
“In his works, she appears to tired travellers, liberating them from the burden of life. What therefore at first may seem a humours scene, is in fact an intricate blend of symbolist imagery which showcases Malczewski’s world of unique imagination.”
The picture more than doubled the high estimate to sell at $132,585.
The other two works from the Sotheby’s sale that feature here are less mysterious, being equine studies by a master of the genre, Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959).
Nearly doubling the high estimate to sell at $296,365, Springtime, Apple Blossom with a Mare and Foal is a rather shady, even dark oil of 1906 in which two horses are surrounded by wildflowers and blossom. Among the catalogue notes it was mentioned that this painting, when last seen at auction—at Christie’s in 1999—was offered as the property of Lester Piggott, a man widely regarded as one of the greatest flat race jockeys of all time.
Springtime, Apple Blossom with a Mare and Foal by Sir Alfred Munnings, sold for $296,365.
The other Munnings work pictured here, Gravel Pit in Suffolk, was purchased directly from the artist and had remained in the same family hands ever since. It is closely related in composition to a large canvas of the same name that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1912 and today hangs in the Castle Museum in Norwich.
Munnings’s Gravel Pit in Suffolk, sold at $249,570.
The setting is a series of sand and gravel pits near Spring Farm in Hoxne on the Norfolk and Suffolk border, and the white pony is Auguereau, Munnings’s favourite horse and one that appears in many paintings of this period.
The boy is Munnings’s groom, “Shrimp,” whom he described as a young man who “slept under the caravan with the dogs, and had no family of his own, no family ties, no parents that he knew,” and who “...would one day become for me an indispensible model, an inspiring rogue, and an annoying villain... [but] the best model I ever had.”
It sold for more than double the estimate at $249,570.
Drinking Cognac, Rum, and Single Malts—a Headline to be Sung Rhythmically, Glass in Hand
A “Distilled” auction that ran May 14-28 under the guidance and supervision of Sotheby’s was their largest online sale of spirits to date, raising $1.83 million in all and including a cognac billed as the oldest bottle of that spirit ever sold at auction.
A Gautier cognac dating from 1762, it was said to be one of only three remaining bottles of this exceedingly rare spirit. It was bottled in the 1840s, and, as the illustration shows, retained its original if now rather soiled and very worn label, while beneath the wax seal its “driven cork” was said to be showing signs of age. It sold at a mid-estimate $145,710.
The “Big Brother” Gautier cognac of 1762 that sold for $145,710 at Sotheby’s.
A report issued after the sale said that this bottle, secured by an Asian collector, was known as “Grand Frère,” or big brother of the trio. Its little sister is to be found Maison Gautier’s own museum, while its little brother was sold at auction in New York in 2014.
Sotheby’s also noted that the three bottles had for many years stayed in the same family hands. They were acquired by an orphan whom that family had fostered and who apparently left his adopted family in the 1870s to work in the Cognac region. When he returned home a decade later the bottle was on a cart loaded with bottles of that well-known spirit—amongst them the three prize Maison Gautier cognacs, their labels at that time still in pristine condition.
Jonny Fowle, spirits specialist at Sotheby’s, told The Times newspaper, “This should still be drinkable...,” though he expected there to be “discernible OBE, or old bottle effect...which is how we describe the development of spirits over time.... Sometimes this can impart very pleasant tropical notes, and at other times less appealing porridgy notes.”
Another of the more highly valued spirit lots was a sherry cask containing what could amount to around 300 regular 70cl bottles of Dictador Colombian 40-year-old rum. Distilled in 1980 and matured for 20 years in an American oak ex-Bourbon barrel before being given a second 20-year maturation in a sherry cask, it was offered as a charity lot, with the proceeds going to benefit the Dictador Art Masters Foundation.
The cask, said Sotheby’s, was lying at Cartagena in Colombia, but the distillery would provide free shipment to a bonded warehouse in Rotterdam and even offered to produce bottle labels to the customer’s specifications, again free of charge. The great cask itself was barred from export.
In the event, an estimate of some $110,000/150,000 proved far too bullish. All that rum sold for around $48,000—say $160 a bottle—and I wondered whether I should include this lot in my report, but as I have said several times in the past when featuring wine sales, how could I resist those tasting notes?
Even when they start with the following unpromising brief note.
“Colour: Engine Oil
“Nose: This is a big spirit! The 62.7% ABV takes no prisoners and bursts out of the glass bringing with it a lot of flavour. This is a glass that is not difficult to talk about.
“First and foremost, it’s dry fruit: Toffee, Daim bars and salted caramel dark chocolate journey into Liquorice Allsorts. It is also discernibly smoky, heavily charred casks giving notes of burnt ends, a glazed ham with fennel seeds and the smell of a leather jacket the day after a barbecue. With time in the glass it mellows nicely, developing notes of dark roasted cold-brew....”
Whisky was, as one might expect, the dominant spirit in the sale, and one or two of the most-sought-after bottles are briefly noted and/or illustrated here.
Sold at $104,080 was a Macallan described on the label as a 50-year-old anniversary malt, but as it was distilled in 1928 and bottled in 1983, said Sotheby’s, it is in fact of slightly greater age.
A 50-year-old Macallan that is actually a few years older still sold at $104,080.
The most expensive bottles, however, were two 62-year-olds from the Dalmore distillery. One of the oldest whiskies to have been released from the distillery, with only a dozen bottles made available, they sold for over the estimate at a record $327,100 apiece and were secured by two different Asian collectors.
“The Cromarty,” one of the two rare bottles of Dalmore that each sold for a record-breaking $327,100.
These were bottle #2, known as “The Mackenzie” to honour the family who were long-term owners of the distillery, and bottle #5, named “The Cromarty” from the stretch of water that the distillery overlooks.
Sotheby’s also drew attention to the success of a sizeable selection of whiskies entered for sale by the well-known Italian-based retail business founded towards the end of the 1960s by Silvano Samaroli (1939-2017).
That consignment was led at $52,040 apiece by two rarely seen bottles of Bowmore Bouquet of 1966.
Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest