Orazio Gentileschi’s Shower of Gold

Gentileschi

At a time when $20 million–plus prices are commonplace in the sizzling contemporary art market, Old Master paintings have fallen into something of a slump. The private collectors who kept the market bubbling in the 1980s and 1990s have either stopped collecting or moved on to other fields (like contemporary art) and museums like the Metropolitan Museum have likewise shifted focus (to contemporary art). The small core of dedicated old master buyers comb the salesrooms and art-fairs for bargains, while auction houses fiercely compete for the increasingly rare Old Master-pieces that will make the billion-dollar gang of contemporary art collectors take notice.

One such masterpiece is Orazio Gentileschi’s magnificent “Danaë,” to be sold by Sotheby’s New York on January 27 with an estimate of $20,000,000- 30,000,000. It is an erotic mythological masterpiece depicting the seduction of the beautiful Danaë, the daughter of a king who kept her walled up in a tower to hide her from suitors, but visited by the wily and randy Jupiter, King of the Gods, in a golden shower of coins. Reclining on a bed covered in glistening satin sheets, the young woman greets her unexpected but welcome visitor with surprise, while cohort Cupid pulls aside the curtains to aid Jupiter’s aim. Formerly in the private collection of legendary dealer Richard L. Feigen (who transferred the picture to a private trust to the benefit of his children and grandchildren), it had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the last two years.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) may not be a name that most non-old-master-fans have heard of, but to those who love Caravaggio and 17th-century Italian painting, Orazio (who began his career as one of Caravaggio’s most accomplished and innovative disciples) it is held in very high esteem indeed. There are fewer than 70 surviving paintings by the artist, and barely 10 in American collections. The Met has none. Before the “Danaë’s” consignment to Sotheby’s, the picture was offered to the Met at what Feigen describes as “a very fair and reasonable sum”—whatever it was, the museum regretfully declined “I’ve heard from people within and connected to the Met that they are dumbfounded that the museum could let a masterpiece like this go.” Ideally, Feigen would love the Met to buy it, noting that “they have an impressionist’s in storage that duplicate what they have on the walls. If they wanted to, they could sell some of those extraneous pictures to buy something unique they will never have a chance to buy again.”

Feigen knows all about fighting for something he wants. In 1977, “Danaë” was the prize in a battle fought between Feigen and Los Angeles collector Norton Simon. The picture was little known, having been commissioned by the Genoese nobleman Giovanni Antonio Sauli in 1621, descending in the family for there centuries before being acquired by an “anonymous British Collector” sometime in the mid-twentieth century, from whom it went to the London dealer Thomas Grange, who showed it to Feigen in October 1977 for the price of £300,000. “Grange told me that I was the first person he offered it to, and I only found out later he had sent the picture out to Los Angeles for Simon’s inspection.” Simon had, in fact the first option on the painting, which expired at midnight on Saturday, October 29, 1977. Simon sent a telegram from L.A. confirming the purchase from on 5:41 p.m., which arrived past midnight on Sunday, October 30. By that time, Grange had sold the painting to Feigen. Furious and litigious, Simon sued both Grange and Feigen, the former for collusion and the latter for punitive damages. Though Grange died before the suit could be settled, proceedings dragged on until December 1977, when both Feigen and Grange’s widow paid off paid off Simon for £100,000.

Who is the likely buyer for the Danaë?  Sotheby’s is sending the picture to London, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. The only major American museums who could conceivably buy it are the Kimball in Fort Worth (which does not own a Gentileschi) and the Getty (who has a superb “Lot and His Daughters” also commissioned by Sauli, but might like another). The National Gallery, in Washington D.C., doesn’t really need it, having a “St. Cecilia with an Angel” and an exceptionally beautiful “Woman Playing a Lute.” My guess is Sotheby’s will be pitching it to the deep-pocketed contemporary art crowd—in America or more likely China—they are the only people who could supply a godlike cascade of gold…or Yuan.