Bidding wars at Old Masters auctions are not exactly unheard of, but they are not as frequent – nor as explosive – as in the sale of contemporary art. So it came as a pleasant surprise this week when a still life of a bunch of strawberries set fire to a Parisian store.
The work, titled The basket of wild strawberries and painted by 18th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin far exceeded its high estimate of $16.5 million (€15 million) to fetch a remarkable $26.8 million (€24.4 million) on Artcurial on March 23 ) with bonus. (Presale estimates do not include fees.)
The buyer was the New York art dealer Adam Williams art newspaper.
The final price marked a new auction record for the artist, beating the previous $8 million set just a few months ago La Fontaine at Christie’s Paris, according to the Artnet Price Database. Artcurial said the result was a record for any 18th-century French painting auctioned.
So what makes the work so special?
The consensus, said Harry Smith, executive chairman of art consultancy Gurr Johns, is that the work “absolutely amazing,” in part because it is Chardin’s only known strawberry still life.
“This style of still life was the father of all the great still lifes of the second half of the 19th century,” said Smith, citing works by Cézanne and Manet. “All these beautiful works go back to Chardin. He was unique in France in the sense that he did not have to do grand Rococo-style portraits like Boucher and Fragonard. Instead, he’s been quietly doing his own thing, and his work is fantastically simple.”
Smith said the price was quite appropriate.
“For the price of Chardin, You could get a Cézanne halfway, and it’s the best Chardin you can buy,” he said. “It seemed like a lot of money, but I don’t think it will have been expensive over time. I just think it’s a great picture and Adam is a happy man.”
The record for a still life by Cézanne at auction is $60.5 million Rideau, Cruchon and Compote (c. 1893), which was sold in 1999 as part of the John Hay Whitney collection at Sotheby’s New York.
Chardin, son of a carpenter, was born in Paris in 1699 and rarely left the city. He lived on the left bank near Saint-Sulpice until 1757, when Louis XV. granted him a studio in the Louvre.
Accordingly ArtcurialChardin painted about 120 still lifes, often depicting the same objects, notably goblets, teapots, rabbits, plums, melons, and peaches.
Exhibited at the Salon in 1761, the strawberry picture was rediscovered a century later before disappearing from public view until several 20th-century retrospectives in Paris. Over time, Basket of wild strawberries became one of the most famous and emblematic paintings of 18th-century France and was regularly reproduced in catalogs dedicated to the artist.
The work eventually became one of the masterpieces of the Marcille collection, with almost 4,500 paintings, including 40 paintings by Boucher, 30 by Chardin and 25 by Fragonard.
According to the art newspaper, Old Master painting specialist Eric Turquin advised on the sale and wrote the catalog entry. He also said the underbidders were a London gallery bidding for a private American collector, and Eric Coatalem, a Paris dealer whose interest “raised the picture to €15 million”. Turquin said he will receive a percentage of the proceeds from the sale.
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