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Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) might not be a household name, but this Brussels-born artist has just become the talk of the market for Old Masters after his long-lost painting, The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress, sold at Christie’s on Thursday for a record £12.6m (with fees). The price was six times the pre-sale low estimate, and four times the previous auction record for an artist little known outside the Old Master world.

Thought to have been made in around 1646-49 in Rome, where Sweerts lived during his late 20s and early 30s before returning to Brussels, this enigmatic canvas shows the interior of a busy studio with an artist painting a seamstress. The model is being admired by a young studio assistant, seated beside a pile of plaster casts of classical sculptures. In the shadowy background, another artist can just be glimpsed at work through an open doorway.

The composition, perhaps the most ambitious of several made by Sweerts on the theme of the artist’s studio, had been known from various copies. This hitherto-unknown signed original recently emerged from a house in France in spectacularly untouched condition, covered in centuries of grime on its original stretcher. Every detail, including the seamstress’s thread and glinting thimble, was perfectly preserved.

“It has every element you want in a picture. The mood, the figures, the objects, the background. Everything is perfect,” says Bob Haboldt, a specialist Old Master dealer with galleries in Amsterdam, New York and Paris, who was one of at least half-a-dozen bidders for the painting. “An untouched picture like this is very rare on the market,” Haboldt adds. Over the years he has handled several works by Sweerts. “This was a painting that appealed to dealers’ and institutions’ tastes.”

Competition eventually resolved itself into a two-way duel between the New York-based dealer Adam Williams bidding in the room on behalf of a client, and a telephone bidder represented by Christie’s Old Master specialist, Henry Pettifer, who eventually prevailed. Christie’s did not immediately give any indication of the identity or nature of the buyer.

However, one well-placed dealer who claimed inside knowledge, said the successful bidder was the Antwerp-based Phoebus Foundation, formed by the prominent Belgian collectors Karine Karine Van den Heuvel and her husband Fernand Huts, chairman and president of the Katoen Natie international harbour logistics group. The Phoebus Foundation and Katoen Natie did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. A Portrait of a Manby Sweerts, from the 1650s, is already owned by the Phoebus Foundation and is this month’s “Painting in the Spotlight”, according to the foundation’s website.

The presence of the Sweerts masterpiece, and other market-fresh paintings by more renowned names such as Rembrandt and Fra Angelico, helped Christie’s raise £53.9m (with fees) from 38 lots, the house’s highest total for an Old Masters auction in London since 2016, with 26% of the works left unsold.

The auction room was far more crowded, the mood much more positive than at Sotheby’s Old Master sale the previous evening. “It was like night and day. It had a completely different feel,” said Anthony Crichton-Stuart, director of the London art dealership, Agnews. “Given how rare they are, paintings like the Sweerts gee up the whole sale.”

Crucially, the two top lots at Christie’s were discoveries and neither was encumbered with the financial machinery of a pre-sale guarantee, which propped up most of the higher prices at Sotheby’s. “It sucks the life out of an auction room,” says Crichton-Stuart. “You might as well not be there.”

Christie’s other main draw was Rembrandt’s small, but extremely characterful and unrestored oval portraits of his elderly relatives, Jan Willemsz. van der Pluym and Jaapgen Carels, signed and dated 1635, estimated at £5m to £8m. Thought to be the last pair of Rembrandt portraits left in private hands, these had been consigned by the trust of a British family that had acquired them at Christie’s in 1824 for 13 guineas, a low price for Rembrandt at the time.

Almost two centuries later, the Rembrandts, like the Sweerts, attracted multiple bidders, eventually being knocked down for £11.2m. Here the successful buyer was an unknown man in the room, sitting next to Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, who was encouraging the bidding. Presumably at some point the portraits will reappear on the walls of that museum.

Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross, an early work by the Florentine master, from about 1420, had been discovered in the collection of the long-wealthy Marquesses of Northampton back in 1996 by Francis Russell, Christie’s UK deputy chairman. The family had now decided to sell, but with the insurance of a guaranteed minimum price of around £4m. The restored condition of the gold background was deemed by dealers as another factor in the competition being more muted here and just one extra bidder pushed the price up to £5m, albeit a record for the artist.

“For top pieces, this market is more than ever dependent on discoveries,” says Johan Bosch van Rosenthal, an Amsterdam-based art consultant. “The middle market is very selective and has slowed down in the traditional taste works, with some exceptions for specific reasons, such as works by female artists,” he adds.

The rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi painting, Allegory of Sculpture, sold for £1.9m against a low estimate of £300,000. The canny seller had bought this as an unrecognised “sleeper” for around £30,000 at an auction in Denmark in September.

But with the prices of contemporary art spiraling ever higher, maybe there are signs that the market for historic works isn’t just same-old, same-old. Christies says that 35% of the buyers at its various Classic Week sales in London were from Asia. Even more significantly, the auction house says 36% of the new registrants for these sales were millennials.

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