What Happened When a Long-Lost Michelina Wautier Painting Failed to Sell at Christie’s

Michelina Wautier, “Portrait Historié” (c. 1650) (via Christies.com)

In many ways, 2018 has been a pivotal year for the little-known Baroque female painter Michaelina Wautier. In 2017, a campaign launched by the Rubenshuis searching for five lost works helped raise awareness of an artist who, due to historical and societal male-bias, has long remained obscure, with many works misattributed variously to her sibling Charles or Jacob van Oost.

The discovery of the gorgeous genre-work “Everyone His Fancy,” which sold for well over its estimate at Van Ham auction house, bolstered the profile of the first-ever retrospective dedicated to Wautier. Entitled “Michaelina Wautier: Baroque’s Leading Lady,” it was held at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp as part of its “Rubens Inspires” festival. Her work is also to appear next year in a Sotheby’s auction dedicated entirely to female artists from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Michaelina Wautier, “Portrait of Two Girls as the Saints Agnes and Dorothy” (ca. 1650) (Collection of Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

With awareness of this underrated talent at surely its highest point, it makes sense that another new discovery, “Portrait Historié,” was entered into Christie’s prestigious Old Master evening sale on December 6, two lots away from a significant Van Dyck portrait and with a low asking price of 80,000 British Pounds (~ $101,216). Surely this indicates that Wautier’s art historical importance and skill are recognized in the same realm as the big hitters Van Dyck and Breughel. Except that, surprisingly, no press or fanfare accompanied the listing.

Where major lots are afforded lengthy essays, condition reports, and promotional videos, why was there no additional fanfare for an artist who has generated such giddy excitement this year? Having reviewed the Wautier retrospective at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), one of the points I raised was just how consistently confident and finished every piece was, across all genres and even studies. Even after an immediate glance, this group portrait immediately feels a little less finished. The colors not as opaque, as much of the brown ground remains visible, the brushwork is more open, and generally the composition is a little crowded. Is the quality considered somewhat less than the existing oeuvre? Why, then, include it in the high-profile evening, rather than day sale?

I posed these questions to Dr. Katlijne Van der Stighelen, a leading scholar on Wautier based at the University of Leuven, who was called on by Christie’s to examine the work in person. She agreed that the Antwerp exhibition has contributed to an increased awareness of Wautier, such that this piece’s inclusion in the sale alongside Van Dyck may not have happened without it. Regarding my query as to painterly quality, she countered that the painting’s importance lies in it being a “necessary step in the evolution of her work”:

In my view, some of the ‘weaknesses’ should be related to the fact that this must have been one of her earliest huge and ambitious paintings. The characteristic faces of the two men in the back as well as the background itself look only partly finished while the heads of the parents offer the impression that they may have been overpainted or retouched by herself (did she struggle with their physiognomy?). On the contrary, the girls are beautifully and sensibly portrayed, and the rendering of the fountain at the right foreground is amazing and proves the capacity of the artist for the display of all kind of objects (such as the pitchers too).

And of the composition:

I fully agree that not all the figures convince in the same way and that the composition is too much propped into the frame, but all the elements of her mature style and invention are already there. The unique iconography illustrates — once again — her personal interpretation of traditional themes.

On December 6, however, the lot failed to sell. What happened next says much about auction houses’ methods of protecting both themselves and artworks which remain unsold. I revisited the Christie’s website to consult the lot notes, and found all trace of the painting had vanished. Click the same lot note link as before the sale, and it now leads to a generic page. The catalogue for the December 6 sale is also unavailable to buy. The only trace of the painting existing in this sale was on a listings website, Barnaby’s, with a watermarked cropped image and no further notes. Christie’s did not provide a copy of the lot notes upon request.

Public auction — as opposed to private sales, which happen behind closed doors — is supposedly diplomatic due to its transparency; the house must be upfront about fees, low and high estimate, and hammer price plus taxes. It is even obliged to note where a guarantee is in place for a lot, though this is denoted by a diamond shape symbol in the physical catalogue, but not online. A seller pays a lot for the rigmarole of putting something up for auction: the work has to be documented, catalogued, and photographed. The auction itself is the judgement in a very public arena of its market value; i.e., what people are willing to pay for it on the auction day. When something does not meet its low reserve, and therefore doesn’t sell, the market has publicly decided it is not worth that amount. The work becomes what is called “burned”; which makes it unattractive and difficult to then sell again for a period of time. Big-name burns have recently included one of Francis Ba con’s Pope paintings, highly embarrassing for the house.

It is no wonder, then, that a house would want to remove all remaining evidence of unwanted lots. But what is also interesting here is that there appears to have been no guarantee for the work. This is usually when an individual agrees in advance to pay a certain amount for an item; the arrangement acts as a kind of insurance against failing to sell. Contrary to the Van Ham lot, in which the hammer price €486,400, including fees, smashed the estimate of €60,000 — indicating competing bidders — there appears, sadly, far less interest here. In this light, placing the lot in a prominent sale near the Van Dyck smacks instead of piggybacking on some of the buzz around that lot which itself received so much additional advertising material.

It is a slightly depressing note to end on that following such hype about an artist, the interest in this piece should have been so lackluster. One hopes that Wautier will not sink back into obscurity. The Rubenshuis campaign, however, remains open. To throw up the missing works would certainly boost interest once again.