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Before her death in 2007, Brooke Astor was a fixture in New York City’s elite inner circle. A tireless philanthropist and champion of the arts, Astor left behind a legacy marked by kindness, generosity, and good taste.

Sotheby’s has announced an auction of the contents of two of Astor’s estates – her legendary Park Avenue duplex and her country estate, Holly Hill, in Briarcliff Manor, NY. A total of 901 items including European and Asian furnishings, Old Master paintings, Qing Dynasty paintings, tea sets, silverware, jewelry, a porcelain menagerie, and over 100 dog paintings will head to the auction block September 24–25. Per Astor’s request, proceeds from the sale will go to the institutions and causes she held dear including the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, the Animal Medical Center of New York, New York City’s public school system, and a number of charities in Maine. Sotheby’s expects the sale to bring in between $6 and $9 million for the entire collection.

An icon of New York society and refinement, Astor spent her final years suffering from dementia. After her death at 105, her estate remained in limbo due a family dispute that lasted five years. The feud ended in March of 2012 and $100 million of Astor’s estate was freed for her charities. The amount going to Anthony Marshall, her only son, was cut by more than half as he was convicted of taking advantage of his mother’s deteriorating mental state and altering her will to his advantage.

Among the most coveted of Astor’s pieces that will be headed to Sotheby’s are an Imperial Chinese gilt-bronze lion clock slated to bring in around $180,000–$220,000 and an emerald and diamond necklace with earrings estimated at $280,000– $390,000 for both.

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Ever wondered what Luc Tuymans thinks of the Louvre? At Frieze Masters, you’ll find out. The highly-anticipated Frieze London spinoff's talks program is power-packed. Artist Cecily Brown will talk with National Gallery of Art director Nicholas Penny about how she uses traditional imagery and subject matter in her art, while Glenn Brown will discuss his appropriation of historical artwork with Kunsthaus Zurich curator Bice Curiger. Tuymans will offer insight into his decision-making process when painting iconic historical moments in a conversation with Louvre Museum senior curator Dominique de Font-Réaulx.

These events get at the heart of the inaugural Frieze Masters, which plans to mix Old Master treasures with modern masterpieces in an effort to lure collectors out of their comfort zones.

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Art buyers rarely yearned for Old Masters as intensely as they appeared to do this week. Sadly, auction houses never had so few desirable pictures to offer them.

The bidders’ eagerness was reflected in surprising world records set for works that would hardly have caused such a sensation only a decade ago.

At Christie’s Tuesday sale, the two highest prices were realized by 18th century English school pictures that appealed to a limited constituency until fairly recently.

True, the huge £22.44 million, or $35.79 million, paid for “Gimcrack on New Market Heath,” painted by Stubbs and portraying a famous racehorse that had belonged to Lord Bolingbroke, was an artificial price achieved through a now all too common procedure publicly spelled out.

Before opening the session, Christie’s auctioneer, James Bruce-Gardyne, informed the room that “a third party” was financing a guarantee given to the vendor. This did not just ensure the consignor that he would be paid a minimum amount whether the picture sold or failed to do so. It also meant that the financial burden of failure risk was transferred from Christie’s to the “third party,” who would become the owner of the Stubbs at the “guaranteed” level if it remained unwanted. The said party was contractually entitled to participate in the bidding in order to raise prices to whatever level it wished, thus skewing the spontaneous character that auction bidding is supposed to have.

The financed guarantee procedure is in itself a sign of the desperate efforts that auction houses make to secure top-level works of art for sale as supplies keep vanishing. It tends to be used when pictures are billed with some exaggeration as masterpieces of stellar importance.

While Christie’s team sang the Stubbs to high heaven, blatant weaknesses might have limited its appeal. The trainer who clutches the horse’s bridle and the stable lad are as stiff as Madame Tussaud’s waxen figures and the outhouse in the distance is painted with curiously amateurish clumsiness.

As far as I could tell, only one bid came in, allowing the Stubbs to sell at the low estimate. Had the history of the horse not been recorded in minute detail, the bland picture could never have fetched its phenomenal price.

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Record prices for George Stubbs and Thomas Gainsborough last night boosted an $80 million test of the auction market for Old Masters.

The Stubbs fetched 22.4 million pounds ($36 million) and the Gainsborough 6.5 million pounds, helping Christie’s International to its second-highest total for a mixed-owner auction of historic paintings in London.

Older pictures have traditionally been the auction houses’ highest-grossing category. Modern and contemporary works are now more lucrative: On June 28, Christie’s auction of postwar and living artists’ works made 78.8 million pounds, a record for the company in the U.K. capital.

“I’m surprised that yesterday’s taste is still selling at auction,” the London dealer Edmondo di Robilant said. “Though they might not be performing as well as they were 10 or 20 years ago, they’re still finding buyers, usually at prices that are too high for the trade.”

Stubbs’s 1765 canvas “Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, With a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey” was bought by a single bid in the room from the New York gallerist Piers Davies Fine Art. Its sale had been ensured by a third party guarantor identified by dealers as the Irish race horse owner John Magnier.

Stubbs’s 6-foot (1.8-meter) canvas, showing a horse that won 27 of the 36 races he entered, was being sold by the Northamptonshire-based Woolavington Collection with an estimate of 20 million pounds to 30 million pounds.

Lord Cowdray, a member of the family that founded media group Pearson Plc (PSON), was another U.K. seller, entering five lots including the 7-foot-high Gainsborough canvas, “Portrait of Mrs. William Villebois.”


Dating from the 1770s, the full-length portrait of the granddaughter of the brewer Benjamin Truman was bought in the room by Harry Smith, managing director of the London-based art adviser Gurr Johns, beating a high estimate of 6 million pounds.

A full-length 1611 Marcus Gheeraerts II portrait of the Countess of Hertford was sold by Cowdray for 1.7 million pounds, again slightly more than the high estimate, to a phone bidder.

“It was a fantastic British picture sale, not a very good Old Master auction,” said London-based dealer Charles Beddington, who specializes in Italian view paintings.

The outstanding Italian lot was Michelangelo’s 1504 double- sided sheet of black-chalk studies of male nudes associated with his lost fresco of “The Battle of Cascina,” valued at 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds. It attracted a single phone bid of 3.2 million pounds, a result that reflected the drawing’s condition, said dealers.

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