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“So Whose Painting is on the Auction Block?”

For the first time in 50 years, Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Isabella of Bourbon was set to fetch $35 million at Sotheby’s New York, but in early January 2024, it was withdrawn from auction.

“So Whose Painting is on the Auction Block?”
Camille Blanco

Camille Blanco

May 10, 2024
10 Minutes

Artists, you have arrived at the Auction Block! Your ingredients today are a scandal with Sotheby’s recent Old Masters sale and the case of a highly rare consignment. You have 20 minutes to conceptualize and complete your bid. The clock starts now!

Our first (and only) contestant of the evening is Artist Don Diego de Silva Velázquez. His creation, Isabel de Borbón, Queen of Spain, is a lavish Spanish Golden Age painting circa 1631 that depicts a portrait of Isabella of Bourbon, the first wife of Philip IV of Spain. Though she was “notoriously reluctant to sit to artists,” Velázquez, unlike others who typically reproduced a single equestrian painting of her, was able to craft this full-length masterpiece.

Born Elisabeth of France in 1602, Isabel was the eldest daughter of King Henri IV and his second wife, Marie de’ Medici. In 1614, when she was just twelve years old, arrangements were made for her to marry Philip, Prince of Asturias and for her brother to marry Infanta Anne. After she married in 1615, she adopted the name Isabel (the Spanish form of Elisabeth) and reigned as Queen Consort of Spain from 1621 until her death in 1644. 

Velázquez made many portraits of the Queen Consort throughout her life, but this specific painting was “part of the series [he] created for the Spanish royalty.” Though the artist initially painted the portrait in the 1620s, he returned to the work around the early 1630s to make some revisions after he was influenced to study the works of the Italian masters by the legendary Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. According to the auction house, such details “can be spotted by the naked eye” and include “the shift of the outline of the queen’s skirt” among others. In a Sotheby’s press release, George Wachter, the chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America said, “royal portraiture allowed Velázquez to push forward art in new and revolutionary ways and this grand portrayal of Isabel de Borbón is an exceptional example of the artist at the height of his powers, shaping the direction of portraiture for generations to follow.” 

A different portrait of the Queen Consort, completed by Velázquez almost 10 years after this one. Isabella of Bourbon (1602-1644), consort of Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665), oil on canvas, c.1635-38, Museo del Prado (Image: The Royal Collection Trust)

Though Velázquez is well-known for his 1656 court painting Las Meninas, which portrays the Infanta Margarita Teresa accompanied by her entourage, this painting of the Queen Consort captures an image of her that elevates the artist’s notoriety for realistic and complex portraiture. Depicted in the latter half of her reign (and life), Isabel is dressed in an opulent black court dress embroidered with silver and gold thread. Though her gaze is frontal, her body is turned at a three-quarters angle, which allows the artist to capture the dramatic shadows and highlights that frame the Queen Consort’s figure. Though she dominates three-quarters of the 2 meter tall painting, the plunging form of the light-pink (perhaps cochineal-dyed) curtain behind her provides a nice contrast to the dark tones of her dress and of the painting itself. As she holds a closed fan in her left hand, her right grips the back of a wooden chair that is tucked to the left side of the painting. 

According to a description of another painting of Isabel of Borbón (see above) from The Royal Collection Trust, “portraits of Spanish Habsburg Queens were designed to be complementary to those of Kings and have a distinct iconography… [they] traditionally subordinate the individual to the body politic responsible for sustaining the legitimacy and succession of the dynasty.” Interestingly enough, the iconography of this painting, along with others that Velázquez completed of the Queen Consort during her lifetime, also follows the portraits of other queens. For example, compared to Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s portrait of Margaret of Austria, Queen Consort of Philip III of Spain below, Velázquez’s painting retains the essential positioning of the central figure, but incorporates other important iconography. Note the difference in color of the curtain in the back, which highlights the main figure’s dress and the book in her left hand. The position of Isabel’s hands in Velázquez’s painting directly mirrors Margaret’s, but it is notable that the former’s technique of depicting human forms gives it a soft, atmospheric quality compared to the stark differences between human and ambient forms in de la Cruz’s work.

In fact, much of Velázquez’s “moody Baroque” portraits of the Spanish Royal Family followed the same iconography and positioning, a change that was most evident in the late 1620s. Before that period, as evident in the artist’s portrait of the mourning Doña Antonia, there was a “rigid and geometric form, which could be seen in all its exaggeration in portraits from the previous reign [that of Philip III].” Once Isabel married Philip IV, “the fashion becomes excessive once more in paintings of 1632, foreshadowing the future farthingale, which reached its widest excesses in the time of Charles II.” 

Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Margaret of Austria, Queen Consort of Philip III of Spain (1584-1611), oil on canvas, c.1605. (Image: The Royal Collection Trust)

 As Adam Schrader from ArtNews.Net writes, Philip IV hung the portrait of his wife at the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, a suburban villa built on the side of a monastery where the Royal Family would relax and receive guests. This painting was displayed “as a pendant, or paired artwork, with Velázquez’s Philip IV in Black” (see below), which is now hanging on the walls of Madrid’s Museo del Prado. In terms of the later provenance of this painting, it was taken to France after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, where it hung in an exhibition at the Louvre in the Galerie Espagnole. After that, the painting was sold to Henry Huth, a merchant banker and book collector, who displayed the painting in his English estate, Wykehurst Park. It remained in Huth’s family until 1950, when it was sold yet again and has “been in the collection of its current owners since 1978.” As it waited to be on the auction block at Sotheby’s annual Master Paintings auction earlier this year, it was displayed in Sotheby’s New Bond Street Galleries until 6 December 2023 and was then moved to New York for a pre-sale exhibition. 

The portrait of Philip IV of Spain, a painting believed to be complementary to the portrait of Isabella of Bourbon. Philip IV, oil on canvas, ca. 1623, Museo del Prado. (Image: Museo del Prado)

When the painting was set to be auctioned in February 2024, it was estimated to fetch $35 million, more than two times the record auction sale for a Velázquez painting. The current record holder is Saint Rufina, which was sold by Sotheby’s London in 2007 for a whopping $16.9 million. The last record holder was Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, which was painted in 1650, and sold for about $2.9 million at a Christie’s auction to the MET in November 1970. Most recently, a “remarkably preserved” painting, Retrato de caballero, was sold in 2022 for about $4.6 million to an unknown (and currently unnamed) collector. Such high-value sales of Velázquez’s work are rare for, besides the painting’s hefty price tag and good condition, the majority of them are, as Anny Shaw for the Art Newspaper writes, “held in royal or museum collections.” In fact, it seems that out of the 110-120 known canvases that Velázquez painted throughout his life, only 7 are in private collections.

As the “most important work by Velázquez to come to the market in more than 50 years” and given that there would be a guaranteed sale of $35 million, there was no doubt that its sale was awaited with bated breath. When the painting’s appearance in the February auction was announced in November, a spokesperson for Sotheby’s said, “at the moment it just has a house guarantee.” As the Antique Trade Gazette reports, such a phrasing suggests that “the saleroom had given the vendor a guaranteed price but was seeking to offset the risk by arranging an ‘irrevocable bid’ from a third party ahead of the auction.” But what even is an “irrevocable bid”? How are third parties getting involved? Is this even legal? 

A woman stands in front of Giambattista Tiepolo’s 8-foot-tall Madonna of the Rosary, which made over $17 million during the 2021 Old Masters Auction. (Image: Sotheby’s

Since many have found such terminology confusing, a netizen from Art Radar Asia decided to do some undercover work in 2008 and explain the concept in response to an inquiry from the Financial Times. The idea of an “irrevocable bid” “perplex[es] dealers and collectors alike,” they write. According to the netizen, the first use of this term was in a catalogue for Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale in New York in 2008. The object of the sale was Kazimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition” (1916), which was estimated to fetch $60 million and sold to a single bidder for that exact amount, much like the case with the Isabel of Borbón portrait. 

Under the “irrevocable bid” arrangement, the auction house searches for a buyer who is prepared to submit a bid for an undisclosed amount. If no one, other than the buyer, seeks to bid any higher, then the buyer acquires the work and pays the “Buyer’s Premium.” In auction speak, the “Buyer’s Premium” is a fee, charged by the auction house, added to the original auction price that may be either a percentage of the auction price or a flat fee. In the first case, they usually run anywhere from 1% to 5% of the price. For example, if Velázquez’s portrait had indeed made the auction block and been sold for its original price, then the total price, including the “Buyer’s Premium,” could range anywhere from $35.4 to $36.8 million. If the painting happened to have sold for more—meaning if someone outbid the buyer—then the “irrevocable bidder” would get a cut of the “upside,” which amounts to the difference between the final bidding price and the original, secret price that was agreed upon. 

Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition, sold for $60 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2019 to an 'irrevocable bidder.’ (Image: Sotheby’s)

So, to take this back to the case of the netizen’s Malevich example, it seems that the “irrevocable bidder” was able to secure the painting at the original, agreed-upon price. Thus, such a move by the auction house can be considered a “pre-sale” of sorts. It is a risky maneuver, especially since neither the auction house nor the buyer knows if anyone else would attempt to bid on the work. In the case of the Malevich, no one did, which worked out for both parties. As such, since auction houses have been losing money in guarantees, they pass on the risk to a “third-party speculator,” which means that an outside party carries the risk of the bid and, if everything goes right, stands to make a profit between the difference of the guaranteed bid and the higher bid.

Whereas the auction house may see a difference between the “irrevocable bidder” and a “third-party speculator,” many dealers are unhappy with such an arrangement. New York dealer Richard Feigen says that “this totally lacks transparency, and it’s time this market was more regulated.”  

Velázquez’s painting, Isabella of Bourbon, exhibited at Sotheby’s London. (Image: El País)

Right before the February 2024 Old Masters auction was set to take place, however, neither the painting’s name nor identification was found on the auction house’s digital catalogue released on 21 December 2023. When asked for clarification by numerous news sources about the status of the Isabel de Borbón portraits, including Art Insider, Sotheby’s only remarked that “the sale was temporarily paused and there were ongoing discussions with the owners of the work.” Though the auction house was reluctant to accept these terms, “given the excitement with which the Velázquez has been received thus far,” Sotheby’s, at the time, “look[ed] forward to offering this exceptional painting for sale in the near future.”

But as always happens with secret deals and failed auctions, rumors began to abound in the art world. A popular theory circulated that a U.S. museum had made a private offer on the painting, but the auction house neither confirmed nor denied the statement. Since most Velázquez paintings are sold in private sales, rather than public auctions, such an explanation for its disappearance makes sense.

The painting displayed. (Image: El País)

At the same time, Spanish newspapers attempted to dig into a possible restitution claim on behalf of the Spanish government, but as Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly and Christa Terry from The Observer note, “there’s no clear roadmap for applying art looting laws retroactively” and that the country had “ample time to lay claim to the high-profile work.” The Spanish newspaper El País consulted lawyers about the possibilities of a restitution case, but all the experts they consulted had the same answer: “It’s very complicated.” In this case, neither UNESCO treaties nor the laws that govern the restitution of paintings stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis apply. Thus, it is clear that there is another, unknown underlying issue. 

This isn’t the first time that a Velázquez has disappeared ‘off the face of the Earth,’ for lack of a better phrase. In 2019, the Spaniard’s painting of Olimpia Maidalchini Pamphilj (1591–1657), supposed lover of Pope Innocent X, was sold for about $2.7 million, with all fees including the Buyer’s Premium, after being lost for over 300 years. Another Velázquez resurfaced in 2010 at Yale, “languishing in a back room of Yale University art gallery.” At the time the news broke, experts speculated that it could be worth about $12 million.  

Alright, time’s up! So who’s painting is on the auction block this week? Artist Diego Velázquez, I’m sorry, but your painting has not been chosen for auction. The judges have decided that your work brings too much drama to the auction’s name. Same place next year maybe? 

(Cover Image: Diego Velázquez’s Isabel de Borbón, Queen of Spain, which was set to head to auction in February 2024, ArtNet News)

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