Rediscovered Zoffany painting headlines London’s Old Masters season

London’s Old Masters season falls in December and Moretti Fine Art will mount an exhibition dedicated to a recently rediscovered Johan Zoffany portrait of the comic actor Edward Townsend in full song, on offer for north of £1mn.

The work, originally shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1796 and among the artist’s belongings when he died in 1810, has only sold three times. Its second sale, in 1819, was to the son of a director of the East India Company and it stayed with the family until this September when the gallery bought it from Duke’s Auctioneers for £429,000 (with fees). Subsequent infrared and X-ray analysis by the Courtauld Institute of Art has found two pictures underneath its mahogany panel: a near-finished portrait of a woman and a sketch of a man. Letizia Treves, senior partner at the gallery, says it is hard to determine who these were or why Zoffany kept the painting of Townsend, although perhaps he had planned to make engravings, “to circulate more widely to theater enthusiasts”, she suggests.

The painting goes on view at the gallery from December 1 to 16, alongside presentations of the Courtauld’s findings. Its latest price reflects the in-depth research and is more in line with the quality and condition of this long-unseen work by Zoffany, Treves says. The show is among 35 exhibitions grouped in this year’s muted winter London Art Week, until December 21.

Mariane Ibrahim’s gallery in Mexico City © Setti Kadane. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim

The Chicago gallerist Mariane Ibrahim is on a roll and will open a new space in Mexico City; Her first location outside of Chicago opened in Paris last year. The Cuauhtémoc gallery will open during the Zona Maco art fair (February 8-12 2023) with a show of new work by the 32-year-old American multimedia collage artist Clotilde Jiménez, who studied in London and now lives in Mexico City. Ibrahim describes the two-floor, 19th-century building, which spans more than 1,000 square meters, as “Haussmannian: you could be in Paris, with some brutalist, Mexican architecture added in”.

Ibrahim has shown at the Zona Maco fair for a few years and makes a link between Mexico’s population and the Hispanic community in Chicago. She describes Mexico’s local collectors as “reserved but not passive”, explaining that her program, predominantly from the African diaspora, is new to the market there and takes time to understand. But, she adds, the move is not just about making sales: “I have always been fascinated by the culture of Mexico and its place politically. I want to forge collaborations with artists and other gallerists, to be experimental and adventurous. Mexico City is not Seoul, it’s not LA, it’s not where everyone is going; but it’s where I’m going.”

Man in 16th-century attire at a table with a quill and half-written letter

Possible self-portrait by Bronzino (c1527)

A possible self-portrait by Bronzino, restituted to the heirs of Ilse Hesselberger earlier this year, comes to Sotheby’s in New York in January with an estimate of $3mn-$5mn. Hesselberger, a Munich heiress and socialite, was a Jewish-born Christian convert. She bought the painting in 1927, by which time the work had lost its Bronzino attribution. Hesselberger was forced to sell it in 1941, along with other assets, on a false promise from the Nazi authorities that the payment would buy her freedom. Later that year, Hesselberger was murdered in the Kaunas concentration camp, aged 51.

Germany’s government returned the painting to Hesselberger’s family, who then sent it to Sotheby’s, where its experts enlisted the scholar Carlo Falciani and have reattributed the work as an early Bronzino from about 1527. Falciani is also exploring the hypothesis that it is a rare self- portrait by the Mannerist artist. It is being sold to benefit New York charities, Sotheby’s says.

Handleless cup made of gold with the features of a man's face

Gold aquilla, or drinking cup, made in Peru between 1400 and 1530

The Princeton University Art Museumwhich is undergoing a major expansion designed by the architect David Adjaye, has acquired a striking gold aquilaor drinking cup, made in Peru between 1400 and 1530. The 11cm-high cup, made with the features of an unknown man, is a rare precious-metal survivor of the Inca and Aztec civilizations and came to Europe by 1694.

Experts say it likely traveled across the Atlantic with a Spanish treasure fleet before passing down to an English family until 1973, when it was sold at Christie’s for £1,785. In 2020, the aquilla was reportedly offered (but not sold) for a seven-figure price through the dealer Thomas Heneage at the Winter Show art fair in New York. This time, a spokesperson for Princeton confirms, it was bought for a “low six-figure” sum.

“This beautiful object brings with it a romantic story, but more seriously allows us to interrogate the people of early Peru, the impact of colonialism and the remarkable — and rightfully contested — transatlantic histories that emerged from the western age of exploration,” says the museum’s director, James Steward. The expanded museum, in the middle of the university’s campus, is due to open in late 2024.

Oil painting of a young woman wearing a green dress

Jean Baptiste Bonjour’s portrait of ‘a young lady, a free person of colour’ (1852)

Christopher Ondaatje, a retired businessman, philanthropist — and one-time Olympian bobsledder for Canada — is selling the library and other contents of his London home through Sloane Street Auctions next week. Among his thousands of books are first editions by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens — a three-volume Great Expectations is offered for £3,000-£5,000 (1861, Chapman and Hall).

The Ondaatje items include some fine art, with a bronze bust of Joseph Conrad by Jacob Epstein (1924, est £5,000-£8,000) and, the catalogue’s cover lot, a rare portrait of “a young lady, a free person of colour”. by Jean-Baptiste Bonjour (1852, est £10,000-£15,000). Persian rugs and furniture are also in the mix.

“As a collector he was completely eclectic,” says Daniel Hunt, owner of the auction house. Ondaatje’s items could make up to £220,000 while the November 30 sale as a whole is estimated between £300,000 and £500,000. Prices start at £5 and several items carry no reserve, so are for sale at any price — Hunt pitches it as “the perfect pre-Christmas sale”.

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