As Artemisia Gentileschi prices continue to rise, two paintings by 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi will be auctioned in Sotheby’s New York. Both will appear at the Old Masters Auction on Thursday, and both are secured with a financial guarantee.
The paintings are from the collection of Jacob (Jackie) Safra, heir to a Syrian-Lebanese-Swiss banking fortune. Together, they are expected to earn an estimated $3.8 million – $5.5 million.
The first action scheduled to hit the block this week, Susanna and the elders (circa 1638), depicts a large-scale biblical scene where Susanna is preyed upon by two community elders. This scene was one that Gentileschi returned to many times, and art historians have recently begun to view its use as a feminist gesture. It is estimated at $1.8 million – $2.5 million.
The second painting is titled Portrait of a seated woman, three-quarters tall, in elaborate dress and embroidered with gold, probably Caterina Savelli, Principessa de Albano (1620), it was produced earlier in her career. Her subject was identified as Genoese noblewoman Katerina Savelli in 2012 after new research was released in tandem with work in progress at the Maillol Museum. It is estimated at $2 million – $3 million.
In an interview, Calvin Harvey, Sotheby’s Old Masters, said, “Although she was an important portrait painter, we don’t see many of her portraits today. This is one of very few that has been fully confirmed by Artemisia.”
Both works have been in the Safra Group since the 1990s. Three decades ago, Safra—notorious as a top collector of antiques, but has more recently kept a low profile—too much above the estimates of both works in order to win them at auction. I buy Susanna and the elders for $300,000, more than 6 times its estimate of $46,000 at Sotheby’s in London in 1995. A few years later, he bought Savelli’s painting for $242,000, double its estimate of $125,000.
Safra made both acquisitions at a time when the market for old masters was still thriving as the dominant auction category. However, old females were not commanding exorbitant prices at the time, and while Gentileschi’s works now sell for millions of dollars, those prices at the time were relatively high. “This was not a much sought-after artist,” Harvey said, “He shows incredible insight in seeing how important she is.”
Gentileschi began to deviate from the male-dominated style of the era that portrayed women as victims, and instead made their female subjects brave heroes. By the age of twenty, she had established her career as an artist and later became known for her dramatic style influenced by Caravaggio. Historians have seen in her paintings links to the violence she survived during her lifetime, before and during a very public trial in Rome where she alleged she was sexually assaulted by her teacher.
Gentileschi’s work has always been a rarity on the market, and only about 40 of her known paintings are in institutional collections around the world. As her work received a new level of interest in museums, her work became more and more expensive. In 2019, I drew it Lucretia (circa 1630) Sold for a record $5.3 million in Paris. If either of the two current paintings reached their high ratings, they would become some of her most expensive works sold on the open market.
Safra, who owns the publishing company Britannica, is offloading other works from his collection in the same sale, including works by Peter van Mol, Gaetano Gandolfi, and Anne Valier-Coster. These Gentileschis are the only ones left owned by Safra, according to a spokesperson for the collector from the Britannica Group. “You think these two museum-level paintings are better in the museum,” Safra’s spokesman said.