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Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Still life of flowers in a Berkemeijer glass beaker decorated with raspberry prunts, including red and white parrot tulips, a white rose with a butterfuly and a pink rose, marigolds, lily-of-the-valley, forget-me-not and violets, with a sprig of rosemary and a fly on the shelf beneath, signed with the monogram AB (lower right), oil on copper. Lot sold £2,971,250Auction record for the artist in sterling. Courtesy  Sotheby's 

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Lucian Freud, Strawberries. Oil on copper, 10.2 by 12cm. Painted circa 1950. Estimate: £550,000-750,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s. 

LONDON.- A small group of luscious strawberries, painted by Lucian Freud at the height of his fascination with the still-life paintings of the Old Masters, sold moments ago in Sotheby’s saleroom for £1,208,750, or £120,875 a strawberry. The painting is just the seventh work to fall under the hammer at Sotheby’s so far this evening, with some 50 major works still to be offered, including three works set to fetch over £20 million. 

Although known first and foremost as a portrait painter, Freud’s rare still-lifes speak most clearly of his passion for Old Masters, for which he was dubbed “the contemporary old master”. Indeed - such was his fascination that he was given 24 hour access to the National Gallery by its director Neil MacGregor, so he could roam the galleries after midnight with his models and friends, or alone with his easel. These actual-size strawberries were painted in 1950 and given as a gift to Ann Rothermere, who was at the time deep in an affair with Ian Fleming (the two married in 1952). Ann was Freud’s patron and enjoyed with him a friendship so close that Fleming himself suspected them of having a concurrent affair. This tiny painting measures just 10.2 by 12 cm. 

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Lot 7. Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011), Strawberries. Oil on copper, 10.2 by 12cm. Painted circa 1950. Estimate: £550,000-750,000. Lot sold £1,208,750. Photo: Sotheby's. 

The painting sold just moments after the hammer came down at £2,971,250 on another work, also painted on copper and with a sable brush, but from a different era entirely. Just the kind of work Freud would have admired and studied closely, Jan Bosschaert the Elder’s jewel-like flower piece from 1610 ranks as the most perfect, best-preserved work by 'the father of still life painting', by whom only 50 works are documented.  

The curated Actual Size evening auction was led by an extremely well-preserved still-life of flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – which was both won and underbid by Asian private collectors – selling for £3 million / $3.7 million (est. £2-3m), an auction record for the artist in sterling. Asian interest was evident throughout the sale, with over 20% of lots in the Actual Size auction purchased by collectors from Asia. 

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Lot 6. Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (Antwerpt 1573 - 1621 The Hague), Still life of flowers in a Berkemeijer glass beaker decorated with raspberry prunts, including red and white parrot tulips, a white rose with a butterfuly and a pink rose, marigolds, lily-of-the-valley, forget-me-not and violets, with a sprig of rosemary and a fly on the shelf beneath, signed with the monogram AB (lower right), oil on copper, the reverse stamped with the mark of the maker Pieter Stas, 23.2 by 18cm.; 9 1/8  by 7 1/8 in. Estimate £2,000,000 — 3,000,000. Lot sold £2,971,250. Auction record for the artist in sterling. Photo: Sotheby's

Provenance: Professor Hugh Hale Bellot, High Ham, Somerset (1890-1969)
His estate sale: Sotheby's, London, 25th June 1969, lot 19, for £30,000
Private Collection, Switzerland (purchased at the above sale)
Johnny van Haeften, London (acquired from the above in 1995)
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in 1996

Note: Ambrosius Bosschaert was one of the very first artists to specialise in still-life painting, and certainly the first painter whose œuvre consisted almost entirely of flower pieces. In his finest works such as this he rendered his subject with a highly finished and meticulous naturalism. The variegated bouquet of both wild and cultivated flowers, placed in a simple studded glass roemer, is here set against a monochrome background. The composition is deliberately considered and executed, and its symmetry achieved without recourse to repetition: the bouquet is carefully composed by the balanced arrangement of different flowers, each minutely delineated in a highly naturalistic, almost scientific, manner. The considered individuality of each bloom supports the contention that these earliest of all still-lifes may have been painted as commissions for botanists, and conceived out of the individual studies required for such works. As in all Bosschaert’s works, a few carefully chosen insects - here a butterfly alighting on a white rose and the fly in the foreground – enliven the composition. In contrast to Bosschaert’s earliest essays in this vein, the bouquet is less crowded and a greater harmony achieved as a result by its constituent parts. Even seemingly small details such as the sprig of rosemary, the fly and the painter’s monogram in the foreground, all combine to anchor the diagonals of the composition. In contrast to the nervous and shimmering lines of his contemporary and fellow pioneer Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), whose work he clearly knew and was greatly influenced by, Bosschaert applied his paint carefully and methodically; the smooth surface of the copper lends it a rich enamel-like finish, and it is this, combined with the extraordinary detailing of the flowers and insects which lends this tiny panel a richness which transcends its tiny dimensions.1

We are grateful to Fred G. Meijer of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague for suggesting a date of execution to around 1608-10 for this painting. Such a dating can be supported by comparison with other extant still-lifes from the same period, for example a Still life with flowers in a vase and shell, probably from 1608-10 sold Zurich, Koller, 19 September 2008, lot 3014 (SFR 5,700,000) and later with Johnny van Haeften in London.2  The variegated cyclamen leaf to the lower right is a frequent motif in Bosschaert’s work, and can be found again, for example, in an earlier work of around 1606-8 sold in these Rooms, 6 July 2000, lot 56, together with the butterfly alighting on the white rose on the left of this picture, and the small yellow ranunculus beneath it. Similarly the rose, butterfly, lily-of-the-valley and the pink rose between them are all to be found in another earlier but rather smaller copper panel of 1608, formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, and sold New York, Sotheby’s, 10 November 2014, lot 33 ($4.64 million). Another comparable but slightly later copper depicting Roses, tulips and other flowers in a glass vase of circa 1612-14 was formerly with Galerie Sanct Lucas in Vienna.3  Here we find the same balanced colour scheme, with the vivid reds and yellows of the tulips offset by the cooler tones of the pinks and whites of the roses. The arrangement of lily-of-the-valley, forget-me-nots and a yellow ranunculus at the base of the bouquet is very similar in both works. As with each of these works, pride of place in the composition is given to the magnificent variegated tulips in the centre and right of the bouquet. Tulips had only been cultivated in the Low Countries for a few decades at this date and were extremely rare and expensive flowers, most likely far too costly for Bosschaert to have owned many examples himself. Although such pictures were no doubt intended by Bosschaert and his viewers to be read as celebrations of the abundance and variety of divine creation, the presence of the butterfly and the fly in the picture (both common motifs in  Bosschaert’s paintings) serve to remind the spectator of the brevity and vanity of life on earth.

In common with these other works, this still life was painted in Middelburg, the prosperous capital of Zeeland, where Bosschaert and his family had moved for reasons of religious persecution around 1587. He seems to have taken up flower painting rather late in life, around the age of thirty, and he is recorded as both a painter and a dealer and served as Dean of the Painters’ Guild of Saint Luke on several occasions. The majority of his working life was spent here, helped no doubt by the fact that Middleburg was then a city where floriculture was enthusiastically pursued, and where rare and exotic species of plant were collected and studied. Bosschaert was to remain there until 1614, when he moved again via Amsterdam and Bergen-op-Zoom to Utrecht.  His following was larger in the latter city, where his sons Ambrosius the Younger and Abraham were both active as still-life painters, as indeed was his son-in-law, Balthasar van der Ast. A document of 1619 recording a civil case for debt between Bosschaert and a certain Ludolf von Lintsenich provides us with an idea of the prices charged by him for such pictures: ‘ ….for a painting of a large flower pot £33:6:8…for two other pieces with flowers, both in ebony frames, equal to the sum of £33:6:8 (200 guilders)’. Bosschaert finally died in The Hague in 1621, apparently in the process of delivering a painting made for the butler of Prince Maurits.  By this date his pioneering still life paintings had become enormously influential and would continue to remain so until the middle of the century.

1. For Bosschaert’s use of Peter Stas as a maker of copper panels see J. Wadum, ' Antwerp copper plates', in Copper as canvas, exhibition catalogue Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum, Kansas City, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, The Hague, Mauritshuis, 1998-1999, pp. 107, 109-10.

2. The last digit of the date is indistinct and has been read variously as 1608, 1610 or 1612.

3. Copper 25.1 x 17.1 cm. L.J. Bol, The Bosschaert Dynasty, Leigh-on-Sea 1960, p. 61, no. 16.

From the father of still-life painting to a record for a still-life by contemporary master Lucian Freud, whose Strawberries soared above high estimate to £1.2million / $1.5 million (est. £550,000-750,000) – or £120,000 per strawberry.

Works by Pablo Picasso also performed well throughout the auction, with six works together totalling £7.9 million / $9.9 million. These were led by Buste de femme couchée from 1970 that fetched £2.4 million / $3 million – more than double its high estimate of £900,000. Eight bidders eagerly competed for the work in the room and by phone.

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Lot 17. Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), Buste de femme couchée, signed Picasso and dated 14.8.70. (upper right), oil pastel and pencil on card, 22.5 by 27.6cm. Executed on 14th August 1970. Estimate £700,000 — 900,000. Lot sold £2,408,750 .Photo: Sotheby's