The private collection of the late philanthropist and land conservationist Chauncey Devereaux Stillman (1907-89) made auction history in 1989, when Jacopo da Pontormo’s Portrait of a Halberdier (1528-30) sold at Christie’s New York to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $35.2m (over $69m today, adjusted for inflation). That record still holds for an Old Masters sale in the US after nearly 30 years. In the coming months, the auction house will dip into that well again, when it offers a selection of 16 works from the Stillman collection—including Old Masters and Impressionist paintings and drawings—scattered across six sales in New York and London between April and October.
“The collection that Stillman developed is really remarkable and broad-reaching, and Old Master paintings are one piece of that taste,” says Emma Kronman, the head of the Old Masters sale at Christie’s in New York on 27 April, when six paintings from the Stillman collection will be auctioned. The most significant work is Nicolas Lancret’s Autumn (around 1720, est $2m-$4m), a fête galante from a series of four seasonal allegories (two are in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and another in a private collection). Commissioned by Jean-François Leriget de la Faye, the painting marks a “ground-breaking career moment” for the artist, Kronman explains, when he “emerged from his training with [Antoine] Watteau” and sought to “distinguish himself from his master”.
Stillman’s collecting choices were also “characterised by a devout [Catholic] faith”, Kronman says, pointing to a “soulful, evocative” early 16th-century depiction of Saint Barbara by Francesco Raibolini Francia ($400,000-$600,000), who trained as a goldsmith and signed the work “francia, aurifex” (literally, gold-maker). The oil on wood panel demonstrates “how the jeweller’s skill—sharpness, smoothness, highly-finished detail—transferred into a painting”, Kronman says. The work, in “outstanding condition” both in terms of the paint surface and wood support, with no signs of major cleaning or restoration, was bought back by Stillman in 1927 at a sale of his father and grandfather’s estates.
Nicolas Lancret, Autumn (around 1720, est $2m-$4m)
Mary Cassatt, Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow (1909, est $2m-$3m)
Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington (around 1805, est $1.5m-$2.5m)
Studio of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, Christ in Benediction (around 1600-14, est $70,000-$100,000)
Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a cloak and hat, holding an urn (around 1501, est $500,000-$700,000)
Francesco Francia, Saint Barbara (early 16th century, est $400,000-$600,000)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, L’Enfant au chien, fils de Madame Marthe et la chienne Pamela-Taussat (1900, est $1.5m-$2.5m)
Other paintings in the New York sale include Benediction of Christ, an oil on canvas from the studio of El Greco (1600-14, est $70,000-$100,000)—a “small and vigourously painted example of this revolutionary style that the artist developed in Spain in the late 16th and early 17th century”, Kronman says—and Lorenzo di Credi’s oil on panel Portrait of a Man (around 1501, est $500,000-$700,000).
Stillman’s grandfather, the banker James Stillman, was a friend and early collector of the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt. Her oil painting Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow (1909), which Chauncey Stillman bought in the same 1927 auction of his grandfather’s estate, has the highest estimate of the five works to be auctioned at Christie’s American Art Sale in New York on 23 May ($2m-$3m). A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (around 1805; est $1.5m-$2.5m) and works by John Singer Sargent and James Edward Buttersworth will also be offered.
Another significant work is a late painting by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec of a boy and a dog (L’Enfant au chien, 1900, est $1.5m-$2.5m), that will be offered at the Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale in New York on 15 May. There will also be works in the Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale in New York on 16 May, the Old Master and British Drawings Sale in London on 5 July and a Prints and Multiples Sale in New York in October.
All 16 works from the Stillman collection will be exhibited together as a group at the preview for New York’s Classic Art Week in April, which opens to the public on Saturday, 22 April. The lots have been selected from over 100 works kept at the Wethersfield estate, Stillman’s property in Dutchess County, New York, a neo-Georgian House, carriage museum and gardens open to the public since his death. They are being sold to support the Wethersfield Foundation, which manages the property and supports Catholic education and land preservation initiatives.
Stillman’s granddaughter, Tara Shafer, who is on the board of the Wethersfield Foundation, remembers the Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec paintings hanging in her grandfather’s living room. “I don’t find it hard [to part with the works] because I was brought up with such a strong example set by my grandfather about essentially sharing the wealth in every way,” she says. She finds the “the thought of people coming out to see these paintings and being excited and moved by them” gratifying, as well as the proceeds supporting her grandfather’s vision, which includes land conservation, maintenance of the Wethersfield gardens, house and museum and the foundation’s seminars, retreats and other activities that explore Catholic teachings. She says her grandfather “loved to share what he found beautiful”, and in the sales, she says: “There’s a little bit of him that I know is going to be with me.”