Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Sacred Art at Antique Auctions - A Crisis and An Opportunity

This week, I present a guest article by a friend of mine, Andrew Marlborough, who worked in the art gallery business for 10 years before joining seminary in England. He told me recently that he sees a lot of high-quality art going to auction that could still have a Catholic purpose, and so I asked him to describe what he sees at the auction houses. He suggests the creation of a non-profit to collect these. Given the prices that he quoted below, these are items that churches and individuals can consider buying directly if they can get some guidance on where and when they are sold. The auction houses Andrew is looking at are listed below.

Andrew writes: It’s a sad fact of these times that the Church in the West is hemorrhaging its material culture at an alarming rate. Every week across Europe and America, thousands of sacred and devotional artworks are sold through live and online auctions, and by dealers. Some come from declining religious orders or closing parishes; others are perhaps inherited by non-practicing family members who sell them. Among the many objects being sold, it is especially disturbing to see so many sacred vessels and relics.

But as we know, a crisis can also be an opportunity. The crisis of faith which underpins this situation can help us return to the Lord when we realize we are lost without Him. Seeing so much Catholic art being sold can motivate us to assess the importance of beauty and culture in the Church’s mission, and to do all we can to ensure it is once again used to glorify God. This means we need Catholics with the funds and interest who are willing to buy things back from the open market. To do this is an act of charity not to be underestimated.

It would be wonderful if someone were to establishe a non-profit organisation with the mission of rescuing Catholic sacred and devotional art, and other cultural material, from the open market, to restore its use or preserve it respectfully. A good model which could be adapted from a secular context is that of the National Art Collections Fund in the UK, which provides funding for museums and institutions to save nationally important works of art from the open market. As this doesn’t exist yet for a Catholic context, it is necessary to engage directly with auction houses and dealers. This can be a little daunting but also enjoyable, and many of these businesses have made great improvements in customer service in recent years. Whilst the more expensive objects sometimes make the Catholic news, many more affordable things appear frequently. What follows is a small snapshot of things sold in recent months. Prices given exclude the auctioneer’s commission, which is generally between 20% and 25% of the sellingprice.

An historically important Irish recusant chalice
On November 24th, 2020, the London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb offered a very rare Irish recusant chalice (fig.1), which had been used by Fr John Barnewall to celebrate Mass during penal times in Ireland in the late 17th and early 18th century. It sold for £3,000. Even though several times the estimate, it still seems a low price. Surely in the highest category of importance, it is both a sacred vessel used for the Holy Eucharist and a witness to the survival of Catholic Faith under persecution.
Figure 1
The Rev John Barnewall (ordained in 1680) was registered as a “Popish Priest” of Ardbraccan, Martry and Rathboyne, and living in Neilstown. Under great persecution, he celebrated secret Masses in the hills, under hedges or other hiding places. Noted for his charity, learning and selflessness, he had many narrow escapes from the priest hunters. It is thought that he was martyred for his faith towards the end of his life after many years of heroic perseverance.
Paintings dispersed from Grace Dieu Chapel
On December 1st, 2020, Gildings Auctioneers in Leicestershire sold a group of paintings and furniture which came from the chapel of Grace Dieu Manor. This historic property played a vital role in the restoration of Catholicism in England in the 19th century; it was from this base that the great Rosminian Fr Aloysius Gentili (1801-1848) and his brethren evangelised much of the area. The sale included an unsigned portrait of Gentili (fig. 2) which sold for £300.
Figure 2
The auction also included a stunning painting of St Joseph holding the baby Jesus (fig.3) in the style of Franz Ittenbach (1813-1879). Thankfully bought by a devout young Catholic, and just in time for the Year of St Joseph, it realised £1,300.
Figure 3
Sacred vessels and art from the former Capuchin Friary in Bruges
More recently, on 18th and 19th February this year, the Belgian auctioneers Carlo Bonte sold 19 lots from the Capuchin Friary in Friday Market, Bruges. The Order seems to have decided to sell the property in 2018 and the building is being repurposed for tourism. The collection consisted of many fine sacred vessels and paintings.

These included a large and sensitively-painted study of the Adoration with St Francis (fig.4) attributed to Jacob van Oost (1603-1671), and dated 1648. It outstripped its 3,000-5,000 Euro estimate to sell for 18,500 Euros. The work had been previously inventoried by the Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, suggesting its importance.

Figure 4
There were many good examples of sacred vessels. Two ornate silver-gilt monstrances started this section of the sale. The first and earlier piece was made by the famous Belgian silversmith Carel Benninick and had hallmarks for 1772 (fig.5).
Figure 5
It sold for 11,000 Euros against a 5,000-8,000 estimate. The second, in a Neo-Baroque style (fig.6), and later in date, realised 2,500 Euros, against a 2,000 - 3,000 estimate.

Figure 6
Among the chalices, there was strong bidding for the Gothic revival silver-gilt examples, the two finest of which were both made by Vandamme of Bruges in the late 19th century, and of good weight and condition. Both outstripped the estimates of 800 - 1,200 Euros, with the uncased but heavier example (845g) selling for 4,500 Euros (fig.7),
Figure 7
And the cased example (676g) realising 5,500 Euros (fig.8). Although strong prices, these are still considerably less than it would cost to commission new pieces today.
Figure 8
There were more affordable options, still of fine quality, such as two 19th century neoclassical style silver and gilt chalices. Both of good weight (612g / 637g), they sold together for 1,700 Euros, against an estimate of 800 - 1,200 (fig.9). This was quite a bargain and several times costly less than purchasing new chalices, which are often not as well made or as heavy.
Figure 9
Another good buy was a lot containing two ciboria and a chalice (fig.10), which made 1,100 Euros, against a 400-800 estimate. We can only hope that some of these sacred vessels will once again be used for their intended sacred purpose.
Figure 10
Andrew Marlborough is a 5th-year seminarian for Plymouth Diocese in the UK, studying at Allen Hall in London. Before entering seminary he worked for 10 years in the auction and art gallery business.

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