Old Masters Miss New Target

London -- Alex Israel, Gerhard Richter, Wade Guyton. Buying and selling art these days is all about knowing the right names.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network know that contemporary names bring big prices, which presents a challenge for a traditional collecting area like Old Masters.

Last week in London, Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening sales offered a combined total of 131 pictures by artists born before 1850. More than half of them were either unknown, or unknown to anyone who had not studied art history.

That was why Christie’s in their July 8 sale included a painting cataloged as the work of Johannes Vermeer, 17th-century Holland’s most coveted painter, despite debate over its authorship.

‘‘Saint Praxedis’’, shown here, attracted little competition at Christie’s and was bought for £6.2 million.

From the collection of the late Johnson & Johnson heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, “Saint Praxedis” was listed by Christie’s as Vermeer’s earliest surviving painting, dating from the 1650s.

Vermeer’s authorship of this untypical copy of an Italian painting, showing a female saint squeezing a martyr’s blood out of a sponge, was first suggested in 1969, but it has never gained general acceptance from scholars and curators.

Christie’s produced new analysis of paint samples that gave them the confidence to pronounce it a Vermeer with an estimate of 6 million to 8 million pounds.

At the sale, the painting attracted little competition and was bought for £6.2 million, or $10.6 million, including fees by an unidentified Asian bidder in the room.

Christie’s found buyers for 53 percent of the 68 lots they offered, generating a total of £45 million against a low estimate of £42.6 million. A few market-fresh rarities did attract bidding duels.

The New York dealers French & Co., for instance, paid £4.8 million, more than double the low estimate, for an impressive and unrestored 17th-century Dutch still life cataloged as the work of Willem Claesz Heda. But otherwise lot after lot either sold for the low estimate, or went unsold.

Old Master Meltdown

Fears of an imminent Old Master meltdown were calmed the next evening when Sotheby’s 63-lot auction achieved an above-estimate £68.3 million, the highest total the company has earned for the category in London, without factoring in inflation. The selling rate was a reassuring 81 percent by lot.

Sotheby’s had the edge on this occasion thanks to quality paintings from four prestigious private collections, including the English aristocratic families of the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Northumberland.

The house also exhibited highlights from the sale in Hong Kong in April, helping to trigger interest from new buyers who are all-important for the long-term survival of a market that until the 1980s was Sotheby’s and Christie’s main money-earner.

A bidder, represented by Patti Wong, chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia, pledged £7.7 million for a rediscovered late 18th-century George Stubbs painting of leopard cubs at play, £6.8 million for a signed and dated 1613 Jan Brueghel the Elder oil on copper of the Garden of Eden and £3.9 million for a winter landscape with a bird trap by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

Stubbs and the Brueghel family are internationally known names, giving confidence to the client, identified by Alex Bell, Sotheby’s International Old Master department head, as an Asian collector, to bid significantly over estimate for all three paintings.

Tellingly, there was little demand for two long-admired 15th-century Florentine tempera-on-linen drapery studies that had lost their big-name stamp.

Also from the collection of the late Mrs. Johnson, these had been bought as the work of Leonardo da Vinci at auction in 1989, but soon afterward were re-attributed to an artist in the workshop of Leonardo’s master, Andrea del Verrocchio. One fetched a low-estimate £1.8 million, the other failed to sell. They had cost Mrs. Johnson $11.2 million at the time.