Old Masters: staggering highs for a few

A French 18th-century portrait painting of a lady with an arresting gaze and a King Cavalier Charles Spaniel on her lap fetched $47,500 at Myers Fine Art in February 2013. Photo courtesy of Myers Fine Art and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — If the extreme highs often seen in modern art auctions (think Picasso or Francis Bacon to name a few) provide the glitz and the razzle-dazzle of the art world, then it must follow suit that Old Masters are content to be staid, secure in their position as the backbone of the market, performing solidly but rarely achieving such spectacular heights.

That was perhaps true until November 2017 when Christie’s sold a previously unknown work by Leonardo da Vinci, which the auction house heavily marketed with a film and media attention, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) for a staggering $450 million, making it one of a mere dozen artworks to break the $100 million high-water mark, joining a very exclusive club indeed.

An Old Master oil painting, Italian School, 18th century, sold for $135,010 at
Gonnelli Casa D’ Aste in October 2011. Photo courtesy of Gonnelli Casa D’ Aste and LiveAuctioneers

In its aftermath, art watchers were left scratching their heads: Was this the ultimate game-changer in marketing Old Masters or was this a one-off?

Quoted in a December 2017 article in The Art Newspaper https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/slick-marketing-thrusts-leonardo-into-stratosphere, Harry Smith of the art advisers Gurr Johns thinks the latter. “Its presentation was driven more by brand appeal than connoisseurship, and aimed more at trophy hunters than traditional collectors,” he said, while Andreas Pampoulides, the co-founder of the London gallery Lullo Pampoulides, agreed. “Part of me is delighted that an Old Master painting should be considered by the market as being more valuable than, say, a Basquiat or a Warhol. But part of me also feels this is the most obscene display of conspicuous consumption.”

This pair of Italian Old Master paintings, 16th century, realized $57,500 at Leland Little Auctions in June 2012. The oils on panel respectively depict King David and Solomon, both shown in rich clothing and seated in an open courtyard before a landscape. Photo courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Two months later, the annual week of Old Masters sales in New York City in late January demonstrated that the Old Masters market was stronger than the previous year but not remarkably so. And as true with much of the antique market — whether it’s a Philadelphia pie crust tilt-top table or a Renaissance masterwork — the best pieces bring the best prices and the rest work hard for their slice of the market.

An early undated portrait of Gabrielle de Bourbon, 1460-1516, brought $50,000, nearly 10 times its estimate, at Myers Fine Art in February 2013. She was the daughter of Louis I, Count of Montpensier and interests historians today due to the surprising depth of archival material available on her. Photo courtesy of Myers Fine Art and LiveAuctioneers

“It energized the market a little bit without profoundly changing it,” said Christie’s international head of drawings, Stijn Alsteens. “It was a reminder of the relevance of the field.”

Auctioneer and co-owner Mary Dowd of Myers Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Fla., echoed their comments. “We are seeing an uptick in the auction market for Old Master paintings. Because there is a limited finite set of important Old Master works in private hands that come up for auction, it is a bit more difficult to track the market.”

One of a pair of Old Master paintings, ‘Lepers Attended by Angels,’ 17th century, sold for $115,000, well above the estimate of $3,000-$5,000 at Jackson’s Auction in November 2013. Photo courtesy of Jackson’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

She felt the market for Old Masters has improved in the wake of the auction of the Leonardo painting. “The strong media coverage surely increased awareness and possibly sparked a renewed interest among private collectors.”

She also graciously answered a few questions posed by Auction Central News.

For new collectors, would you suggest buying a lesser work by an established artist or a good work by a minor artist?

I’d suggest buying a good work by a minor artist. There are so many works available by accomplished artists who for various reasons — many of which do not make sense — are very affordable. These well-executed paintings will hopefully provide many years of pleasure for new collectors at a price that is within their budget.

For those not in the know, can you tell our readers a bit about provenance? What it is and how it helps increase a painting’s value?

It is always helpful to be able to substantiate the history of a painting. Having a verified record of ownership gives prospective buyers confidence in the authenticity of a work of art. Additionally, the more specific the background history is the better. Photographs from the past that document a work of art in a specific place at a specific time help tell a narrative story that along with well-documented research can be extremely helpful and increase a painting’s value significantly.

What’s more crucial to establishing value: excellent condition or rarity? Why?

There are just not enough fresh-to-market rare paintings out there today to meet the demand.