Old Masters

[29 Jul 2007]


Old masters are the pride of the most prestigious museums and a few collectors who are loathe to part with their masterpieces. A shortage of works, and the tempting prestige of a famous signature, means some paintings, but also drawings, are fetching spectacular bids. However, art lovers can turn to signatures that are less famous with the general public or drawings and prints that are everywhere on the market.

Price levels for old masters have lost considerable steam since the peak reached in 1990. They have never been back to those summits and have a price index almost half that of 17 years earlier. This market consolidation has not prevented some exceptional auction prices for the rare paintings of museum quality submitted to the casual interest of collectors. The period starting in 2000 has been a competition arena for multi-millionaires with some spectacular bids. The bid for a Peter Paul RUBENS in July 2002 was the highest: Sotheby’s in London presented The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1608-1609) which became one of the most expensive paintings in the world when it went for £45m, or more than €70m. The work sent revenues from annual sales of Rubens rocketing by 1,790%! Apart from Rubens’ baroque aesthetics, Giovanni Antonio CANAL’s Venetian vistas are still attracting European and Anglo-Saxon collectors. Revenues from Canaletto sales are the highest for old masters since 1990: works of his sold in auction have made more than €166.7m over the last 17 years. Sizeable paintings (more than a metre) now go for higher prices than in the 1990s on the back of a record price of £16.65m in 2005 for Venice, the Grand Canal, looking North-East from Palazzo Balbi (more than $29m at Sotheby’s, London). His lesser works are rarer and rarer: a Canaletto capriccio or a vedute in ink are hard to find because only one work a year has been put up for auction since 2001. These small-scale works now go for between €50,000-100,000 on average.

The drying up of the market for 15th and 16th century artists is even more frustrating. Buying a prestigious signature like Lucas I CRANACH, Andrea MANTEGNA, LEONARDO DA VINCI or MICHELANGELO is difficult. Here again, collectors engage in a bidding war when a high quality work emerges into the spotlight and this also applies to lesser works (drawings, sketches) which can go for sky-high prices. Just imagine… a collection enhanced by a Michelangelo or a Leonardo da Vinci! It is a compelling idea but the bidder will have to be very patient before bidding for names like this. Michelangelo, for example, is one of the rarest names at auction and the market only sees a trickle of drawings: since 1990, only six ink or charcoal papers have been offered for total sales revenue of more than €32.4m. These drawings were preparatory studies for much bigger works. Although these drawings are unfinished, the prestige signature pushes collectors to bid several hundred thousand euros, or even millions of euros. The most expensive Michelangelo drawing fetched £7.4m in July 2000 at Christie’s London (The Risen Christ: Three-Quarter Nude/Study of the Same Figure, study in ink, charcoal or red chalk). His contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, whose Mona Lisa is the symbol of Renaissance painting, reached the same record bid a year later in the same auction house. His £7.4m drawing is Horse and Rider on a 12cm by 8cm sheet! This is the price of rarity as only three of his drawings have been put up for auction over the last 10 years.

Old master works are not, however, the preserve of millionaire collectors. Numbers of lesser works by famous names, or works by artists less known to the general public are within the scope of more modest budgets. Some of the works of the English painter Thomas GAINSBOROUGH, whose portraits are very popular (between €20,000 -30,000 on average), can be found for less than €5,000 like Landscape with Trees and rocky Outcrop, an oil painting bought for £2,500 (€3,719 in February 2007 at W.H. Lane & Son, Penzance, Cornwall). There are more opportunities in drawings and prints. For less than €1,000 you can buy works by Augustin PAJOU, Victor Jean NICOLLE, Jean PILLEMENT, Louis Félix DE LARUE and even, for the art lover keen on discoveries, anonymous works labelled “attributed to”.

The market is thin for paintings and drawings by the greatest old masters but is flush with etchings by REMBRANDT VAN RIJN, Albrecht DÜRER or Francisco José DE GOYA Y LUCIENTES. For example, auctioneers sometimes sell lots of several Goya etchings. The series of 80 sheets of Disasters of War went for €62,000 on June 1st in Hamburg (Hauswedell & Nolte) i.e. an average of €775 per etching. Dürer’s burin works are very popular and find buyers from €1,000. On June 28th, for example, Woman on a horse and the Landsquenet (10.2 x 7.2 cm) went for €2,350 at Rossini in Paris. However, the price of some of Dürer’s sheets can really take off. Among the most sought after is Adam and Eve (1504) which has cleared the $100,000 level several times! This happened again last December at Christie’s in London when the precious work fetched £55,000 (more than €81,000).Rembrandt’s engravings, the richest collection among old masters, stretched over 40 years (1628-1665). Rembrandt created numerous versions of the 300 known prints and their wide circulation made him famous during his lifetime. Some prints have a higher index than the original drawing. The Three Trees (1643) for example, Rembrandt’s largest landscape etching (21.3cm by 27.9cm) went for the exceptional price of €255,000 on June 9th 2006 (under the title Die Landschaft mit den drei Bäumen, Hauswedell & Nolte in Hamburg). Rembrandt’s engravings make him the most frequent artist at auctions as more than 5,400 works have changed hands since 1990.

As well as the signature, collectors appreciate a work’s accomplishment and its good condition. Novices find the market for old masters difficult to grasp as it swings between rare masterpieces reserved for the rich and more discreet works that go for reasonable prices.