Old Masters in December…

[25 Nov 2014]


Quantitatively less dense than Post-War & Contemporary sales and less publicized and less profitable for the major auctioneers, Old Masters sales offer certain masterpieces worthy of the world’s most prestigious museums. From Van Dyck to Tiepolo… we take a look at a selection of the best works on offer in December… and note that the high end of today’s Old Masters market is considerably cheaper than the high end of the Contemporary art market.

Traditionally, the two leading auction operators, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, choose London and the beginning of December for their prestigious Old Masters sales. Christie’s evening sale on 2 December has a selection of 36 works from the Northern Renaissance to the Dutch Golden Age, including a remarkable portrait by Anthonius VAN DYCK of the famous musician Hendrick Liberti. The work, which belonged to the collection of King Charles I, is expected to fetch between 4 and 5.4 million dollars. It could generate one of the top three auction results for the artist whose current auction record dates back to 2009 for a self-portrait that fetched the equivalent of $12.1 million at Sotheby’s in London. That self-portrait was initially estimated in the same price range as the Liberti portrait being offered on 2 December. However, the artist’s representation of himself added a thick layer of demand as is often the case with iconic figures of art history. Van Dyck’s portrait of Hendrick Liberti is the most prestigious work in the Christie’s sale, which is also offering a second Van Dyck canvas at one tenth of the price: a study of a man wearing a ruff that exudes considerable modernity in its freedom of hand. This study is being offered in a price range of $300,000 – $470,000, i.e. roughly half the price paid for a work by the young artist Seth PRICE (born 1973) on November 12 in New York (Vintage Bomber fetched $785,000 including fees). In short, nowadays, the best Old Masters are actually cheaper than fashionable emerging artists in New York.

The other star lots on 2 December include a quietly poetic representation of a Dutch coast by Willem II VAN DE VELDE (1633-1707); A kaag and other vessels off an inlet on the Dutch coast (1661). This work remained in the same family for 60 years and has not been exhibited since 1954. Christie’s is expecting between $1.8m and $2.8m. There will also be a striking oil-on-panel painting by Pieter II BRUEGHEL entitled The Good Shepherd (40 x 54.6cm) that is expected to fetch between $1.2m and $1.8m, roughly twice the price paid for another version sold in 2006 at Christie’s New York (The Good Shepherd, fetched $600,000 on April 6, 2006). In total, four works by Pieter Brueghel are being auctioned in London, two at Christie’s (2 December) and two at Sotheby’s (3 December).

Sotheby’s star lot is signed Joseph Mallord William TURNER (1775-1851): Rome from Mount Aventine is one of the few Turner landscapes in private hands and is a masterful work first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836. The subject, the quality of execution and the condition of this canvas which is nearly 200 years old are all advertised as outstanding features justifying the highest estimated price range in the two sales: Rome from Mount Aventine is expected to fetch between $24m and $32m and join Turner’s top three best auction results.
A majestic Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio CANAL), The Faun Family by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Lucas I CRANACH) and a still life by Adriaen COORTE are among the jewels of Sotheby’s December 3 sale, with prices expected to range from 2 to 11 million dollars. However, this price level is almost as rare as old works themselves. The majority of the paintings offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s day sales – secular works from prestigious schools or lesser-known but highly talented masters – are being offered at between 5,000 and 50,000 dollars.

London has become a prestigious capital for the sale of Old Masters and unfortunately old masterpieces are rarely sold through Paris. However, on 17 December 2014, a work by Giovanni Battista TIEPOLO (born in Venice in 1696 – died in Madrid in 1770) will be offered by Pierre Bergé & associés through Drouot. This will be the ninth occasion on which a painting by this great Venetian Baroque artist will be auctioned in Paris in 25 years and the work in question is not the least: Portrait d’homme au manteau bleu (86 x 58cm) has emerged on the market at a key moment with the Capitoline Museums in Rome currently exhibiting preparatory drawings by Tiepolo (Rome. Musei Capitolini. Palazzo Caffarelli. Piazza del Campidoglio, until 15 January 2015). If the sale is successful it will make a positive contribution to Drouot’s reputation.

While London’s prestige sales of Old Masters are only offering a total of 79 lots in two evenings, November’s Contemporary art sales were twice as dense. In fact, Old Masters are becoming increasingly rare, but the major auction companies still manage to find the occasional gem still in private hands. As a market, Old Masters still represents a significant volume of business for the major auctioneers and is still profitable both in terms of prestige and economic reward. Last year, Old Masters sales generated more than 1 billion dollars, equivalent to 8.5% of the global art market while Contemporary art accounted for 14% of the global art market (2013).