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Old masters on 1 May…

[14 May 2019]

At the beginning of the month, Christie’s held a major sale of Old Master artworks in New York. Some works far exceeded their estimates and a number of major new auction records were hammered. Are we perhaps seeing a regain of interest in this highly demanding segment since the sale of Salvator Mundi?

While the Contemporary art segment pursues its inexorable growth around the planet, the more closeted Old Masters segment – driven primarily by considerations of quality and rarity – could be enjoying renewed interest a year and a half after the $450 million hammered for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. It’s possible that the da Vinci record has highlighted a segment which is far less fashion driven and harbours immense artistic and historical value. In any case, that is the impression we got from the results obtained at Christie’s on 1 May

Results nevertheless dwarfed by Modern Art

The most anticipated result at the Christie’s sale on 1 May was a husband and wife portrait by Jan Sanders VAN HEMESSEN (1532), a superb good-sized rarity (111 x 129 cm) which many expected to double the Northern Renaissance Flemish artist’s existing record. At the hammer the work set a new record above the $10 million threshold. The rarity and the quality of this jewel prompted bidders to double the mid-range estimate. However, the price for this masterpiece is still low compared with the results obtained for Modern art. A few weeks ago, works by Signac, Magritte and Caillebotte went for more than $20 million, driven by a much broader demand. Less popular than Modern stars, Old Masters appeal to another form of curiosity

Renewed records

The large oil-on-panel painting by Jan Sanders Van Hemessen generated the best result of Christie’s Old Masters sale on 1 May. The second-best came from a good quality religious scene by one of the most emblematic 16th century Italian painters, Annibale CARRACCI (1560-1609). Depicting the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lucy, this complex composition fetched $6 million, a new record for Carrache since his previous top price was $3.4 million for an Annunciation painting sold at Christie’s in 2013. Although the religious scene sold on 1 May was smaller than the Annunciation sold in 2013, the audacity of the composition and the psychological quality of the characters depicted prompted bidding three million dollars beyond its low estimate.

These two records show the determination of buyers when ‘quality’ is on the podium. They are not isolated results. The great Florentine artist born in the late 14th century Lorenzo MONACO (c.1370-c.1425) also refreshed (and doubled) his previous record. Michaelina WAUTIER (revealed to the public by a retrospective held last year at the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp) reached a new peak of $759,000 with a portrait of a young man smoking a pipe.

In sum, the 33 lots sold generated nearly $33 million, an honorable result. However, the figure is still dwarfed by the totals from Christie’s and Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sessions in New York (May and November 2018) which generated totals 10 times higher.

Indeed when compared to the peaks obtained for Modern and Contemporary art, the May 1 records look very moderate indeed. The sales total of $33 million is enough to build a top class Old Masters collection… but it is not enough to acquire a Jeff KOONS giant Balloon Dog which the artist’s auction record at $58.4 million (Christie’s New York) on 12 November 2013. A leading figure of the Contemporary art world, Jeff Koons is also a savvy collector, with works by Memling, Courbet and Fragonard on his walls. Ironically, it is perhaps these major Contemporary artists who do the best job of highlighting the historical importance of Old Masters…

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