Western Old Masters

Generating just 5% global Fine Art auction turnover from 9% of the lots sold, the Old Masters segment is gradually seeing its influence diminish in the West. Sales of works by Old Masters are now scheduled far from the dates of the prestige sales of Modern & Impressionist Art and Post-War & Contemporary Art. Except for an exceptional lot (like the Salvator Mundi in 2017), the Old Masters market remains generally discreet, relatively stable, but profitable in the long term.

Distribution of Auction Turnover in the West by creation period

Distribution of Auction Turnover in the West by creation period


The Old Masters market raises many questions that concern less, or not at all, other periods of creation: issues related to the provenance of the works, their authenticity, their conservation, their export, etc. It’s a market that contains lots of (hi)stories, plenty of surprises (some good, some bad), forgotten works, mis-attributions, damaged works, restored works, etc.

On 27 November 2018, a Figure de sainte, en buste, avec une palme et lisant les Ecritures was put up for sale by Christie’s in Paris. During its previous sale at the Hotel Drouot in 1865, this painting, from the collection of Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Berry, was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. But for over a century, the work has been attributed to Bernardino LUINI, a close friend of the great master. The painting, classified an “historical monument by a decree of 2 December 1965”, is the subject of a “restriction on its circulation outside the French territory”. Estimated between $450,000 and $680,000, the work fetched $1.36 million this year.

Offered for sale 30 October 2018 in New York, the Peruzzi Madonna was, for its part, attributed to “Raphael or a close associate” by Christie’s. This information is important because the drawing could have been a study for one of Raphael’s masterpieces, the Small Cowper Madonna (c.1505), which is kept at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. What  the Peruzzi Madonna is missing to be valued with eight or nine digits is the precious Raphael signature. In its absence, the work was purchased $552,500.

Attributed to Raphaël or a close associate The Peruzzi Madonna: The Madonna and Child

Attributed to Raphaël or a close associate
The Peruzzi Madonna: The Madonna and Child

The Museum Industry

Like the Contemporary Art segment (which is no stranger to geostrategic competition), the Old Masters segment also has its fair share of ‘international’ issues, with the best works becoming so rare that they fuel competition between collectors, but also between museums around the world. A competition in which States regularly use their powers.

In 2016, the French State refused to issue an export visa for a painting found in an attic in Toulouse (France) two years earlier… a painting that could be a Caravaggio. But after two further years of ‘immobilization’, the French State has declined to buy the work and the painting is now finally free to move. Art expert Eric Turquin, in charge of the painting’s sale, may well take the work on a tour before bringing it back to France for a public sale in 2019 in which the market will decide on its real value… after which, the painting will probably leave Europe for good.

Long-term investment

In the West, the months of July and December have become essential for the Old Masters segment. At the end of each semester, lots of exceptional works appear in London auction houses. Most of these works have been in the same collections for a long time. So expectations are often high. But the value of these works is often difficult to estimate, as nothing like them (or very few) exist on the market. In short, the combination of an extremely limited supply with a growing and globalised demand can cause prices to soar.

Top 10 Old Masters artworks at auctions in 2018

Artist Artwork Price Date Auction house
1 Lucas VAN LEYDEN (1494-1533) A young man standing $14,598,946 4 Dec 2018 Christie’s London
2 Frans I HALS (1580-1666) Portrait of a gentleman, aged 37/ Portrait of a lady, aged 36 $12,808,179 6 Dec 2018 Christie’s London
3 REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606-1669) Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of a Young Man As Christ in Prayer $12,082,995 5 Dec 2018 Sotheby’s London
4 Gilbert STUART (1755-1828) George Washington (Vaughan type) (1795) $11,562,500 9 May 2018 Christie’s New York
5 Pieter II BRUEGHEL (c.1564-1637/38) The Netherlandish Proverbs $8,063,225 6 Dec 2018 Christie’s London
6 Lucas I CRANACH (1472-1553) Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554), half-length $7,737,500 19 Apr 2018 Christie’s New York
7 Anthonius VAN DYCK (1599-1641) Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660)
$7,488,080 6 Dec 2018 Christie’s London
8 Peter Paul RUBENS (1577-1640) Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman $7,163,887 4 Jul 2018 Sotheby’s London
9 Antonio CANOVA (1757-1822) Bust of Peace $7,014,562 4 Jul 2018 Sotheby’s London
10 Ludovico CARRACCI (1555-1619) Portrait of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni in armour
$6,703,300 5 Jul 2018 Christie’s London
© Artprice.com

Three such works have been auctioned and re-auctioned over the last thirty years, and each one generated very considerable added value. Although the holding times far exceeded the average holding duration for the rest of the Art Market, the profitability of these investments exceeds that of standard financial products:

Pieter BRUEGHEL II (c.1564-1637/38) The Netherlandish Proverbs

Pieter BRUEGHEL II (c.1564-1637/38)
The Netherlandish Proverbs