Old Master paintings are back in fashion

‘This market understands and appreciates a masterpiece when it sees one’ – Sotheby’s

 

During the past decade, the international art market has been dominated by “contemporary art” with paintings by artists like Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst routinely selling for bewilderingly large sums. Old Master (and Victorian) art was side-lined – deemed unfashionable and often undervalued. But recent international auction results suggest that market sentiment may be changing with a revival of interest in, and strong demand for, traditional, classic art.

During last month’s series of Old Master sales at Sotheby’s in New York, one of the highlights was a newly-discovered, 400-year-old oil sketch by Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul RubensStudy of a Horse with a Rider – with a top estimate of $1.5 million. It sold for $5.1 million. Afterwards, Christopher Apostle, head of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department in New York , said “this market understands and appreciates a masterpiece when it sees one” and that the auction had attracted strong private bidding, including “from Asian and Russian collectors, with Dutch 17th-century pictures, early Italian, and Flemish works performing particularly well”.

It’s the latest whopping price for the artist. Last year, at Christie’s in London, Lot and his Daughters, by Rubens made £44.8 million (€52.4 million) – the highest auction price for any work of art sold in Europe in 2016 – following what the auction house described as a “spirited 14-minute bidding war”. The pre-auction estimate had been “on request” but was understood to be about £20 million.

Unseen in public

The painting which depicts a Biblical scene from the Old Testament was described by Christie’s as “one of the most important paintings by the master to have remained in private hands” and had been unseen in public for more than a century. It was the most expensive Old Master ever sold by Christie’s. Although neither the vendor nor the buyer were named the Daily Telegraph said the painting “had been kept quietly by its owners in the UK for 20 years, latterly in a house in south London” and that the buyer may have been Russian.

The highest price ever paid for a work by Rubens, incidentally, was for his Massacre of the Innocents, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for £49.5 million – more than eight times the top estimate of £6 million. It was bought by Canadian newspaper magnate Ken Thomson, 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet, who donated it to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

But Rubens (whose Head of a Bearded Man from the Alfred Beit Collection has just gone on display at the National Gallery of Ireland) isn’t the only artist benefiting from the trend. According to Sotheby’s “early Italian paintings and Flemish masterworks have become two of the most desirable areas in the Old Masters market” and that, unexpectedly, such paintings are “often finding their way into wide-ranging collections, often alongside contemporary art”. Many of the paintings now appearing at auction have not been on the market – or even seen in public – for decades or, in some cases, centuries.

Early Renaissance portrait

Among Italian pictures to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London before Christmas was a stunning early Renaissance portrait by Titian and his studio, Portrait of Two Boys, said to be members of the Pesaro Family’ dating from the 1540s that sold for £2.1 million (against a top estimate of £1.5 million). It was described as “a rarity in the genre of portraiture, as it is one of the first and very few double portraits in Renaissance painting”.

A 15th century Italian painting from the city of Siena, Flagellation [of Christ[ by an artist known as the Master of the Osservanza sold for £1.4 million – more than twice the top estimate of £600,000.

Commenting on the sales, Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s said “there can be no doubt that the market for Old Masters is in rude health” and that “collectors from past and present share a continuity of vision and a thirst for works with powerful imagery and timeless beauty”.

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