The Current position of the Old Master Market

The Old Master Market

David Dallas, Old Master Specialist

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I have written in the past about how Old Masters, those Western European paintings produced between 1300 and say 1850, have slipped in importance to Auction House revenue. To remind you, Old Masters accounted for 37% of Christie’s turnover 50 years ago and now it is between 1% to 2%. What has happened? Have they fallen from favour?

I think part of what has happened to Old Masters is akin to what has happened to Elizabethan Silver, which was so highly prized in the 1920s and which in real terms is a fraction of what it was worth then. They have both become so scarce that they are almost uncollectable as a genre. In the case of Elizabethan Silver, so much was melted down in the Civil War to pay the troops that what was left in private hands has been bought over the last 100 years by museums or great private collections, which are unlikely ever to be broken up. The same is true of Old Masters – museums, especially in America, together with great collectors have hoovered up all the best examples. If you wanted to form a collection of, say, Italian Renaissance paintings, those painted between 1480 and 1550, a lifetime would be insufficient to fulfil the dream.

When great Old Masters do appear on the market, they make huge prices; you only have to think of Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ which sold for $450m, the most expensive work of art of any type ever to be sold. The marketing of this painting is very revealing. Despite being a Renaissance painting, Christie’s put it in a Contemporary Art sale, the thinking being that Leonardo is ageless and the richest collectors are in the contemporary field. It worked a treat!

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Salvator Mundi

The Contemporary and 20th Century markets have two great advantages over Old Masters. First, there is no distant historical context into which to try and place them and second, they are in relatively large supply. In the case of Contemporary art, you might even be fortunate enough to meet the artists and become part of a very lively intellectual and artistic milieu. You can’t do that with Old Masters except through a séance!

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Massacre of the Innocents


David Hockney (b1937)
Portrait of an Artist: Pool with two figures

So, perhaps to look at the 20th Century and Contemporary scene might explain what has happened to Old Masters, relatively speaking. It is not that Rembrandt (€160m for his Portraits of ‘Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit’) or Rubens (£44.8m for ‘Lot and his daughters’) or (£49.5m for ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’) have gone backwards in value, it is that the much more plentiful 20th and 21st Century painters have caught up with them. For example, David Hockney ($90m for ‘Portrait of an artist – Pool with two figures’) is on a par with Rubens and Francis Bacon ($142m for ‘Three studies of Lucian Freud’) is on a par with Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
Pair of portraits

The reputations of the Old Masters have not shrunk, but their market share has because they appear so infrequently, whereas 40 Bacons selling for over $20m have appeared in the last 13 years alone.

Who would have guessed it 50 years ago?