Old Masters Art Market more demanding than ever

[14.12.2008]

 

Compared with the rising stars of the contemporary art market from China, India and the Middle-East whose markets have been stimulated by speculative temptation, the market for works by Old Masters is much less volatile and therefore much less risky. However, it is not completely sheltered.The Old Masters segment was badly hit during the last crisis: after the peak that was reached in 1990, its price index lost half its value in 1993, before stabilising towards the middle of the decade.

Masterpieces are rare and buyers are choosy. Hence when increasingly rare museum-quality pieces come up for sale in the Old Masters segment, the bidding tends to go exceptionally high.
Over the last decade, the segment has generated a number of highly publicised hammer prices. The absolute winner over the period is Peter Paul RUBENS with his Le Massacre des innocents which in July 2002 became the world’s most expensive Old Master when it sold for £45 million (M$ 69,7) at Sotheby’s, pushing up the artist’s annual sales revenue by 1,790%! When exceptional pieces finally come up for auction, their prices easily take off. For example, the market for Jean-Antoine WATTEAU – whose key works are few and far between – was shaken by the arrival at auction of La surprise, a masterpiece that experts had believed lost for 160 years. Between 1996 and 2008 only 13 of his works were auctioned and, until that sale, none of the works presented had the requisite qualities to engender a 7-figure bid. In July 2008, his Surprise – estimated at between £3 and £5 million – fetched a bid of £11 million (M$ 21,7), illustrating the enthusiasm that such rare works generate and the strength of demand in the sector. Even in periods of crisis, major works by Old Masters are hotly disputed: on 2 December 2008 a new record was also generated for Portrait of a lady as Flora by Giovanni Battista TIEPOLO (1696-1770). The piece tripled its estimate with a winning bid of £2.5 million (M$ 3,7).

However, collectors of Old Masters do not allow themselves to get carried away by the prestige of a signature even when faced with a diminishing number of works (rarefaction). The artistic excellence of a work and its physical condition are imperatives which not even Pieter II BRUEGHEL can escape, his lesser quality works selling for as little as half the price that one of his comparable works (in terms of theme and size) might fetch. For example, a version of The wedding Feast, of which he created several oil versions – modifying some colours and enhancing the composition at each stage – can cost anywhere between £130,000 to £280,000. The last version offered at Christie’s on 2 December sold beneath its low estimate (£250,000) at £220,000 ($333 630). However, the figure can be regarded as relatively good given the freeze observed on other autumn sales. In fact, that sale on 2 December at Christie’s posted a relatively low bought-in rate of 23%. The next day, the Old Masters sale at Sotheby’s was less successful with 39% of the works offered being bought-in.