Old Masters: three price levels



Old art is generally a less profitable segment of the art market than Contemporary art primarily because the latter segment enjoys the price impact of fashion, speculation and frequent turnover whereas old masterpieces are rare, relatively stable in price and sold much less frequently. Last year, Old Masters produced $1 billion in global auction revenue compared with $1.7 billion from Contemporary art (by artists born after 1945). The Old Masters segment nonetheless remains a vital pillar of the art market and it enjoys dedicated sales several times a year.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s have just finished their New York sales of Old Masters with an honorable result for the former … but not so brilliant for the latter. On June 4, Christie’s hammered a total of $17.9m (with fees), including three 7-digit results, and on June 5, Sotheby’s generated only $4.1m. Clearly million-dollar results are harder to produce in the OM segment than in the Contemporary segment. Moreover, the price range at a single prestige OM sale can be astonishingly broad. Below is a selection of the works from the recent sales, at three distinct price levels.

An Old Master for less than $15,000?
Old Masters sales are full of works that are difficult to identify. Many works are “attributed to” or “from the circle of” or “from the school of”, etc. However one can also pick up small ‘identified’ Old Masters at very affordable prices.

Louis DE MONI: sold within the estimated range $12,500
The Golden Age of Dutch painting saw the blossoming of « genre painting ». Although not one of the leading artists of the 18th century art scene, Louis de Moni (Breda 1698-1771 Leiden) is a good and affordable signature whose best auction result is just $47,000 including fees (The Doctor’s visit, sold €30,250 incl. fees on May 7, 2008 at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam).
On June 4, Christie’s offered a peaceful indoor scene, typical for the era, depicting two children playing a board game under the gaze of a woman cleaning a copper container. A piece of the moral values of the 18th century… for just $12,500 including fees.

Reinier DE LA HAYE: a 17th century canvas for approximately $3,000
Reynier de la Haye is also a stable-price signature who has been completely ignored by the tastes of the moment. A 17th century Dutch Old Master, his works rarely fetch more than $20,000 and his small format oils sometimes sell for around $3,000. At Sotheby’s on June 5, an amateur collector paid $10,625 including fees for a domestic scene depicting a woman playing the lute under the faithful regard of a small dog (Portrait of a Young Woman Playing the Lute, 1674).

For around $50,000
This higher price level gives access to some of the key signatures in art history. Sotheby’s sold a portrait of a woman by Thomas GAINSBOROUGH (Portrait of Lady Fludyer) for much less than $50,000 ($37,500 including fees) and a landscape by Hubert ROBERT (The Tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Ermonville) at the same price. At Christie’s the bidding went to $60,000 (including fees) for two works: one painting by Jean-Baptiste GREUZE (Two children and a dog) and a late 15th century tondo by Luca SIGNORELLI (The Madonna and Child) which reached its low estimate.

Over 1 million…
For the prestige masterpieces and signatures, the estimates are often completely ignored by the most passionate and wealthy collectors. When key works appear at auction, they often blithely double their pre-sale forecasts.

Caspar NETSCHER: 2 million more than expected
Adorning the cover of its sales catalogue, Christie’s star lot is an icon of Dutch 17th century genre painting: a portrait of a woman by Caspar Netscher (1639 Heidelberg or Prague – January 15, 1684, The Hague). This major work had all the hallmarks of a masterpiece with the potential to set a new auction record. And that is precisely what happened with a final bid at $5 million including fees, three times the artist’s previous record. The painting was among the thousands of works looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. In 1944, Woman feeding a parrot was in Goering’s personal collection. The work was only returned to the family of the Belgian collector Hugo Daniel Andriesse this year. Needless to say, the eventful history of the painting added to its value.

Pieter II BRUEGHEL : tithing
Over the past twelve months, seven paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (c.1564-1637/38) have been acquired for prices above a million, including two works depicting the payment of tithes, a scene frequently painted by the artist. For its June 4 sale, Christie’s estimated a tithe-payment scene at a particularly attractive range of $500,000 – $800,000, bearing in mind recent results. The Payment of Titles – part of the same Brussels-based collection for 40 years – finally went under the hammer at $1.685 million, including fees. Brueghel is one of the most profitable Old Masters on the auction market; his works generate more than $10 million every year.