The Old Masters Market: In Need of a Revival, or Simply a New Perspective?

Posted by Hannah Marks on

In our conception of the chronology of art, we have collectively come to acknowledge important benchmarks that altered the course of its history. Take the introduction of the contrapposto pose, for instance, which gave new life to the previously rigid statuary of Ancient Greece; or the shift from the traditionally preferred egg tempera in 15th century Europe to the newly popular medium of oil paint. The list goes on, but there is almost always one that stands out: the refinement of a complete linear perspective. Commonly attributed to the 15th century Florentine master Masaccio, the mastery of linear perspective allowed paintings to appear more spatially convincing, thereby imbuing them with a greater sense of naturalism that both eased and enhanced the relationship between subject and spectator. Whether or not Masaccio can be credited with its advent remains a source of scholarly contention; what is not a matter of debate, however, is Masaccio’s stature as an eminent Old Master artist, as well as the importance of linear perspective on the output of successive generations of artists. Throughout the study of art history, the words ‘Old Masters’ and ‘perspective’ will be forever linked, and rightly so. However, we would do well to link the two together in a new context more befitting of the way in which Old Masters are most frequently considered: their place in the art market.

Understanding the market for Old Masters requires a great sense of perspective; too often we see the sector in a broad sense, that is, as it relates to its Post-war/ Contemporary and Modern/ Impressionist counterparts. In recent decades, the attention paid to modern and contemporary works has soared to exhorbitant heights, which has predictably led to exorbitant prices paid to secure their ownership. With Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud selling for $142 million in 2013, and Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger for $179 million in 2015, we have become increasingly conditioned to expect single artworks achieving prices upwards of $50 million at auction. It is entirely understandable, then, that we feel underwhelmed when a celebrated Old Master painting barely crosses the million dollar threshold. But to compare the two according to the same standard is a false equivalency- a true apples to oranges situation- and not only impacts the way in which we gauge the health of the Old Masters sector, but also, crucially, buyers’ perception of it. 

In 2017, the sale of Old Masters accounted for roughly 8% of the global art trade valued at $60 billion. To put it in perspective, consider the top four Post-War & Contemporary works sold at auction that same year, which collectively amounted to $274 million, while the top four Old Masters together fetched $79 million. That differential is made even more clear by the $110 million paid for Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled. In other words, a single Modern work sold for more than the top four highest selling Old Master works in 2017 combined. These numbers would suggest that the Old Masters is in a state of decline, when in reality it is one of the few stable spheres of the art trade, which has notably proved largely resistant to the volatile nature of the market. Old Masters can almost consistently be relied upon to sell at auction for comfortable prices well within their pre-sale estimates, and, despite the shortage of true masterpieces appearing on the auction block- which is often cited as the reason for the sector’s decline- there is an abundance of paintings by lesser known minor masters, whose works achieve high sale prices and routinely contribute to the healthy overall increase in sale totals year over year (Sotheby’s Old Master Evening sale in July of 2017 realized over $60 million, up from $22 million in the same sale in 2016).

 There is tremendous growth opportunity in this area, but to realize its full potential requires acknowledgement on behalf of the dominant players in the art trade concerning the lack of critical and commercial attention paid to the sector, as well as proactive measures to rectify it. In the meantime, just as paintings executed before the mastery of linear perspective seem to us distorted, their figures oddly rendered and incompatible with our sensibilities, the Old Masters market appears utterly dwarfed, misshapen, and fledgling when compared with other sectors.

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