Collecting and Understanding Old Masters

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Old Master Paintings

The term ‘Old Masters’ generally refers to European artists and their work dating from (approximately) the 1500s to the 1800s. However, the category of Old Masters is not a formal classification of art in historical terms. Instead, it acts as an umbrella term and encompasses a wide range of styles, movements and locations, including Romanticism, Renaissance (Early, High, Gothic, Venetian, Spanish, Northern), Baroque, the Dutch Golden Age, Rococo and Neoclassicism. To be considered a ‘Master’ is partly a bureaucratic formality (a Master refers to a trained artist who was recognised as the Master of a local artist guild) and partly a historical recognition attributed to the most famous historical artists, including Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bruegel, Hans Holbein, da Vinci, Raphael and Vermeer. 

In recent years, the contemporary art market has flourished at the expense of the dwindling market interest in Old Masters. However, the past year has seen several institutional shows dedicated to Old Master paintings and drawings which may help the market gain momentum in the coming years. The National Portrait Gallery in London opened ‘The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt’ earlier this year. As the art market evolves, many expert collectors now advise that buyers look at collecting Old Masters drawings and sketches. These drawings represent a much more affordable investment whilst also offering a valuable insight into the process of creating masterpieces. 

Today, Old Master paintings continue to command some of the highest prices in the global art market and many predict that as the Chinese art market matures there will be a significant rise in interest in the Old Masters again. Sales continue to ignite passion and intrigue around the world. Most recently, Christie’s announced the sale of the lost Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. The painting is expected to sell for a record price but it is not without controversy and the issues of authenticating this painting are applicable to any collection of Old Masters. Historically, sales of Old Masters have reached dizzying heights; in 2016 Peter Paul Rubens Lot and His Daughters became the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold at Christie’s, selling for £44,882,500. 

Collecting Old Masters paintings and drawings is not without mystery and excitement. In recent years there have been several stories of ‘sleeper’ paintings: pieces of art which have not been recognised and subsequently been vastly undervalued at auction. In 2015, a Parisian art dealer Bertand Talabardon spotted an unusual painting in an online sale catalogue from a small unknown New Jersey auction house. The painting was listed as a 19th century replica of the ‘Continental School’ and was estimated to sell for $500 to $800. Talabardon’s hunch that the painting was a lost Rembrandt proved correct and the painting was later identified by scholars as The Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) (c. 1634-25). Talabardon went on to sell the painting for over $5 million. However, there are new areas of sales involving the Old Masters which have seen considerable growth in the past few years. Old Master copies have become a new way to invest and collect Old Master’s works at a fraction of the price. Having been looked down on by serious dealers for years, the market for Old Master copies is picking up, for example, in 2012 a copy of Velazquez sold at Sotheby’s was estimated for £8,000 and sold for £181,250. 

When considering the price of an Old Master painting, drawing or copy the first thing to identify is the artist and determine how important or rare their studio work is. Similarly, it is important to understand the terms associated with copies: ‘Studio of’ means that a piece was created in the workshop of the artist; ‘Circle of’ indicates that a work was created by someone close to the artist and is sometimes described as a ‘follower of’. ‘After’ refers to an exact imitation of a known work of a famous artist; ‘Style of’ is an interpretation of an artist’s style, produced at a later date. The second key factor to determining the price of a work of art is its provenance. The history of a piece, its ownership and interest adds significant value to a price. For example, Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was part of Yves Saint Laurent’s personal collection and sold in Paris in 2009 for €2 million against an estimated price of €400,000. A third factor which determines the price of a piece is its size and subject matter. Usually, collectors want smaller painting which can be displayed easily rather than the large, museum-worthy pieces often sold. Smaller works of Old Masters tend to be more valuable and historically, depictions of beautiful women and still life sell better at auctions. 


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