It has become the accepted wisdom that the returns are better and the risks smaller when purchasing modern and contemporary rather than traditional art. But just how accurate is this?
Spectacular Rewards at Old Master New York Sales
Results at the recent round of Old Master painting and drawing sales in New York suggest that a selective market occasionally dogged by issues of connoisseurship, condition and a dwindling supply of quality is also capable of spectacular rewards.
Peter Paul Rubens Leads Sotheby’s Sale
Sotheby’s sale on the evening of January 25 grossed $27.2m with a lacklustre 34 of the 55 lots sold. But consider the back story to a large-scale animal study by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) which led proceedings at $5.1m (estimate $1m-$1.5m). When it had appeared for sale in a rather different guise at Christie’s in Amsterdam in June 2015, the picture was catalogued as ‘After Sir Anthony Van Dyck’ and sold accordingly for €12,500 ($14,000). Since then, a series of 19th century additions have been skilfully removed to reveal a spirited and rapidly painted oil sketch c.1610 of the type for which Rubens is so celebrated. Horses in this challenging ‘backside first’ pose can be seen in a number of Rubens’ equestrian portraits from this stage of his career. Before and after views of this transformation are pictured here.
Discoveries Become the Lifeblood of the Old Masters’ Market
When, 25 years ago, Sotheby’s found a dramatic nocturne by the Antwerp Caravaggist Adam de Coster (1585/6-1643) in a Palermo family collection it was deemed the most significant addition to the artist’s catalogue raisonne in a generation. A Young Woman Holding a Distaff before a Lit Candle subsequently sold in 1992 for $418,000. Offered again here with hopes of $1.5m-$2m, it broke its own artist’s record when it took $4.85m.
Rembrandt Pupil Sets Record
A great picture by a second division artist can often generate more excitement than a picture with problems by a household name. Another record was set for the Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost (1633-59) whose Allegory of Flora estimated at $400,000-600,000 was chased by multiple bidders to $4.6m. Painted during the artist’s brief stay in Venice during the 1650s, and hitherto unknown to scholars, it had come by descent in a European family. Scholar Jonathan Bikker ranked it among Drost’s best surviving works.
Christie’s Old Master Prints Sale
Christie’s no longer holds an Old Master paintings sale in January (their equivalent sales moved to April in 2015) but the firm did offer drawings and, for the first time in 15 years, Old Master prints.
Prints by some of the biggest names in Western art can represent exceptional value. Works by Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya can be bought for under $5,000.
However, contributing most to Christie’s $4.6m sale was the monumental Titan (1488-1576) woodcut The Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea c.1514-15. Printed from 12 blocks on 12 joined sheets of laid paper, Suzanne Boorsch in her book Grand Scale – Monumental Prints in the Age of Dürer and Titian called the 7ft 4in woodcut “the most audacious print ever made”. This fine impression, consigned by New York’s Ford Foundation, trebled hopes at $751,500.
The saleroom had sold another for $854,500 in 2013.
Christie’s Old Master Drawings Sales
Christie’s have recently appointed two former Met employees to their drawings department – Stijn Alsteens as the international head based in Paris, and Furio Rinaldi, as an associate specialist and Italian Renaissance expert in New York. Italian artists made up half of the top ten prices at the $6.2m sale on January 24 but the sale was notable for the rediscovery of a small water and body colour The Nativity by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98). It was formerly owned by Kate Winthrop Morse, daughter of the New York art collector Grenville Winthrop (1864-1943).
This is one of a pair of designs for a monument commissioned in 1879 by Morris & Co patron George Howard (1843-1911), 9th Earl of Carlisle, to honour his parents at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria. The estimate of $18,000-25,000 looked lightweight – particularly in the context of the £13.2m bid for the artist’s Love among the Ruins in July 2013 – but the winning bidder paid $343,500.
This sale was again topped by Rubens – a black chalk, ink and body colour study of triumphant Roman general Scipio Africans arriving at the gates of the city. Rubens worked his Baroque magic over an earlier Renaissance drawing, adding colour and compositional changes to a sketch from the workshop of Giulio Romano (1499-1546).
The drawing has a long provenance. Probably first owned by Bishop Anthonius Triest of Ghent (1576-1657), it passed through several prestigious collections including those of the French art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813) and the English portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). Last on the market in 2008 when sold by Sotheby’s in London for £253,250, it appreciated significantly across nine years, bringing $1,567,500.