Collecting guide

How is value determined for an Old Master painting?

01/ Authenticity

Caravaggio, Boy Peeling Fruit, ca. 1592-93, Royal Collection Trust with a copy of the painting by a follower of the artist

Connoisseurship rules

How do you know a painting is by Caravaggio, and not by someone active in his circle or painted in his style a decade or so later?  The question takes us to the traditional field of connoisseurship – the ability to make trained judgements about authorship and attribution. This expertise is typically developed through looking at tens of thousands of artworks and recognizing stylistic similarities that would indicate the same hand. Although when it comes to buying and selling art, we rely on the published opion of acknowledged scholars in the field supporting the attribution. Sometimes the alternative is the spoken opinion of a curator or specialist in the field, which is more common the case for a recent discovery.

From our journal

Scientific support

In recent years, scientific methods have increasingly assisted specialists with attributions. Dendrochronology – the testing of the age of wood panels and chemical analysis of painting pigments are both quite commonly used.

While Nicholas was at Christie’s, the Old Masters department oversaw the carbon isotope testing of pigments which confirmed the attribution of an early, unusually Catholic painting by Vermeer, Saint Praxedis (see image below). Conducted by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, technical analysis concluded that the painting contained lead white with the same chemical property exhibited by in another Vermeer from around the same period (Diana and her Nymphs, Mauritshuis, The Hague). Since artists in those days ground their own pigments, Santa Praxedis could only have been painted by Vermeer. As a general rule, science is best used to confirm the date and place in which a work was executed. It should be used in conjunction with connoisseurship.

Johannes Vermeer, Saint Praxedis, 2014, private collection

Signatures are a plus

Do signatures confirm authenticity? This is a question we frequently get asked by new collectors. In fact, on the whole, few Old Master paintings, and even fewer drawings are signed. Signatures are much more commonly found on Dutch and Flemish paintings and were often quite elaborate, almost part of the work of art.

Authenticity guaranteed

Last but not least, leading auction houses and reputable dealers stand behind their attributions and when the rare problems occur, will refund the purchase price if an attribution turns out to be wrong.

02/ Fame of the artist

Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, oil on panel, 52.5 x 40.2 cm., National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on canvas, ca. 1654-56, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Good critical reception generally means higher market value. This has been true since the days of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) and Karel van Mander (1548-1606) who wrote artist biographies but also ranked them. This is compounded when the most highly-rated artists are also extremely rare, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

The hierarchy can sometimes change with the movement of fashion. Caravaggio and Vermeer were obscure for centuries after their death until the early 20th century,  when intelligent criticism combined with the spirit of the time brought about the alchemy of total re-evaluation.

In many cases, however, there is a general pecking order of desirability that tends not to change much. Rubens, Cranach, Bruegel and many successful artists kept an active workshop with assistants, or had followers (perhaps even after their lifetime) who would paint the same ‘look for less’. In the field of French rococo art, Watteau, Boucher, Chardin and Fragonard overshadow Lancret, Huet, Roland de la Porte and Trinquesse.

For most collectors, a fundamental question to consider is – do you want an execptional work by a less big name, or do you only want recognizable ‘brands’?

03/ Condition matters

A restorer removes darkened varnish from a painting by van Goyen. Film still from Frederick Wiseman, National Gallery, 2014

Is a heavily restored da Vinci still considered by the master himself? Without getting too deep in the ontological debate, the quest for owning artworks in good condition is in hope that the artwork is as close as possible to how the artist intended it to be. While some collectors are more forgiving about the condition than others,  we tend to deal in and generally recommend works that are well preserved – there is more to Old Masters than just the ‘air rights‘ (or NFT).

Works by the same artist can sell for drastically different prices – maybe adding a zero to the figure – depending on their condition. This often comes as a big surprise to many new collectors of Old Masters.

Therefore, it is worth knowing the distinction between superficial disfiguration by dirt and discolored varnish, which can be easily treated, and structural issues with the support (such as panel, canvas, paper or copper), loss or oxidation of the pigments which can be more complicated to fix. Feel free to familiarize yourself with the basic constituents of a painting – the support, pigments and binding, and varnish – and other technical terms on our Glossary page, penned by the restorer Dianne Modestini. We are always here to assist you with understanding these terms, should that be of interest.

04/ Rarity and appeal of the subject

Few old master artists have the recognition-factor of an Andy Warhol, Basquiat or Richter. In today’s Old Masters market, name is not everything.

It is worth noting that rarity is not a guarantee of value and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The private selling of the only full-length Rembrandt portraits which Nicholas oversaw during his tenure at Christie’s is a classic case of rarity increasing value. The portrait pair was acquired in a joint agreement by the Musée du Louvre, Paris and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam for €160 million. On the other hand, Saint Praxides, an atypical Catholic-subject Vermeer from his early period (see ‘Authenticity’ section above for details) – not quite the look most Vermeer lovers go for – shows that rarity could also mean a less competitive pricing.

05/ Provenance

For Old Master paintings, there are many historical archival materials available to help us piece together the information about past ownership. In recent decades, initiatives such as the Getty Provenance Index and the RKD have pushed for their digitization, which allows art collectors and the general public to access such information with ease. Here are some things to look for:

Good provenance such as the documented ownership of a painting by a famous person or respected collector such as Catherine the Great, the Rockerfellers, or Sir Robert Walpole adds value. Besides the obvious prestige, being in a distinguished collection usually implies that the artwork is being properly looked after. In the long run, it could make a difference in the condition of the artwork.

No provenance need not be significant as many paintings disappear from sight for centuries – rest assured, this is extremely common! For example, the Cimabue that was rediscovered in a kitchen in France and auctioned in 2019 had been out of sight for centuries. However, in rare cases, it can be an indicator that you are looking at a forgery. The high profile scandal of Ruffini fakes in recent years fall under this category.

Bad provenance is when a work has been stolen at any time or was forcibly sold during the period 1933-45. It is advisable to insist upon a ‘clean bill of health’ from the Art Loss Registry as well as to check with specialized databases. Any auction house or reputable dealer will do this as a matter of course. After a looted artwork has been returned to the rightful owners through the process of restitution, the artwork can once again be on the market. An important example of restitution is the Goudstikker collection. It belonged to the preeminent Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker (1897-1940) and was looted Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Around 200 of the approximately 1400 works of art have been returned to his heirs.

Jacques Goudstikker’s "Blackbook", a record of his art collection before his flight from Amsterdam in May 1940

06/ Recent market history

Antonello da Messina, Christ at the Column, Musée du Louvre, Paris

It is worth knowing whether the artwork you are considering to acquire has been on the market recently because that can give you an idea of the baseline value the current seller seeks from the sale.

The simplest way to get started is to check public auction records – the alternative, private sales made through galleries, is not public information. Many auction houses put this information up on their websites, if not, you can often find it on a third-party database like the Price Database at artnet. Beware that artwork titles or attributions may have changed since the artwork last appeared on the market. It will also be difficult to track down artworks that are sold with no specific names attached (e.g. 16th Century Netherlandish). As a matter of principal, the artworks we sell will be provided with a fact sheet that includes, to our best knowledge, all the recent auction histories.

Auction prices are a good general guide for value (and how much you should consider offering) but not infallible. Sometimes competitive bidding between two very determined buyers will drive a price up beyond its true market value. Conversely, good paintings can be overlooked or misjudged during the relatively brief moment of being exposed to the market place – a ‘bought-in’ lot that failed to sell in auction does not necessarily mean that the painting is worth less than the estimate. A famous case of this was a small panel by Antonello da Messina which went unsold at Christie’s in 1992 because of doubts about its authenticity which were subsequently dismissed. The painting was later bought privately by the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Another factor to consider is the fact that certain artists, or types of works by an artist tend not to be sold through auction (e.g. Pontormo). And what appears in auction may not be the subject or period that is comparable to a work you are considering buying or selling. ❖

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