New to Old Masters
While some Old Master collectors grew up surrounded by art of the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo, many others discover Old Masters later on in life. If you are new to this field of collecting, let us help you get quickly oriented.
Who are the ‘Old Masters’?
By convention of the global art market and museum world, ‘Old Masters’ generally describes paintings or drawings produced in Europe between 1200 and 1850, with some variation in the precise cut-off dates. The term tends not to describe the so-called ‘decorative arts’ (sculpture, objects, furniture, porcelain, etc.), though often the two are collected and exhibited together as you can see at the Frick Collection in New York or the Wallace Collection in London.
There are many important collectors of Old Master paintings who also venture into contemporary, impressionist and modern art. The Frankfurt-born leather mogul Robert von Hirsch (1883-1977), for instance, started collecting Modern and Impressionism at the age of 24 and expanded to include Old Masters in his 40s; paintings formerly in his collection – counting among them Cranach’s Judgement of Paris (Kunstmuseum, Basel) and Giovanni di Paolo’s Branchini Madonna (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena) – are dispersed across museums worldwide. Today in New York, one can visit the Hill Art Foundation in Chelsea, which began as a private institution that focused on their Post-War collection and now expanded to include European bronzes and old master paintings more recently acquired by the founder.
Your first Old Master painting
Decide what you like
The most important criterion is deciding what you like, be it subject-matter or period. Art collecting is, after all, an added pleasure in life so we think it’s important to follow your instincts. You may be drawn to portraits or a sensual mythological scenes – or perhaps you prefer something non-figural; these are good starting points. Our Discover section could prompt some ideas. Once you have narrowed down the parameters of your collecting interest, the search will be much easier.
Get market savvy and fix a budget
Looking for a Rembrandt Self-Portrait with a $100,000 budget? It’s time to do some market research and get realistic. There are in fact countless opportunities to acquire well-painted, authentic Old Master paintings at every price point; even with a budget of $100,000 and less, choices are abundant – and perhaps that is exactly the issue. Educate yourself about the market by focusing on the best available, museum-quality works in the current market (hint: this is how we all got started). A good starting point is to see what museums are adding to their collections, either through their acquisition budget or private donation.
Continue reading to learn about our price filters in the ‘Discover’ section and auction records which can help you learn about the Old Masters market.
Learn how to judge the quality of an Old Master painting
The selling and buying of art is often subjective and serendipitous and the price is ultimately what another person wishes to pay. There is no simple formula for determining the value of a painting but there are contributing factors that affect the current market price. In general, a combination of the following factors play a role in the pricing of an Old Master painting (as well as drawings and sculpture):
How do you know a painting is by Rubens, and not by his apprentice Justus van Egmont? In other words, is it by Rubens himself (autograph), attributed to, circle of, or follower of Rubens?
This question brings us to the traditional field of connoisseurship, which is the ability to make trained judgements about authorship and attribution. The most reliable guide for you is the ‘literature’, or the material written by acknowledged scholars in the field, supporting the attribution. In addition, and sometimes in the case of a recent discovery the alternative, is the spoken opinion of a curator or specialist in the field. Their expertise is typically developed through looking at tens of thousands of artworks and recognizing stylistic similarities that would indicate the same hand.
02/ Scientific methods
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.
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.
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.
Good critical reception generally means higher market value. This has been true since the days of Giorgio Vasari and Karel van Mander 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’?
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. Some collectors are more forgiving about the condition, although we tend to deal in (and generally recommend you buy) works that are well preserved – not just for the ‘air rights‘.
In our experience, new collectors tend to be most surprised to learn that in the Old Masters market, works by the same artist can sell for drastically different prices (maybe adding a zero to the figure) depending on their condition.
Therefore it is worth knowing the distinction between superficial disfiguration by dirt and discolored varnish, which can be easily treated (see photo below), 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 of course here to help you make those judgements.
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; an oversized anonymous painting of an illuminated book was sold at auction for $1.64 million in Janurary 2020 (see image below).
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 fans go for – shows that rarity could also mean a less competitive pricing.
There is good provenance, no provenance and bad provenance.
01/ 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.
02/ No provenance
need not be significant as many paintings disappear from sight for centuries – this is very common! 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.
03/ 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.
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 auction records, which are widely available online. 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.
Find your favorite way to shop
Auction houses are analogous to ‘wholesalers’ of Old Master paintings. Each auction season, a leading auction house would typically handle a few hundred Old Master paintings that are supplied by the three “D”s’ – death, debt and divorce – a big proportion of available Old Masters on the market that includes forgotten treasures unseen for generations. Almost all the works are sold as is, which means that the buyers are expected to make their own judgement about quality and value. Besides the large selection of works offered, the buying process is relatively transparent and special payment options could be attractive to certain clients such as those from mainland China where wiring money to the United States or Europe could be complicated.
It can be exhilarating to participate in a live auction – especially if you win a bidding war! An additional advantage of bidding in public as a new collector is that you might find it reassuring that there is someone else who wants the same thing as you. If that matters to you then please beware: it might take some getting used to the so-called ‘chandeliering’ – a cunning strategy practiced by auctioneers to create the illusion of bidding when there isn’t any. Also, some artworks have a third-party or in-house guarantee, which may not mean that your ‘bidding opponent’ is quite as straightforward as you think.
Auction houses do give a five year warranty of authenticity and have the cash flow to be able to back this up if necessary.
Art fairs have been around since the sixteenth century and are an enjoyable and social way for you to look at art for sale in a relatively short space of time. In a fair such as TEFAF dealers will bring the best that they have to offer. The best fairs have strict vetting procedures which involve groups of independent experts looking at everything being offered for sale before the fair opens to ensure that it is in good condition and properly described. If you are serious about collecting, come during the first few days of a fair as there can be competition to buy the most desirable things (tip: if you want to learn about prices, this information will not be available after the work has been sold). An additional benefit of the fair process is that you will have direct interactions with the dealers but also curators, conservators and other collectors all at the same time. This reinforces a sense of being part of the collecting community which is a big part of the fun.
Practically speaking, buying Old Masters from a gallery means that you pay a predictable market price. To put it differently, if da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi had been put on the market privately, it would not come anywhere near the record-smashing 450 million USD it achieved in auction. A reputable dealer will ask every client the same price for the same work of art and you as buyer can decide whether you want to pay the price, or make an offer that is within a reasonable range of the asking price. There is often flexibility in the buying process – you have time to think about the purchase, trying it out at home, come up with creative payment solutions etc…
Galleries also tend to have a personality and a ‘look’ because the dealers behind the scene are selective about the artworks they take on for sale. It is complementary to the auction market, which is high in volume and low in selectivity. Dealers will also spend time with their collectors, educating them, taking them to museums and exhibitions. Often dealers and collectors end up being friends and this relationship is important. It means that a dealer will prioritize loyal collectors and offer them new paintings first. You can rely upon dealers to provide an excellent after sale service including organizing shipping, framing, restoration and hanging as appropriate. Usually a dealer will offer you something which has already been cleaned, framed and authenticated so there are no (bad) surprises.