2020 Old Masters Market Review
The year 2020 has been one of adjustment for the Old Masters world as the scourge of Covid-19 caused total disruption to the global art world calendar. But on the bright side, we all learnt to enjoy virtual tours of exhibitions (particularly those paired with cocktails!) and all of a sudden, Berlin is no different from Brooklyn.
On the market front, galleries, auction houses and fairs have been catapulted into the digital age. After returning from TEFAF Maastricht’s early termination in March, we had plenty of time on our hands and ended up by remaking our website – as did dozens of our colleagues in the trade. Read on to learn about what we observed about the Old Masters market in 2020.
Success in cross-category sales
Despite the shock of the pandemic and tumultuous waves of geopolitical uncertainty, a good number of auction records were reset this year, notably in cross-category sales. The highest price achieved for an Old Master at auction was a Self-Portrait by Rembrandt which sold for 14,549,400 GBP (est. 12,000,000 – 14,000,000 GBP) at Sotheby’s London in July. The price is a record for a self-portrait by the artist at auction, eclipsing the 6.9m GBP for his Self-portrait with shaded eyes sold at Sotheby’s in 2003. Rembrandt’s recognizable face and style, even on this small scale, commanded attention in Sotheby’s cross-category sale “Rembrandt to Richter” achieving the second-highest price after Joan Miró’s Peinture (Femme au Chapeau Rouge).
In the same sale Bernardo Bellotto’s Dresden, a view of the Moat of the Zwinger garnered 5,437,400 GBP ( est. 3,000,000 – 4,000,000 GBP), this painting is the third highest price for the artist at public auction. Restituted in 2019 by the German government to the heirs of Max Emden, this view relates to larger painting by Bellotto which was commissioned by Augustus III (1696-1763), son of Frederick Augustus I, Elector of Saxony.
At Christie’s London Classic Art Evening Sale: Antiquity to 20th Century, a Portrait of a Young Woman catalogued as by Sir Peter Paul Rubens sold to its guarantor for 3,965,250 GBP (est. 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 GBP). It appears that these cross-category, highly choreographed online sales engaged buyers – Sotheby’s reported a live audience of around 150,000 viewers.
High points in Germany
A widely publicized nocturne by Georges de La Tour set the auction record for the artist as well as the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold in Germany. The sale took place at the Kunsthaus Lempertz, Cologne on December 8, realizing 4,340,000 EUR (est. 3,000,000 – 4,000,000 EUR). It is believed that two museums were the final competitors for the work. In the same sale a panel by Quinten Massys depicting Mary in Prayer sold for 1,580,000 EUR (est. 500,000 – 700,000 EUR) which also renewed the auction record for the artist. These works came from the collection of Hinrich Bischoff, an aviation industry mogul who famously founded Germania Fluggesellschaft which dominated the German domestic flight scene in the 90s.
A few surprises
As we have been observing in recent years, works of exceptional quality and/or rarity with strong images tend to sell well above expectation. Paolo Uccello’s Battle on the Banks of a River, Probably the Battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE) made 2,415,000 GBP (est. 600,000 – 800,000 GBP). This was the first work by the artist to appear at public auction in over a decade.
In many cases, the exceptional prices were achieved by little or unknown artists. Examples in this category include the Portrait of a man holding a prayer book, bust-length, in a fur-lined coat and cap by an anonymous Burgundian master (circa 1480) which sold for 1,631,250 GBP (est. 400,000 – 600,000 GBP) at Christie’s London; a rare Penitent Magdalene by Gian Giacomo Caprotti known as Salaì, Leonardo da Vinci’s longtime assistant and likely homosexual lover, which realized 1,745,000 EUR (est. 100,000 – 150,000 EUR) at Artcurial Paris; an incredibly detailed and well-preserved Virgo inter virgins on vellum by Simon Bening which made 1,467,000 GBP at Sotheby’s London (est. 150,000 – 200,000 GBP); most interestingly, a Still Life of an Illuminated Manuscript by an anonymous 17th century Netherlandish artist sold for 1,640,000 USD (est. 700,000 – 900,000). It is a variant of a painting in the Uffizi and was on the market only two years ago at Artcurial, Paris.
A dark horse in the 2020 Old Masters market is a small painting in tempera and oil sold as by Domenico Ghirlandaio although some believed it to be by the young Perugino. The sale took place at Christie’s London in December and achieved 2,182,500 GBP (est. 300,000 – 500,000 GBP). Recently rediscovered and covered in a thick yellowed varnish. We look forward to seeing it cleaned and maybe, with a new attribution.
To be honest, we were not expecting to see Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia fly so high as 5,070,000 USD (est. 1,200,000 – 1,800,000 USD) at Christie’s New York in October. The picture has a modern appeal but the condition is less than perfect and Cranach is not a particularly rare artist. The work had been in the Brooklyn Museum’s holding since its bequest in 1921. Not as controversial, perhaps, as the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccession of 20th century works, the sale of this Cranach, along with several other Old Masters from Brooklyn was made possible by the temporarily relaxed guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors as a coronavirus relief measure.
Despite the sobering reality this year, the London December evening sales – a traditional highpoint and indicator for the health of the Old Masters market – totaled to 27,320,000 GBP. Needless to say, the market has seen better days but with a decline of 4,225,000 GBP, or just over 13% from 2019, the pandemic has dented but not crushed the market too significantly. To put things in context, the most expensive work of art sold publicly in 2020 was Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus which made 84,550,000 USD at Sotheby’s in June. We were also curious to find that when plotting the average price of an artwork sold (available on Artprice.com), despite the lower volume of transaction, the average price of an artwork sold has not changed significantly over the last year. Perhaps estimates were given on the conservative side, but it is a positive sign that Christie’s December Old Master sale saw 45% of lots sell for over their high estimates.
Museum acquisitions, BIPOC & female artists
Museums were significantly less active than usual this year, understandably, when in some cases acquisition budgets were put into operations. A few notable sales include an exceptional Thorn Puller by Ponce Jacquio which the Musée du Louvre, Paris preempted for 1,460,500 EUR at Beaussant Lefèvre in spring. Jacquio is the only French sculptor who is cited by Vasari. The Louvre also purchased a large ceiling painting by Giambattista Tiepolo, Juno in the Midst of the Clouds. A painting by an artist in the circle of Hugo van der Goes was purchased by the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
With the black lives matter movement taking front stage of the art world this year, BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) subjects and female artists are evidently more in demand than ever. The Met, for example, added to their collection a still-life by the 17th century female painter Clara Peeters as well as a late 18th-century portrait of Joanna de Silva, an Indian woman painted by the Royal Academecian William Wood.
Remix: gallery x auction x art fair
In 2020, galleries, art fairs and auction houses experimented with new models of working together. We were excited to see Hauser and Wirth host the June Artfair – a satellite fair that takes place during Art Basel – on their website. David Zwirner launched Platform as a digital viewing space to regularly showcase artworks contributed by participating galleries. It seems like a logical next step to take after successfully hosting 30 or so galleries in their New York Chelsea spaces, after the independent art fair VOLTA was canceled last March.
We saw an unprecedented level of collaboration between dealers and auction house, especially in online-only sales. Sotheby’s presented The Dealer’s Eye with a few contributing dealers, while Christie’s took on the canceled La Biennale Paris, that was due to take place in September. Similar to DZ’s concept of the Platform, Sotheby’s launched a ‘gallery network’ section that serves as a window to available stock from partnering galleries, from Leila Heller to Lévy Gorvy.
Although digital initiatives are undoubtedly here to stay, we look forward to seeing you in person in the new year! ❖