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2021 Old Masters market review

By Oliver Rordorf - 30. December 2021
Our end-of-the-year market report digs deeper into the numbers behind some top selling Old Master paintings in 2021, as well as discoveries and museum acquisitions.
As 2021 comes to an end, we reflect on the market for Old Masters in an historic year for the art trade: according to ArtTactic, a London-based art market research firm, auction sales of fine art totaled 6.5 billion USD, surpassing the previous peak in 2018 and 74% up from 2020. The Macklowe sale at Sotheby’s and the Cox collection at Christie’s generated a very grand total of 1.09 billion USD. In addition, this booming market appears to be driven by record smashing prices for young artists like Nicolas Party and Flora Yukhnovich as well as the new phenomenon of NTF collecting. As cryptocurrency become increasingly accepted as payment in the art market, we wonder how this watershed moment affects Old Masters?
Installation view of the Feigen sale at Sotheby’s New York, October 2021. Photo by Yuan Fang

Auction top 10

While most art fairs for Old Masters were cancelled or taken online in 2021, auction houses generally stuck with their in-person sales calendar and got creative at selling online. At a glance the numbers indicate success: the sale of Old Master paintings achieved 279 million USD, a 16.4% increase from 2019; however, 33% of this figure is accounted for by the 92.2 million USD Botticelli portrait sold at Sotheby’s New York in January, discussed in our previous market report.

The big question we asked ourselves was what does it mean to be ‘fresh’ to the market? Along with the artist’s fame and condition, freshness is one of the pillars for pricing an artwork. One can reasonably expect there to be a difference in what is considered ‘fresh’ for an Old Master as opposed to a living artist. Focusing on the top 10 auction prices for Old Master paintings in 2021, our market researcher Oliver Rordorf looked into how long each work had been held in the same collection before being sold this time round. For works last sold at auction within the past 50 years, we calculated the compound annual growth rate. Check out the details below.

#10 Georges de La Tour

Saint Andrew
Christie’s London: Old Masters Evening Sale
8 July 2021 Lot 42
Estimate: 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 GBP
Sold for: 4,287,500 GBP (5,902,395 USD)
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: Sotheby’s Monaco: 21 June 1991 for FFr2,7000,000 (£270,000)
Hold time: 30 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 9.655%

#9 Dosso Dossi

The Plague at Pergamea; The Sicilian Games
Sotheby’s New York: The Collection of Hester Diamond Part I
29 January 2021 Lot 116
Estimate: 3,000,000 – 5,000,000 USD
Sold for: 6,238,800 USD
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: Calypso Fine Art, Ltd., 1999
Hold time: 22 years

#8 Piero Pollaiuolo

Portrait of a Youth
Sotheby’s London: Modern Renaissance: A Cross-Category Sale
25 March 2021 Lot 109
Estimate: 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 GBP
Sold for: 4,564,200 GBP (6,261,764 USD)
New world auction record for the artist (first fully attributed work to come to auction)

Last sold: Christie’s London, 13 December 1985 for 83,000 GBP
Hold time: 36 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 11.774%

#7 J.M.W. Turner

Purfleet and the Essex Shore as seen from Long Reach
Sotheby’s London: Old Masters Evening Sale
7 July 2021 Lot 50
Estimate: 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 GBP
Sold for: 4,794,000 GBP (6,606,679 USD)

Last sold: Christie’s London: 1 June 1945
Hold time: 76 years

#6 Richard Parkes Bonington

The Palazzi Manolesso-Ferro, Contarini-Fasan and Venier-Contarini on the Grand Canal, Venice
Sotheby’s New York: Collector, Dealer, Connoisseur: The Vision of Richard L. Feigen
18 October 2021 Lot 38
Estimate: 2,000,000 – 3,000,000 USD
Sold for: 7,387,800 USD
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: Christie’s London: 24 April 1987 for 374,000 GBP
Hold time: 34 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 8.204%

#5 Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin

La fontaine
Christie’s Paris: Tableaux et Dessins provenant des collections Marcille
22 November 2021 Lot 7
Estimate: 5,000,000 – 8,000,000 EUR
Sold for: 7,110,000 EUR (8,000,855 USD)
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: ca. 1870
Hold time: 151 years

#4 Anthony van Dyck

Portrait of Jacob de Witte; Portrait of Maria Nutius
Sotheby’s London: Old Masters Evening Sale
8 December 2021 Lot 6
Estimate: 4,000,000 – 6,000,000 GBP
Sold for: 6,172,800 GBP (8,166,159 USD)

Last sold: Sotheby’s London, 25 March 1976 for 38,000 GBP
Hold time: 45 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 11.976%

#3 Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Philosopher Reading
Enchères-Champange, Épernay: Tableaux, mobilier et objets d’art, orfèvrerie, automobile ferrari
26 June 2021 Lot 65
Estimate: 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 EUR
Sold for: 7,700,000 EUR (9,200,000 USD)

Last sold: ca. 1850
Hold time: 171 years

#2 Bernardo Bellotto

View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi
Christie’s London: Old Masters Evening Sale
8 July 2021 Lot 9
Estimate: 12,000,000 – 18,000,000 GBP
Sold for: 10,575,000 GBP (14,558,095 USD)
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: Christie’s London, 26 November 1971 for 300,000 GBP
Hold time: 50 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 7.385%

#1 Sandro Botticelli

Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel
Sotheby’s New York: Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I
28 January 2021 Lot 15
Estimate: unpublished
Sold for:  92,184,000 USD
New world auction record for the artist

Last sold: Christie’s London: 10 December 1982 for 810,000 GBP
Hold time: 39 years
Compound Annual Growth Rate: 11.527%

Based on what the auction houses published, we found that on average, the Top 10 works have remained in the same collection for 65.4 years – the longest being 171 and shortest 22. Notably, 7 of the top 10 artworks set new auction records for the artist,  some more unexpectedly than others.

The picture that remained in the same family collection for the longest time, 171 years, was Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Philosopher Reading that emerged, covered in dust, in a country estate in France. Rapidly painted with swathes of impastoed color, this newly discovered Fragonard oval relates to The Philospher, ca. 1764, in the Hamburg Kunsthalle as well as his ‘Fantasy figures’ – imaginary character studies he began to paint around 1769. Such works have been in great demand over the last thirty years, which one can credit to Pierre Rosenberg’s 1988 Fragonard exhibition at the Louvre and the Met for establishing his reputation as a provocateur and a precursor of modernism: notable for the material quality of the brushstroke, the performative gesture and the spontaneity of expression. The painting sold for 7,700,000 EUR (est. 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 EUR) through Enchères-Champange in Épernay, which, like dozens of other smaller provincial French auction companies conduct their sales through the Hôtel Drouot in Paris.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Philosopher, ca. 1764, oil on canvas, oval, 59 x 72.2 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Philosopher, ca. 1778, oil on canvas, 45.8 x 57 cm. Sold at Enchères Champagne, 26 June 2021

Curiously, one of two artists who have appeared in the Top 10 for 2020 and 2021 is Bernardo Bellotto. Despite Bellotto’s main claim to fame being his crisp views of Dresden and Warsaw, these works from his mature period scarcely ever come to the market. As a result, perhaps surprisingly, Bellotto’s early vedute of Italian cities – Verona (14.5m USD, 2021), Rome (12.8m USD, 2006) and Venice (11.0m USD, 2007) – which are much closer in style to the paintings by his uncle, Canaletto, now occupy the top three auction prices for the artist. Coincidentally, The National Gallery in London acquired Bellotto’s The Fortress of Königstein from the North this summer from the collection of Lord Derby. It is one of five unique, majestic canvases commissioned by Frederick Augustus II of Saxony between 1756-58. The price was reported to be 11,670,000 GBP (15.8 million USD). The reality is that few Old Master artists have statistically significant numbers of artworks sold in public auctions for us to draw meaningful conclusions about whether certain subjects or periods are more valuable than others. In the case of Bellotto we certainly see that private treaty sales and public auction data point to two complementary segments of the market.

Bernardo Bellotto, The Fortress of Königstein from the North, 1756-58, oil on canvas, 132.1 × 236.2 cm. The National Gallery, London

Single-owner sales

We always take note of the December Old Master Evening Sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s London – a publicly visible barometer for our market’s performance. The totals were a subdued 10.4 million GBP and 18.9 million GBP, respectively. Around 70% of the works offered were sold successfully, which is 7% lower than the figure in 2019, based on our calculation.

On the bright side, what appeared to have been a successful auction strategy this year was the single-owner sale. It was, nevertheless, poignant for us to see the dispersal of the collections of Richard Feigen and Hester Diamond. Both these New Yorkers were decade-long friends and supporters of our gallery. Richard was one of Nicholas’ first memories of the art world, when he was still living in London. The host of legendary parties at his own apartment on Fifth Avenue, Richard gave our gallery its first home when we opened for business in his townhouse at 34E 69th Street five years ago, before finding our own current space. Hester is similarly remembered for her hospitality, frequently inviting Nicholas and many colleagues to her apartment for lunch, dinner and musical soirées. An embodiment of the word ‘eclectic’, She was fascinated by subjects as diverse as Chinese culture, cutting edge music, modern design as well as old master paintings and sculpture.

Richard L. Feigen photographed at his apartment in Manhattan in January 2013. ©Anna Schori / Apollo
Hester Diamond in 2008 in front of ‘Vestal Virgin Tuccia as an Allegory of Chastity’ by Moretto da Brescia. ©Jason Schmidt / NYT

As a dealer and collector, Richard was distinguished for his pioneering ability to discern quality and value across seven centuries of European painting – ranging from Fra Angelico to Orazio Gentileschi to Max Beckmann. Offered from his collection were four paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington – one of the most important but short-lived English painters of the early 19th century greatly admired for the Romantic landscapes made during his travels across France, Switzerland and Venice. The four paintings met with different outcomes: one set the new world auction record (View of Venice, 7.39 million USD), one sold above the high estimate (View of Lerici, 2.68 million USD), one sold within the estimated range (View of Verona, 453,600 USD) and one failed to sell (Landscape with sunset). This is an example of how quality and subject-matter significantly impact the price of a painting, even when by the same artist and with the same recent provenance.

Richard Feigen’s Bonington, View of the Grand Canal, Venice on view at Sotheby’s New York, October 2021


Jan de Bray, Portrait of a young woman with pearl earrings, sold at Artcurial, 9 Nov 2021, lot 44

2021 has been a fruitful year for investment-minded collectors and dealers (and speculators) taking risks with buying under-catalogued works of art – in Old Masters, as with all antique trades, there is an upside for those who risk the trouble to re-establish the authorship of artworks that have good inherent value. This year, we are seeing more players getting involved, sometimes sight unseen, and with a surprisingly quick turnaround. The following two examples illustrate this point.

A portrait of a woman by Jan de Bray sold in November at Artcurial for 169,000 EUR (est. 30,000 – 40,000 EUR). The seller had bought it only eight months earlier from a small auction house in southwestern France as by an anonymous artist of the Netherlandish School of XVIIIth Century. Attributions to artists including the female painter Michaelina Wautier were proposed, but eventually the scholarly consensus settled on Jan de Bray. The picture had been discovered for 13,000 EUR (est. 600 EUR).

A still life painting by Fede Galizia sold at Sotheby’s London in July for 483,500 GBP (652,800 USD) was also a discovery made at the end of 2020. Back then it was covered in a thick yellow varnish and sold as Lombard School XVIIth (?) by a Swiss auction house. After conservation treatment and research, it emerged that the painting was in fact by Fede Galizia, a leading female protagonist of the Italian Baroque whose first ever monographic exhibition took place in Trento this summer. The initial buyer’s 160,000 CHF (175,000 USD) turned out to be a good investment.

Before and after conservation of Fede Galizia, Still Life of Peaches on a Fruit Stand with Jasmine Flowers and a Tulip. Sold at Sotheby’s London, 7 July 2020 lot 40

A trend that we continue to observe is that more female artist names are being taken into consideration on the discovery front. This heightened awareness of the ‘second sex’ is in line with curatorial programming around the world. This year, By Her Hand, the first exhibition solely dedicated to Italian women artists opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Curated by Oliver Tostmann and Eve Straussman-Plfanzer, the show celebrates the contribution of women to the history of art. Exhibitions like Titian’s Vision of Women at the Kunsthistorisches Museum re-examined the patriarch’s oeuvre through the lens that focuses on the depiction of women, while the Poesie at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, reunited a celebrated group of erotic Ovidian themes painted by Titian for King Philip II of Spain. The wall notes referenced the subject matter which some viewers might now find offensive.

Installation view of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1623-25, at the Wadsworth Atheneum. © The Wadsworth

Museum acquisitions

Museums have been actively acquiring in 2021. Although the art of women and BIPOC artists is still at the forefront of museum’s acquisitional priorities, we have seen their scope broaden. Six highlights from recent months follow:

A painting depicting The Miracle of the Quails by the Jacopo Bassano was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art. The work had scantly been available to scholars and has never been seen by the public. Originally commissioned by the Venetian nobleman Domenico Priuli in 1554 and never leaving Italy prior to its acquisition, the painting offers audiences the opportunity to see a piece of Italian cultural heritage in the United States.

Jacopo Bassano, The Miracle of the Quails, 1554, oil on canvas, 150 x 235 cm. Acquired by The J. Paul Getty Museum in 2021.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art announced the acquisition of Juan de Pareja’s Dog with candle and lilies. Pareja’s complex journey from an enslaved assistant to Velázquez to a respected independent artist provides this painting with an intriguing story. Although this painting is a fragment of a larger composition of Saint Domenic, it is a skillfully and attractively painted example of the artist’s work.

An early work by Jusepe de Ribera, Susanna and the Elders, was purchased by the San Diego Art Museum. The museum has another later painting by Ribera depicting Saint Bartholomew. In the early stages of his career, Ribera demonstrated the most affinity to Caravaggio. Perhaps visitors to the museum can now better appreciate Ribera’s artistic development.

The Princeton University Art Museum acquired The Abduction of Ganymede by Sir Peter Paul Rubens from Sotheby’s December Old Masters Evening sale for 716,800 GBP. This oil sketch which is preliminary for Ruben’s larger canvas in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid comes from the collection of the renowned opera director Sir Peter Jonas. The work will compliment another oil sketch by the artist in the university’s holdings, The Death of Adonis.

Juan de Pareja, Dog with candel and lillies, ca. 1660, oil on canvas, 47 x 57 cm. Acquired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Newfields in 2021.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Abduction of Ganymede, oil on panel, 33.5.x 24.5 cm. Acquired by The Princeton University Art Museum, 2021.

Outside the US, European museums made important acquisitions privately. The Louvre added to its holdings of early Sienese art with the purchase of a delightful small panel by the Master of Osservanza and the Galleria Borghese in Rome bought back a magnificent early work by Guido Reni, commissioned by the legendary patron Scipione Borghese, whose whereabouts had been unknown for centuries.

Guido Reni, Country Dance, ca. 1601-02, oil on canvas, 81 x 99 cm. Acquired by The Galleria Borghese, Rome in 2021.

As we know, auctions don’t tell the whole story. Perhaps a sub plot of this year’s market activity is that sellers feel more comfortable, given the geo-political uncertainty of the time, to deal privately, especially at the top level: for 198,000,000 USD, the Rijksmuseum was able to purchase from a French branch of the Rothschild family another Rembrandt – The Standard Bearer, an iconic self-portrait of the artist from 1636. It is certainly a picture we look forward to seeing in the New Year. How about you?❖

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Standard Bearer, 1636, oil on canvas, 118.8 x 96.8 cm. Acquired by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in 2021.
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