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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?❖