The geopolitical conflicts and inflation that threatened the global economy in 2022 did not seem to have much impact on the art market. In fact, it was a remarkable year which saw the return of live auctions, art fairs, parties and all the fun that comes with collecting. We witnessed the most expensive private collection ever sold at auction – the 1.5 billion dollar sale of the collection of Paul G. Allen, the late Microsoft founder. His discerning eye for quality and investment potential made a strong case for assembling exceptional and rare works across five centuries of Western art.
Among the 60 lots offered in the world’s first ever billion dollar auction, five sold for over 100 million USD: paintings by Georges Seurat (149.2 m), Paul Cezanne (137.8 m), Vincent van Gogh (117.2m), Gustav Klimt (104.6m) and Paul Gauguin (105.7m). In contrast, Old master paintings, which consisted only five lots in the Allen sale, brought a combined 113.0 million USD. Interestingly, all five lots from his sale made it to the list of top 10 auction prices for Old Masters in 2022. Below is the full account.
Auction top 10
In 2022, six of the top ten auction prices realized for Old Master paintings, with a combined sum of 107 million USD, were sold in New York. London only took two spots, totaling 25 million. These figures reveal a similar trend to that which we saw in 2021 (New York 105,810,600 USD; London 35,592,697 USD). Since Brexit, with the complications and extra costs associated with import and export between the UK and the EU, London has evidently become less attractive as a marketplace for Old Masters. Furthermore, starting 2023, Christie’s and Sotheby’s New York will have a synchronized auction calendar that presents its first Old Master auctions of the year in January – the first time since 2015. This builds on the momentum of Master Drawings New York, which brings many European and English dealers to take up temporary exhibition spaces in the city for two weeks every January. As American museums are among the most active buyers for old master paintings – both from auction and private dealers, it encourages the decision makers to come to New York.
Sandro Botticelli leads in the top 10 auction list for 2022, as he did in 2021, but the price is close to half that of the Portrait of a young man holding a roundel sold a year ago. One might ask if there would have been such a price difference had they been offered in the same sale? The Allen Tondo is one of six variants of Botticelli’s iconic Madonna of the Magnificat in the Galleria degli Uffizi. It is exceptional in quality and is considered to be largely by the master himself, with a small amount of studio assistance – as was common for the artist after the late 1480s. The Portrait, on the other hand, is a rare non-religious picture by Botticelli and a unique composition, despite its historic attribution to Botticini. Russian-speaking collectors have been a driving force in the market for Botticelli in the last 10-15 years but that came to an abrupt end following the war in Ukraine. Had they been in the game, there would have been a lot more competition on the Allen Botticelli this year.
If you are new to the Old Masters market, you might ask why a painting by Titian and workshop (#4) sells for much more than a Titian fully attributed (#10). This is an interesting pair to look at because it shows the complexities of valuation for old master paintings, where “quality” is measured beyond the attribution, provenance, and the attractiveness of the image. Both examples are variations of a famous prototype – the prime version of Venus and Adonis is in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and that ofThe Penitent Magdalen is in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Titian, like Botticelli, was a prolific artist who often depended on the help of his studio assistants. The Dorotheum Magdalene is a rediscovery with a provenance traceable back to the Queen of Sweden and possibly Emperor Rudolf II. Had it been sold at Sotheby’s New York with a full attribution, could it have done better? What undoubtedly must have helped the sale of Sotheby’s Venus and Adonis are the recent exhibitions in London and Boston that brought together all six of the great poesie – the first time in over four centuries.
2022 was a strong year for sales across continental Europe. The biggest star was undoubtedly The Basket of Wild Strawberries by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin which sold for 26.8 million EUR at Artcurial, Paris. The cover image of Pierre Rosenberg’s canonical 1979 catalogue raisonné for the artist, it was unsurprisingly declared a French national treasure and stopped from export. We noticed that besides improved digital outreach, many smaller auction houses have set up their own live-stream auctions. Perhaps Brexit has also made it more attractive for sellers to work with local auction houses in Europe. For example,The Offering to Ceres by the Utrecht Caravaggisti Dirck van Baburen sold for 1.4 million USD at Koller Auktionen, Zurich. The seller had acquired it from Sotheby’s London in 2013 for 578,500 GBP (946,343 USD).
A rising tide lifts all boats
The highpoint of the art auction world in 2022 was undoubtedly the sale of Paul G. Allen’s collection. We have not seen such a crowd queuing to see a preview since the Da Vinci Salvator Mundi. As noted earlier, there were five “blue-chip” old master paintings in the sale which the tech mogul had acquired from both private dealers and auction houses. A landscape by Turner and a religious tondo by Botticelli were both bought from dealers in 1999.
Works bought from auctions include a set of Five Senses by Jan Brueghel the Younger (lot 36, sold 8.6m) bought right after 9/11 at Christie’s New York in 2001 for 3.856 million USD – an auction world record for the artist at the time; a view of Piazza San Marco by Canaletto (lot 24, estimated 5-7 m, sold 10.5m USD) bought in 2014 at Sotheby’s London for 5,458,500 GBP (8.6 m USD) and a view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto (lot 55, est. 2.5-3.5m USD, sold 11.8m) bought in 1997 at Christie’s London for 2,311,500 GBP (3.9m USD). Chosen for their exceptional quality and the artists’ fame, these painting sold well and in many cases, to collectors that are new to Old Masters.
It is interesting to compare the two Allen Canalettos with the Canaletto View of the Grand Canal in the Grasset collection, sold three weeks later at Sotheby’s London as part of their December Old Masters evening sale. Many specialists would see the latter as the quintessential Canaletto one would want to own: an iconic view, in great condition, datable to the desirable late 1730s—a period in the artists oeuvre defined by bright light, architectural detail, and clear water with refined reflections. Despite both being of high quality, one might say that the Allen Piazza san Marco lacks the water and the Grand Canal a saturated crystalline palette which the traditional connoisseur loves. However, that is perhaps a matter of taste. There was hardly any competition for the Grasset Canaletto, which sold at the low estimate (4.5m USD with premium). This contrasting result suggests that Paul Allen’s endorsement of quality and investment value made a more compelling case. So it appears that the platform of a prestigious single-owner, which brings top quality Old Masters alongside great modern and contemporary art, is a successful formula for selling Old Masters. And this factor overrides the value placed on freshness (as we studied in-depth in our market review for 2021). This perhaps also speaks to the importance of New York as a marketplace for Old Masters: simply because this is where the biggest actions take place.
This does not mean that a focused collection of old masters, without the branding and fanfare of a 20th century art sale, cannot sell well publicly. We were encouraged by the overall performance of the Grasset collection sale. Formed over three decades by the late Spanish collector Juan Manuel (Manolo) Grasset, the collection focuses on Dutch and Flemish paintings, especially small-scale still lives and refined landscapes. Nicholas remembers him from decades ago as being a learned collector – in the words of Fred Meijer of the RKD (Netherlands Institute for Art History), he was able to “find an excellent balance between the aesthetic qualities and the intrinsic value of his purchases”. Sold by his heirs, the seventeen lots realized 15.6 million USD in total, 47% of the lots were sold above their high estimates. That the majority of the works offered had not been on the market since before 1990 and were well estimated certainly contributed to the success.
What we also found in 2022 is that cross-category sales outside of the 20th century context do not necessarily help different types of art sell better than if they were sold alone. It did help, in the case of the Ann & Gordon Getty sale at Christie’s. Paintings by Canaletto, Joli, and a drawing by Watteau all sold very well – as one might expect, propelled by the effect of the storied family name. However, old master paintings in the Hôtel Lambert sale at Sotheby’s Paris were less spectacular despite the sale doing very well over all. Formed by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, it was the foremost private collection of French Decorative Arts and the highest grossing auction of its type. Jan van Hemessen’s attractive Portrait of a Bearded Gentleman, which once belonged to the Dutch King William II, made less than half (1,184,500 EUR or 1.2m USD) of what the Sheikh spent on it in 2014 (1,762,500 GBP or 3.01m USD) – at the time the world’s auction record for the artist. The Qatari royal provenance did not seem to have the same magic as Allen or Getty, and perhaps it would have done better taken out of a sale with over 1000 lots in Paris.
Similar to Manolo Grasset’s focused approach to collecting, the Chilean couple, Álvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, also chose to build a concentrated collection of works from the Italian Renaissance. Their collection, known as the Alana Collection, is one of the most important private collections of Italian paintings assembled in living memory and highlights were exhibited at the Musée Jacquemart-Andre in Paris three years ago. The artworks put up for auction, however, were a small proportion of their less significant holdings. Despite a few good results, such as Fra Angelico’s Saint Dominic and St. Francis, and Lippo di Benivieni’s Madonna and Child, less than 40% of the pictures (by lot) were able to find a buyer. So what went wrong? We think there are a few contributing factors. The primary reason is that most of the artists were not particularly well known outside of connoisseur’s circles, making it less appealing to trophy hunters and cross-category collectors. Secondly, as is now common practice, many of these pictures were offered privately before the auction and failed to find buyers which may have discouraged bidding at the time of the sale. Lastly, the estimates were too high; many of the paintings were of art historical interest but that does not always correspond to saleability.
What sold well at auctions?
Whether you make a good profit on selling a picture depends a lot on timing – because fashions change. To understand what sold well in 2022, we did a study on the profitability of a small group of Old Master paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s Part I sales. Offered twice a year in London and New York, Part I (or historically known as Evening Sales) represent some of the best works offered publicly. As it allows us to remove the marketing effect of a single-owner sale, we kept this consistent for our study: only lots that have previously (within the last 30 years) been sold in a Part I sale at either house were analyzed. Focusing on pictures that have not changed attribution over the years, we compared their last auction price and the one in 2022. Out of 244 paintings, 29 made the cut .
The two paintings which realized the largest losses were a Penitent Magdalene by Filippino Lippi and The Dancing Couple by Jan Steen (-75% and -74% respectively). While both pictures are by representative artists of their schools, they had both been put in a recent auction with higher estimates but failed to sell. Therefore, it comes with little surprise that the bought-in records have a dented their sales value despite their inherent good quality. There had been a time when the rustic, country house aesthetic swept across both sides of the Atlantic but today, a picture like Jan Steen’s Dancing Couple would be considered quite out of fashion. The same situation applies to the landscape by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which saw a loss of 20% from 2010 to 2022.
In our study, the twelve paintings that made a profit fall roughly into two groups. The first can be characterized as paintings with lively brushwork by artists influenced (to varying degrees) by the realism and tenebrism of Caravaggio. For example, an expressive Diogenes with his lantern by the little-known Flemish artist Pieter van Mol made 1274% more in 2022 than in 1997. The painting was sold with a yellowed varnish which provides the buyer with an opportunity to clean and potentially present the painting in a new context. Similarly, a head by the Bolognese late Baroque painter Gaetano Gandolfi increased in value by 541%, and a Portrait of a Carmelite Monk painted by the young Anthony van Dyck made a 236% return in just 11 years. The latter had been passed down in the Rubens family until its previous owner bought it from Sotheby’s in 2011, who lent the painting to the Frick Collection’s 2016 exhibition Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture and subsequently, placed on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This allowed leading scholars to agree on its attribution, which was debated between Van Dyck and his teacher Rubens, and most importantly, highlights its importance within van Dyck’s early oeuvre.
The second type of paintings to make a profit is female artists – a trend we have noticed in the last few years and is perhaps here to stay. One might wonder where these paintings have suddenly appeared from: were they simply not being put into auctions before (sold privately), were they by new female artists that were not previously known to scholars, or were they being given a “gender reassignment”? As our study focuses on paintings that have maintained the same attribution between the change of hands, we are only looking at the first category. Collectors who had bought paintings by little known female artists years ago, are being made aware that these pictures are worth significantly more and now is the time to sell. This was the case for a mythology by Sophie Frémiet Rude, and still lives by Clara Peeters and Anne Vallayer-Coster. Most remarkably, a fine portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, which was bought in 1999 for 248,800 USD sold for more than ten times its purchase value in 2022. We can hardly believe that less than ten years ago, Artemesia’s Self-Portrait as Lute Player failed to sell at auction before the Wadsworth Atheneum made an acceptable offer after the sale.
In our experience, the public auction market complements that of the private market but in some cases, there are shared trends– as is the case with both observations above.
Many museums increased their spending in 2022. Notably, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the “Mantuan roundel” attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli for $23,000,000—the second most expensive acquisition made by the institution. A Portrait of a Gentleman of the Soranzo Family by Paolo Veronese was accepted by the National Gallery, London in lieu of inheritance tax under a hybrid arrangement which settled more than 3,400,000 GBP in tax and was supplemented by a 5,700,000 GBP donation from the American Friends of the National Gallery, London – a win-win scenario for both museum and individuals who received the tax cuts.
We noted two cases of museum acquisitions that reunited paintings long separated by the multiple change of hands. A small predella panel by Lorenzo di Credi was acquired by the Louvre allowing them to reunite this panel with an Annunciation already in their collection. Both panels were originally part of di Credi’s altarpiece painted for the oratory built by Bishop Donato de’Medici.
The Rubenshuis in Antwerp acquired a Landscape with Nymphs and Satyrs by Paul Bril from Lawrences, a small auction house in Somerset, UK, for an incredible hammer price of 44,000 GBP. This landscape features in one of the Rubenshuis most celebrated paintings, Willem van Haecht’s House Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest. The brilliant acquisition of a painting once owned by one of Rubens’ most famous patrons shows how far well spent money can go.
We are looking forward to seeing what happens with Reynold’s Portrait of Omai. The National Portrait Gallery is attempting to raise 50,000,000 GBP to keep Omai in the United Kingdom. Recent reports have suggested that the Getty and NPG have considered sharing the acquisition. The National Portrait Gallery had the opportunity to buy the painting for a fraction of this price a few years ago. And now the tide has changed forever as public institutions endeavor to tell a multicultural history of European art.❖