The market for anonymous Old Master paintings
Food for Thought is a series of monthly commissions dedicated to the diverse and original voices in our community. We ask each of our contributors to write 1000 words on a personal experience relating to Old Masters and art collecting.
Authorship does not necessarily guarantee quality – this is particularly true with a large proportion of Old Master paintings which do not have an actual attribution. It is rare that an Old Master painting has archival evidence supporting its authorship. More often we rely on well-documented opinions that converge on a name. On the other hand, anonymous paintings have never entirely escaped the attention of connoisseurs, who in many cases reconstruct an artist’s oeuvre despite the lack of a name. The rise of art market studies in recent years and digitization of auction catalogues have enabled scholars to look at such anonymity with data that was previously not possible. We invited Dr. Anne-Sophie V. Radermecker, who is due to publish her research on the market for anonymous early Flemish artists with Brill this summer, to share some of her findings from analysing over 13,200 artworks sold between 1946-2015.
Artist workshops in 15th & 16th century Flanders
From Antiquity to the present day, a significant proportion of the art which has come down to us consists of works executed by masters, artists, and craftsmen whose identities still elude us. Nevertheless, rarely do we see such paintings labeled as ‘anonymous’ per se: some are designated with location and time (e.g. Bruges school, ca. 1450), some take on a nickname (e.g. The Master of the Parrot), while others simply include a qualifier (e.g. workshop of) before an established name. These are the three identification strategies which I studied in relation to their impact on market value.
Specifically, my research focuses on the market for 15th and 16th century Flemish paintings, where production was characterized by a sophisticated workshop system and often a lack of surviving archival documentation regarding authorship. Many artists familiar to us today emerged from a well-known master’s studio: Rogier van der Weyden from Robert Campin’s studio, Adriaen Isenbrandt and Ambrosius Benson from Gerard David’s studio, Pieter Coecke van Aelst from Bernard van Orley’s studio, for example. Before these ’emerging talents’ obtained the independent status of ‘free master’, they worked as pupils, assistants then journeymen – typically a total of five to nine years of assisting an established painter in producing a certain ‘look’ that met the market demand. However, there were also talented painters and assistants who were not registered with the local guild of Saint-Luke: it was quite expensive and like modern-day workers unions, imposed rules on who can qualify, which was not necessarily related to their artistic merits (local protectionism was often a concern). Therefore many of these names were lost.
The artist from a place and time
We often encounter Old Master paintings whose authorship is simply described by when and where they were made. In Flemish art, such designations could be “Netherlandish school, 15th century,” “Flemish school 16th century,” “Bruges school 15th century,” “Antwerp school circa 1520.” This category embraces a significant number of poorer-quality and cheaper pictures, however, the lack of more specific authorship does not always entail weaker artistic merit. Two significant prices were fetched in 2020 by such anonymous authors: one identified as by a ‘Netherlandish artist, circa 1615-24’ and the other, ‘Burgundian Master, ca. 1480’. The exploration of this market segment has allowed me to highlight the complexity is this generic category of works, with some variables being particularly valued. Here are two observations:
Names with more specific attributes perform better
The level of specification of the designation helps to explain some price differences in this market segment, which varies from generic designations evoking a relatively large territory (“Flemish school”) to more specific designations combining a local city with an approximate date (“Bruges school, circa 1450”). Between these two extremes, six intermediary levels can, at least, be identified. Controlling for other standard hedonic variables (refer to the ‘Methodology’ section below), I found that the more the designation is specific in time and space, the more prices increase, suggesting that the works’ temporal and geographical origins are valuable when no information about actual authorship can be found.
Catalogue notes with old attributions positively correlate with price
I discovered that the mention of an old attribution in the lot essay positively effects prices. Whereas these former names are no longer accurate in the state of current knowledge, they still retain their suggestive power since their mere mention tends to increase the perceived and economic value of the work.
The ‘Master of’
The second category of anonymous pictures are given a nickname that commonly begins with ‘The Master of’ – and it can get quite creative! Among my favorites are the Master of the Plump-Cheeked Madonnas and the Master of the Embroidered Foliage. The concept is relatively simple: when an artist’s hand can be detected in several works but the artist’s identity remains elusive, art historians can decide to create a fictitious, provisional one.
Chiefly active in the last quarter of the 15th century, they were long viewed as ‘minor artists’. Surprisingly, my research discovered that this market segment has grown steadily over the past sixty years, and even tends to outperform that of historical names (i.e. actual identified artists as found in the archives, such as Quentin Metsys), suggesting that provisional names operate as real brand name substitutes. Here are the three observations:
There is a value attached to the prestige of the name creator
Being created by a distinguished expert such as Max Jakob Friedländer is an important quality signal on this market segment, with significant effects on prices compared to names created by other – contemporary or later – art historians. In this case, the expert’s name is viewed as a brand that, in turn, contributes to alleviating uncertainty generated by anonymity.
Selected historical names
Vintage is more desirable than newly minted nicknames
Both the market visibility of a name and its long-term recognition matter in the art market. Ceteris paribus, older names tend to be more profitable than newly created ones, for they have gained a certain legitimacy over time. The situation differs for more recent names that may fall back into anonymity should other scholars not acknowledge their credibility. In the long run, academic recognition, as well as their regular appearance on the market both positively contribute to the value of these anonymous painters.
Selected names from the 1980s and 90s
Nicknames associated with visual qualities perform the strongest
Another variable that affects prices is the constitution of the nickname, which can be a visual characteristic (The Master of the Parrot), a date (The Master of the 1540s), a collection (The Master of the Bentinck-Thyssen Madonna), a city (The Master of Frankfurt), or a reference to a specific key work (The Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy). My research shows that names based on dates tend to be lower valued than the others for they may operate as weaker brands. One may argue that date-based names tend to be less easy to remember, and unlike, for example, the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, they do not convey any information about the works’ typical features. Brand names associated with strong visual characteristics are, however, known to be more efficient on the market.
Curiously, while these names are meant to be temporary, the market tends to be reluctant to dropping them definitively, even when the artist’s identity has been discovered, as evidenced by Jan van Dornick also known as the Master of 1518. If one may argue that the choice of maintaining both names is due to the last persistent doubts surrounding the artist’s identity, others will view this practice as further evidence of the suggestive power of these effective substitutes.
The third group of paintings I examined are named after a well-known artist, but removed by a few degrees – as signaled by words like ‘attributed to,’ ‘studio/workshop of,’ ‘circle of,’ ‘follower of,’ ‘style of,’ ‘manner of,’ ‘copy after’. First evidence of this strategy date back to the early modern period, before becoming increasingly popular under the influence of the Rembrandt Research Project (1968) and the development of technical art history that contributed to mitigating the importance of the artist’s hand in an old master painting. Here are two points to consider.
Firm attributions positively affect price
It is no surprise that the further removed from being autograph, the more negative impact there is on price. I observed that when autograph works are taken as a control group, paintings attributed to an artist are, on average, 40% cheaper, against -42% for studio works, -55% for circle of works, -60% for follower of, 80% for copy after, and 81% for manner of.
This authentication scale has, nevertheless, the drawback of suggesting that authenticity and quality are necessarily correlated, which as you know, is not always the case. A work from the circle of a master can be of as high quality as a studio work, just as an autograph painting by a less talented but identified artist may be less desirable than a work by a more creative artist whose name has not passed the test of time.
A name alone does not guarantee value
How does the market respond to this type of painting, compared to those simply described by when and where they were created (e.g. ‘Burgundian Master, ca. 1480s’; refer to the first group of pictures in my study)? Surprisingly, I found that the two price indexes reveal astonishingly similar patterns. Counterintuitively, this suggests that including a name in the work’s designation is no guarantee of higher profit – indeed, good-quality studio paintings may occasionally fetch high prices, but the overall performance is not dissimilar to artworks with no names attached at all.
What’s in anonymity?
Let’s ask the question in reverse: what’s in a name? As a matter of fact, both art history and the art market abound with names conveying varying degrees of recognition, reputation and popularity. The importance attached to the artist’s name is by no means new, the early origins of this phenomenon date back to the sixteenth century with historiographers such as Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) and Karel van Mander (1548-1606) whose works laid the foundation of a biography-based art history. The 19th century – and its romantic vision of the artist as a lonely genius – has undoubtedly contributed to strengthening the quest for the artist’s name, which has become a key price determinant for art nowadays.
If museum collections are the standard-bearers of quality and taste, then their continued purchase of anonymous paintings – while masterpieces by well-known artists are in competition for acquisition budget – certainly advocates the value of art as objects. Not surprisingly, Belgian museums have a soft spot for the so-called Flemish Primitives and treasure them for their historical significance. A few examples from recent years include an anonymous master/ follower of Jan van Eyck acquired by the Musea Brugge in 2019, two paintings by the Master of the view of Saint Gudula acquired by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Outside of Flanders, an interesting purchase was made in 2007 by the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo of the left-hand-half a diptych by a follower of Dirk Bouts; the right-hand-half of it has been owned by the museum since 1970 so now they are finally united.
Looking beyond early Flemish paintings, a few notable cases come to mind. For instance, the acquisition of a Triptych by the Master of St. Veronica by the Museum van Boijmans Beuningen in Rotterdam and A Portrait of a Young Man by a Nurnberg artist ca. 1480/85 in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin in the last ten years. Interestingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently re-attributed their stunning Virgin and Child Enthoned to an anonymous Bohemian Master, though it was formerly catalogued as by the Master of the Vyšší Brod when it was bought at a small auction in Dijon two years ago. The change of name was prompted by the transformative conservation it has undergone over the last year. While the ‘downgrade’ in attribution not uncommon among museums (and typically not met with enthusiasm), in this case it is in fact an acknowledgement of the painting’s superb quality to which the former attribution did not do justice. One might wonder how this new anonymous attribution might affect its value, if at all? ❖
Notes on methodology
Dr. Anne-Sophie V. Radermecker
is lecturer in Cultural Economics at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and Research Associate at Université libre de Bruxelles where she defended her Ph.D in 2019. She was a BAEF fellow at Duke University, NC and has published papers operating at the intersection of art history and cultural economics, including contributions to Arts and the market, JCEC, JEBO, and NKJ (view details). Full details of the present research is due to be published by Brill in Summer 2021, entitled Anonymous Art at Auction: The Reception of Early Flemish Paintings in the Western Art Market (1946-2015).