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On December 8, 2009, as much of the global economy was still mired in recession, a delicate, sepia-tinted, black-chalk Raphael drawing, Head of a Muse, hit the auction block at Christie’s in London. It was lovely, to be sure—a woman (or muse, rather) with full lips, full cheeks and big, expressive eyes exquisitely rendered from the shoulders on up. Sketched around 1490, the drawing was a study for the Renaissance-era maestro’s painting Parnassus, one of a series of frescoes he made for the Vatican.
Toward the end of the sale, says Jennifer Wright, head of Old Masters drawings at Christie’s New York, “two bidders were clawing it out—it felt like a knockdown fight.” When the gavel struck, the price had soared far beyond its $19.7 million to $26.3 million estimate, to $47.9 million, including fees. Anonymous at the time, the buyer has since been revealed as New York private equity billionaire Leon Black.
The sale went down in history as the highest figure ever achieved for a work on paper at auction and the second highest for an Old Masters work at auction, behind a Rubens masterpiece Sotheby’s sold for $76.7 million in 2002. The price also topped that of a major Matisse, a major Warhol and an iconic Degas that hit the block just one month prior, restoring confidence in a historically steadfast—and, some might argue, stodgy—milieu. Sales in the category have remained remarkably strong in the years since, with new buyers hopping on board, new pieces coming out of the woodwork and a robust private market that’s finally changing with the times, embracing new art fairs and trying to appeal to collectors with contemporary tastes. After all, a fleshy 18th-century nude was, at one point, contemporary, too.
In the first half of 2012, Christie’s reported that Old Masters sales were already up nearly 50 percent from 2011. Its July Old Master and British Paintings sale in London earned $133.4 million—the most ever for a single sale in the department. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, is bracing for a strong finish: On December 5, the firm will offer a work comparable to Christie’s record-setting muse. Raphael’s Head of an Apostle, circa 1519–20—a brilliantly drafted portrait of a bearded, shaggy-haired man—was a study for the artist’s unfinished High Renaissance masterpiece, The Transfiguration. Like the Christie’s lot, it has a relatively modest estimate of $16.2 million to $24.3 million, which, in this climate, it’s bound to exceed.
“Looking at a 12-year snapshot of the Old Masters market, I’d say it has grown alongside the contemporary market,” says Georgina Wilsenach, head of Old Master and British Paintings at Christie’s London. “It’s interesting that our market, which has been steadily growing over the last 200 years, has been sort of swept up in the excitement.” Part of that has to do with the fact that there’s just more money flooding the art market in general, and the auction houses’ global reach has allowed it to spread from category to category. Christie’s reported bidding from 22 countries across four continents in its record-breaking Old Masters sale in July. In the past five years, Sotheby’s has seen Russian buyers in the category increase by 50 percent and Far Eastern buyers double. And for the first time, Sotheby’s will be taking major lots from its December sale in London (including the aforementioned Raphael) to Hong Kong in November for a publicity push and exhibition—something Christie’s has done for the past three or four years. “Growing economies look more globally to what can be purchased,” says Alexander Bell, the international head of Old Masters paintings at Sotheby’s. “It’s natural that that should also extend to Old Masters, which is a significant component of the global art market.”
Then there is, of course, the issue of value. Or, less elegantly put: more bang for your buck. “Wealthy people—they aren’t stupid,” says Scott Reyburn, a London-based journalist who covers the art market for Bloomberg Muse. “And I think some collectors may well be looking at Old Masters purely in terms of value for money. These are unique works of art. And one of the great elephants in the room in the contemporary sector is that the pieces often aren’t produced by the artists themselves, they’re produced by ghost artists. The edition sizes can be quite big. That could be problematic in terms of investment. The rarity value of Old Masters could well be a factor that drives people into that market.”
In this day and age, it can also be less expensive. Perched behind a hulking desk at his stately Upper East Side headquarters, New York dealer Richard L. Feigen recounts the story of a collector who came in last year after stopping in on his neighbors, the heavy-hitting contemporary space Hauser & Wirth (where L.A. artist Paul McCarthy’s subversive sculptural riffs on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were on view). “We had an exhibition of important medieval northern European paintings,” Feigen says. “She saw one she liked and thought it would work with her contemporary art—which a lot of it will—and she asked the price. When she was told, she said, ‘You’ve made a mistake—you’ve left off a zero.’” She bought it on the spot. “And the painting,” Feigen adds, “hangs happily with her contemporary art.”
Inherent in any conversation about the Old Masters market is a conversation about its supply, which, by its very nature, is limited—though not quite as limited as some might think. Don’t discount the discovery factor: A Leonardo da Vinci painting of Christ was anointed as such last year in the run-up to the artist’s 2011–12 blockbuster exhibit at London’s National Gallery of Art. And unlike the much-mined Impressionist period, which spans only 30-some years, the Old Masters era encompasses 600 years, from early-medieval altarpieces to High Renaissance genre scenes to German, Dutch, French and Flemish tableaux. There may well be six pre-Republic city-states in Italy alone, says New York–based dealer Marco Grassi. “And there are hundreds of artists in each of those schools.” Pieces by the Bruegels, Lucas Cranach and even Rembrandt appear regularly on the open market—the latter’s A Man in a Gorget and Cap, from 1626–27, sold for $13.2 million at Christie’s in July. (The contemporary market is also compounded by demand. Records continue to be smashed, but some works have fallen flat, too, suggesting a push of quantity over high quality.)
As for other recent gems, Jonathan Green of London’s Richard Green galleries cites his newly acquired 17th-century still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem that hasn’t been on the market since 1921; Grassi showed me a beautifully painted, warmly hued 16th-century Florentine altarpiece of a Madonna and child plus apostles, which he’s hoping to bring to the dominant European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, in March. Nonetheless, private dealers tend to be a bit more cautious in their characterization of what’s out there, highlighting the difficulties they’ve had in finding works of the provenance and quality they need. But any pessimism on the part of private dealers may also have to do with the changing role of the auction house in this field. Indeed, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and other, smaller firms once served as a sort of wholesale marketplace where dealers would vet the offerings and choose which would be disseminated. Now the houses are targeting the end buyer, using their resources and international reach to diversify the market in ways that many independent dealers can’t.
In light of this competition, dealers have started to market and, in some cases, even recast what they do. Art fairs have become critical in sustaining this sector, and TEFAF remains chief among them. Many Old Masters dealers save their best, brightest wares for the extravagant ten-day expo, which this year attracted 72,000 visitors, some 22,000 more than the December 2011 edition of contemporary linchpin Art Basel Miami Beach. Richard Green launched an iPad app to supplement the displays in its Bond Street showrooms, and renowned Paris Old Masters dealer Bob Haboldt spearheaded a new Old Masters fair, Paris Tableau, last year. Its inaugural outing featured a not-for-sale exhibition of works from the personal collection of one of the field’s noted patrons and connoisseurs: the one and only Jeff Koons.
In a similarly buzzy marketing push, Old Masters dealers have gotten a bit of help from the organizers of Frieze, an exceedingly well-respected contemporary art fair held each October in London (and as of this year, each May in New York). Frieze launched Frieze Masters in October in an effort to contextualize older work as something that is intrinsically related to the kind of art we see, love and consume now. “There are misconceptions on both sides of it,” points out Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover, who says the impetus for the fair came from demand on the part of dealers of historical art—Old Masters and otherwise. “That contemporary art is just a flash in the pan, and old art is boring. Neither is true, in my opinion. They’re both important cultural communications—contributions that relate to each other.”
“Frieze is a good example of what Old Masters should be in the future,” says London dealer Fabrizio Moretti. “Many collectors of modern and contemporary art are looking for things to combine with their collections. It’s not a matter of what period of painting or sculpture. It’s the quality and what that object means.” Feigen, Moretti and their equally well-reputed colleagues (Adam Williams, Stephen Ongpin and Jean-Luc Baroni among them) all participated in the first edition.
And the growth, Christie’s Wilsenach insists, will continue. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” she says. “Our area has the potential to continue to achieve world-record prices. It’s just a matter of waiting for the right picture to emerge.”
Old Masters Auctions & Art Fairs
Christie’s London, December 4 and 5, christies.com
Christie’s New York, January 30 and 31
Sotheby’s London, December 5 and 6, sothebys.com
Sotheby’s New York, January 31 and February 1
Paris Tableau, November 7–12, paristableau.com
The European Fine Art Fair, March 15–24, 2013, tefaf.com