Doing down Old Masters

January 27 2015

Image of Doing down Old Masters

Picture: Sotheby's, Warhol after Lucas Cranach

The indispensable Marion Maneker, on his ever-essential blog Art Market Monitor, alerts me to this piece in Bloomberg, about whether anyone 'new' is buying Old Masters. The auction houses say they're managing to get contemporary collectors, hedge fund managers, and 'new market' collectors (China, Russia etc.) to buy Old Masters. And I believe them; last year at Christie's in London, for example, a Chinese collector bought a Vermeer for over £6m.

But, some long-standing dealers like to pour scorn on this kind of story, including the New York-based Richard Feigen:

“The disparity between Andy Warhol and the Old Masters is just too wide to bridge [...] These hedge fund guys are not going to buy Old Master paintings, even if they hear prices are a fraction of contemporary art. How will it hang in some loft in lower Manhattan?”

Well, it'll hang very nicely - if only you'll try it. I find this sort of pooh-poohing of the Old Master market, by its own participants, completely infuriating. At a time when many of us are trying hard to help make Old Master art relevant and interesting in the modern age, whether it be to school kids or hedge fund managers, why do people like Feigen have to make such self-defeating comments?

Aside from anything else, Feigen is flat out wrong; I've personally sold many pictures to hedge fund managers, and I know of other dealers who have too, both here and in the US. Equally, it's more than possible to hang Old Master works in contemporary settings, even next to contemporary paintings - that's one reason why there's been a mini boom in Renaissance and 16th Century works, because their bright colours and occasionally somewhat naive style works well in a modern setting (much better than, say, a an overly sentimental early 19th Century work). The point is, the market is out there, you just have to work hard for it. Selling the same stuff to the same people is never going to last. 

Maneker also points us to this quote from Sotheby's George Wachter - the Cardinal Richelieu of the Old Master auction world - on Artnet:

“It’s become a very international market place over the last five to six years. We definitely feel it very strongly on the high end with a whole new group of buyers from China and Russia. They seem to appeal to a lot of people since the pricing is far more reasonable than in other areas.”

Again, I believe him.

I also often see this kind of talk from dealers about a decline in 'the middle market', that is, pictures up to around the £40,000 or £50,000 level. (I know that doesn't sound very 'middle' for many people). Again, in my experience, the middle market is alive and well - you just have to know how to reach them, and with what. 

Update - a senior auction house Old Master-ist writes:

I'm very glad you picked up on the Artnet/Art Market Monitor article quoting Feigen and others. I choked on my waffles when I read it yesterday morning. Never have I read anything so far from the truth - hedge fund managers have been rampant at the OMP auctions for ten years, and contemporary buyers are prevalent too. We nearly have as much global bidding as the modern depts.


And another reader, an Old Master dealer in the UK, writes:

I'm still perplexed as to people putting down the Old Master Market... I'm 30 years old and have a huge number of friends my age and younger who are actively looking for old masters to have in their collection, they have contemporary pieces already but are looking for something thats special, a one off. Granted their budgets can be modest but you can get some great pieces for low amounts. 

I also see the estimates put on by auction houses like Christies are so low they just add to the myth that Old Masters are "not doing so well". We need to remember that Christies get an extra 2% 'bonus' if items sell above high estimate... something I think is bonkers...

Update II - this was a Sotheby's statement in response to the Bloomberg piece:

Our July 2014 sales of Old Masters in London saw record participation from 32 countries with buyers from Asia, Russia, the Middle East, India and Latin America.  The top lot, George Stubbs’ Tygers at Play sold to an Asian collector for £7.7 million ($13.2 million), a new record for a non-equestrian scene by the artist at auction.  Similarly, the second highest selling work, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, also set a new record with a price of £6.8 million ($11.7 million) and was purchased by an Asian Private Collector. That same sale saw 20% of the lots attract bids from Russian clients.

Looking at 2014 as a whole, there was increased demand from new entrants to the category - over 40%of those bidding in our Old Master sales were new to the field, and almost 20% of buyers were completely new to Sotheby's. 

Interest from new markets (Russia and Asia) was very much alive in 2014, mixed with competition from the established markets (Europe and America).

Update III - and with excellent timing, here's a more upbeat piece in The Art Newspaper on how other Old Master dealers are trying to change with the times. Those cited are based mainly in London.

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