'Can Old Masters be relevant again?'

August 29 2016

Image of 'Can Old Masters be relevant again?'

Picture: Christie's

What is it with the New York Times and Old Masters? Here's another piece saying that the Old Master market is declining. It follows what has now become a fixed formula for their articles on the Old Master market: lead with an innacurate and selective statistic; quote prominently from an auctioneer of modern and contemporary art  whose obvious interest lies in pushing, er, modern and contemporary art; and bury the thoughts of anyone positive about the Old Master market at the bottom of the piece (if they're quoted at all). 

First, here's that dodgy statistic:

[in auctions in 2015] the values of works by old masters — a pantheon of European painters working before around 1800 — fell by 33 percent, according to the 2016 Tefaf Art Market Report.

This would be big news, if it were true. In fact, what the Tefaf report actually said was that the overall sale totals of Old Master paintings sold at auction (only part of the wider market picture) in 2015 was down by 33% compared with 2014. 

Of course, a decline in the accumulated sale totals of Old Master paintings offered at auction does not relate to the actual 'value' of Old Master paintings. Because the Old Master market is relatively small, and because not every sale contains a £30m Turner or a £45m Rubens, annual sale totals can be quite volatile. In fact, 2014 saw a bumper year for Old Master auctions, and if you look at the catalogues of the leading Old Master sales in 2015 you'll find very few mega pictures. So the 33% change in sale totals from 2014 to 2015 is not the headline news the Times has made it out to be. The author of the Times piece, Robin Pogrebin, evidently didn't bother to read the original report.

Indeed, the next Tefaf report will surely post a sharp increase in Old Master sale totals for 2016. We have already had the sale of Rubens' £45m 'Lot and his Daughters' (above) in London in July, on which three new Chinese collectors bid, and also the $30m Gentileschi sold in New York in January. Of course, don't hold your breath for any 'Old Masters are back!' articles (except from me).

Incidentally, if you look at the Tefaf report in detail (and here's Art Market Monitor's summary) you'll see that the volume of Old Master sales rose by 4% - which was against the trend in the wider art market. In other words, more people were buying Old Masters last year. The answer to the New York Times' headline, therefore, is; 'Yes'.

The Times article also illustrates, though perhaps unwittingly, why anyone who really knows about the art market doesn't equate the Old Master market directly with how the modern and contemporary market works:

Christie’s, for example, trains its old master specialists for six to seven years, whereas its contemporary experts get three to four years.

In other words, selling Old Masters is expensive, because you have to do it well. You can't just cut and paste your Cy Twombly notes from one auction catalogue to the next, and look forward to raking in the commissions. You have to think and work hard at selling Old Masters.

Here is an earlier AHN sticking up for Old Masters under attack from the New York Times.

Update - I tried to point the statistical innacuracry out gently to the author of the piece, Robin Pogrebin, but got no response. There was me thinking the New York Times always strived for accuracy...

Update II - another part of the Times formula for these articles is to quote a long-standing art dealer who is mystified by today's market. Previoulsy, Richard Feigen in New York has been relied on for a good quote, but this time it's Guy Sainty of London:

The London dealer Guy Sainty, who has long specialized in old masters, said that he is mystified and frustrated. “I’ve been an art dealer for nearly 40 years, and I just don’t get it — I don’t understand where the collectors have gone, the people with knowledge,” he said.

The quote is a good reflection of how the Old Master market has changed. In my experience, collectors are still out there, you just have to know how to reach them. It's not good just doing the same old art fairs. Above all, dealers can't just rely on people 'with knowledge' walking into their upstairs galleries any more. Dealers now have to help impart that knowledge, and enthuse new collectors; we need to be ambassadors for our product. At the moment, it's the auction houses that are doing this most effectively - so it's no wonder dealers are losing market share.

Update III - a reader reminds me that the New York Times takes a lot of advertising from the modern and contemporary sector.

Update IV - a reader writes:

Just lazy journalism here - five minutes extra research on Old Master sale numbers might have yielded a very different story.

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