Sunday, November 12, 2023

Is the Old Masters Market Dead and Gone?

From time to time there is an article like the one in the New York Times published by Scott Reyburn in January of this year. “Obsessed by the Present, Who’s Got Time for Old Masters?” The great majority of works sold by the auction houses are from this century or the last. The category of Old Master paintings, traditionally ranging from the 13th century to 1800, has recently been extended to late in the 19th century as well. I was astounded when someone said to me when speaking of Old Masters, “You mean like Picasso?”. I found it a bit absurd at the time but now I am beginning to wonder.

Life decisions are rarely made for one reason alone but rather are due to a whole lot of contributing thoughts and actions. However, in my case, the closing of my gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel, aka Stiebel, Ltd, the primary factor was that collectors did not seem to be interested in old art anymore. I saw more and more of my colleagues going into more recent art.

When I started in the business in the mid-1960s, if you had a good Old Master painting or drawing almost every major collector and many museums came knocking on the door to take a look. Of course, there were a number of galleries with good pictures which made for a healthy market.

Today, it seems that everyone wants the newest in an iPhone or a contemporary artist’s work. I believe that to some extent it was always the case that many want to be of the moment and at the forefront of whatever is going on. Of course, in terms of art it is easier to understand and deal with what has been created here and now, rather than long ago.

Last August Artnet’s Lee Carter did an interview with Paul Henkel, who is a dealer in contemporary art and collects in that field. Although he is the son of Katrin Bellinger, the renowned art dealer, and expert in Old Master drawings, I was still surprised to learn that when asked if he could steal a work of art with impunity which one it would be, he said Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774-1840) “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (circa 1825-30) in the Metropolitan Museum. Friedrich happens to be one of my favorite artists as well and I would put him in the Old Master category.

Needless to say, there will always be more available from the present and recent past than from centuries ago. Ergo, there are more collectors in this area.

I honestly don’t think that has changed, but what has changed is the fortunes that collectors are willing to spend on these recent works of art. While money used to be a word one spoke of quietly, today wealth is flaunted. What better way to show off than to outbid everyone in the auction room and sales of modern art offer many more opportunities.

Everyone is attracted to celebrity, be it the name of the artist or the collector. Sometimes both bring added value. If you have material from a name like Rothschild everybody pays attention. In this fall’s sale at Christie's New York of works from the French Rothschilds, the highest-priced painting was Gerrit Dou’s (1613-1675) “A young woman holding a hare with a boy at a window” (ca.1653–57), which was estimated at $3 to 5 million and brought just over $7 million. At the Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, auction Sandro Botticelli’s (1444/5-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificent” brought $48,480,000. My father had a sarcastic expression in German that translates, “For some people that is all the money they have”!!!

The entrepreneur and collector Thomas Kaplan (1962- ) said in an interview with Cheyenne Wehren this past March at TEFAF (The European Fine Arts Fair) that when, as a child, his mother trying to expand his horizons took him to the Museum of Modern Art he told her that he wanted to go back to the Metropolitan Museum to see the Rembrandts. When he became head of an investment firm, he figured there were no more great Old Masters to collect. In 2003, however, he happened to be seated next to Sir Norman Rosenthal, then exhibition secretary at the Royal Academy of the Arts, who encouraged him to look again. In subsequent years, with the help of some of the major dealers in the field, he built a collection of 250 Dutch 17th-century paintings and drawings. He dubbed it the Leiden Collection, after Rembrandt’s hometown. You can measure the importance of his holdings by his loans of numerous paintings to museums including the Pushkin in Russia, the Louvre, and the Met. And yes, his collection includes 11 Rembrandts and a Vermeer.

In an article in the Magazine Apollo of January 30, 2023, “How Healthy is the market for Old Masters?” Jane Morris summed it up nicely: “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Old Master market has remained the same while everything around it has grown. The rarity of great works by the most famous Old Masters means they can compete in value with expensive impressionist, modern, and contemporary works.”

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