New Boom for Old Master in the crisis?

The virus holds the world still in its clutches. Millions of people cannot attend exhibitions in museums or galleries to see old or new masterpieces in-person. The art market has to cope with the ongoing situation of closed spaces and cancelled art fairs. At the same time there seems to be a new trend: extraordinary high prices for Old Masters.

When last month, on January 29, 2021 the beautiful painting “Young Man Holding a Roundel” came up for auction at Sotheby’s, this was one rare example of an original by Italian master Sandro Botticelli. The work dates between 1470 and 1480 and is said to be one of Botticelli’s finest portraits. The painting was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $ 92.1 million by American art collector Sheldon Solow, probably to a Russian collector. This marks not only a new record price for Botticelli but seems to be the second most expensive Old Master painting sold at auction after the spectacular price fetched by the famous Leonardo da Vinci work “Salvator Mundi” four years ago. At that time, the Old Master sector of the art market seemed to be at a difficult point: There were less and less collectors willing to pay for older works. The decline of the Old Master sector had two main reasons. First, there were less remarkable works available as only a few collectors were prepared to sell their works. And second, there is no guarantee to get an authentic work. Within the last years, we have seen some spectacular art forgery scandals in different countries around the world: the names of Beltracchi, Knoedler or Ruffini have reached an inglorious prominence in the art world. The consequence was that supply and demand for Old Masters seemed to stagnate. However, if one analyses the charts published by artprice, statista and other big data platforms for the sector of the Old Masters for the last decade, this turns out to be inaccurate.The Old Master sector is extremely stable – even in the difficult year 2009 this sector achieved good sales.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction sales worldwide from 2000 to 2017, by category in billion US dollars


The Botticelli sold last month seemed to emphasize this trend in the art market as collectors still seemed to be willing to sell their works – and at the same time that there is a growing interest to purchase important European masterpieces from outside of Europe. The bidder for Botticelli was likely a Russian and the underbidder was – as Sotheby’s stated – an Asian collector.

If we look at the last year’s auctions we can underpin the trend that the Old Master sector is stable. When Sotheby’s held its “Rembrandt to Richter” auction half a year ago in the middle of the pandemic crisis on July 28, 2020, the lots span works dating from the 15th century up to the present time. The marketing aimed to present the Old Masters as part of the global art history. Rembrandt was commercialized as an “old” superstar – he was named in one breath with Richter, one of the living superstars in the world. The auction was held as a hybrid event: The auctioneer stood on his rostrum in London facing screens where his colleagues next door and in New York interacted with bidders on the phone and with some in-person bidders whereas offers came in online as well. The Rembrandt portrait from 1632 fetched a record price for a self-portrait by the famous Dutch painter: It was sold for $ 18.7 million one reason is certainly that the sold portrait was one of just three self-portraits of Rembrandt which still belonged to private collectors and no to museums. The buyer of the painting came from New York, no details are out yet and the painting hasn’t been seen since then.

The Old Master sector seems to be a stable part of the global art market. Maybe in the current time people are longing for well-known and familiar names and subjects. If an investment approach is one of the motivations in some sales besides this yearning for established art might play a role as well. Some people have lost a fortune and need to sell their art works, at the same time other people made a fortune and look for a safe haven for their capital. It seems that an Old Master can survive even the current storm in the art market!

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