PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

Old Masters in the spotlight

23 July 2009
Published in Attualità, Culture, Dossier
by Giovanni Biglino

matthiesengalleryImportant house-sales always attract collectors and spark the imagination in the public. When furniture and paintings boast aristocratic  provenance and land into the galleries of Sotheby’s and Christie’s from the households of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, treat Alberto Bruni Tedeschi or Marella Agnelli, pills it is often the surname of the original owner that contributes to the impact of the sale. Not to mention collections belonging to celebrities, capsule in which case an auction becomes an event, such as the recent Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé sale at the Grand Palais in Paris. However, in recent years contemporary art has, no doubt, become the magnet for the curious and the more-or-less-self-proclaimed connoisseurs. Names like Damien Hirst, Peter Doig, Jeff Koons, have become the stars of a blockbuster movie cleverly directed, among others, by Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s, Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian. Contemporary art fairs like Frieze in Regent’s Park have become social events and the artwork is barely visible in the fashion-week-sort-of-crowd and queues for the VIP lounge. A new public has also emerged, of wealthy collectors and investors, often aided by an advisor – a public that transformed the contemporary art evening sales into an escalation of record prices. Following from the economic meltdown, booming prices and auction results have occupied much less the pages of newspapers and art magazines. This was not a coincidence. With art being a global business, we are probably witnessing a transition phase, with the market readjusting and – according to the experts – prices possibly levelling to the standards of 8-10 years ago.

In this scenario, a new event has recently (4-10 July) been staged in London. Grouping major Old Master dealers, the Master Paintings Week is a new addition to the already busy London art calendar. The event took place in Mayfair and St James’, where la crème de la crème of antique dealers is based. Twenty-three galleries, including Agnew’s, Colnaghi, Derek Johns, the Matthiesen Gallery, Moretti Fine Art, Robilant&Voena, together with Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have joint forces for the first edition of the event. Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, has written the foreword to the catalogue accompanying the event in which he states: “The stimulus given to the interest in Old Master paintings by the initiative of Master Paintings Week is something we welcome very warmly and our doors are open together with those of all commercial galleries collaborating in the venture”. Works by Lucas Cranach, Pietro Bellotti, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Pelagio Pelagi, Frans Hals, Luca Giordano and Andrea del Sarto have been exposed. Interesting discoveries have also been made, for example Village Festival by David Teniers (1610-90), which recently emerged from a provincial collection in France.  On the back was the magnificent wax seal of the famous Russian family of the Counts Couchelev-Besborodko.  Further research has revealed that the painting originally belonged to Prince Alexander Besborodko, the celebrated successor of Potemkin as Catherine the Great’s chancellor. Or a recently rediscovered painting by Canaletto (1697-1768) A Round Tower and other Buildings near a fortified Bridge for sale for a six-figure sum Datable to 1722, this painting has not been seen in public since 1911 and has escaped mention in the literature on Canaletto.  The existence of this Canaletto painting has long been suspected because of an engraving by Fabio Berardi (1728-1788) published by Giuseppe Wagner (1706-1786), inscribed ‘Anto Canaletto Pinx’, which corresponds closely to this painting.20derekjohnsboucherps3881

Is this an effort to attract and renew interest in Old Master paintings and boost this segment of the market? An expert of Sotheby’s Paris continental furniture department recounted that, in order to inspire young affluent collectors, he had to guide them through the Palais de Versailles almost improvising a lecture in French decorative arts. And for those just seeking the investment rather than aesthetic enjoyment, can an Old Master painting be more stable than contemporary works whose quotations easily fluctuate? Roy Bolton, director of Sphinx Fine Art, has written: “As Old Masters are proving to be the only safe port in the current turbulent seas of the art market, the expectations for the summer season in London have never been higher”.

We have discussed the event with William Flatmo of Derek Johns Ltd. 

How did the Master Paintings Week go?
The Master Paintings Week has been an important and overdue initiative in order to attract people into the galleries during the week of the old master paintings sale. Other than the evening reception which attracted good visitor numbers, the attendance throughout the week was increased both compared to previous sales weeks as well as the general attendance throughout the year. We had two paintings reserved and have made some invaluable contacts which in turn no doubt will result in future sales.

What type of collector attended the event?
There seemed to be a dynamic divide between well established collectors, most of which we see throughout the year at fairs and sales, and younger new collectors who profited from the open profiles of the galleries in order to get acquainted with the spaces, the art and the owners of the businesses.

At a time of crisis, are Old Masters a more stable investment than fashionable but ‘volatile’ contemporary art?
The Old Master Paintings and Drawings market has not seen the same fluctuations as contemporary art. All important sales including those of December (London), January (New York) and most recently July (London) all had record prices for numerous artists and a BI rate not much greater than usual. I think the slight downturn seen in the last month reflects a shift in the market where increasingly works in good condition and of high quality will be privileged rather than the mid – to – low market value works.

What about young collectors? Are they not attracted at all?
A small number of young collectors remain active in the market, however, the number is limited and a majority of these come from already established collector families. It is a challenge which needs further exploring.

Are fairs like Maastricht still the crucial events for old masters?
Maastricht is THE event for dealers. While the sales weeks stimulate activity, the auctions are still what attracts the more attention during these days. At an important fair like Maastricht, the roles are reversed and collectors attend with a different state of mind. It is the only event where the dealers really manage to create a momentum and suspense resulting in quick decision making and often important sales.

Comments are closed.