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The Enduring Appeal of Old Masters

Although they only make up a small sector of the art market, paintings by the so-called Old Masters are in higher demand than ever before.



Gaspar van Wittel (called Vanvitelli), ‘The Molo, Venice, looking West towards the entrance of the Grand Canal’, 1712, oil on canvas, 56.8 x 109.8 cm. Image © Christies

Appreciation for the Old Masters is nothing new, and these desirable works consistently achieve high prices and break records at auction. What is surprising is their endurance – in 2020, a difficult year for the art market, seven out of the ten most expensive arts and graphics sales listed on Barnebys fell into the category of Old Masters. Their skill and virtuosity have landed many of these artists a well-deserved spot in the annals of art history, and the scarcity of these works at auction turn the rare sales into frenzied bidding wars.


Jan Brueghel, ‘The Temptation of Adam in Paradise’, oil on panel, 36.5 x 47.5 cm. Image © Dorotheum

Although ‘Old Masters’ is a term commonly associated with works by European artists, the sector includes works by artists of all nationalities who were born between 1250 and 1820. The wider Old Masters market has been increasingly influenced by works by Chinese Old Masters, and according to Art Basel’s report ‘The Art Market 2020’, the highest-selling artist last year was the Ming Dynasty artist Wu Bin. His 1610 painting Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock set a world record, reaching $76.6 million (£5.61 million) at Poly Auction in Beijing.


Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome 1593-1654 Naples) and Associate, ‘The Triumph of Galatea’, oil on canvas, 196.85 x 254.5 cm. Image © Christie’s

Art sales fell across all sectors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Old Masters saw a moderate decline of only 10% from the year before, according to Art Basel’s report. This was less than the amount that the Impressionist, Modern and Post-war and Contemporary sectors declined during 2020. Although the Old Masters’ share of the auction market by value grew to 9%, up 2% from last year, it still remains the smallest of the fine art sectors.


Sandro Botticelli, ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medallion’, c. 1470-80, tempera on poplar panel, 58.4 x 39.4 cm. Image © Sotheby’s

The Old Masters market has fallen by over 60% in value over the past decade, but this is due to the scarcity of high-quality works rather than a lack of interest. The rarity of authentic works in good condition limits the growth of the market despite huge demand, a demand that becomes evident when a star piece comes to auction. A stand-out lot can temporarily boost the market, like when Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medallionsold for $92.9 million (£68 million) at Sotheby’s in January 2021. Although it sparked a bidding war that shattered records for Botticelli, the lack of masterpieces in circulation keeps the Old Masters market at an overall lower level compared to the more contemporary sectors.


Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Salvator Mundi’, c. 1500, oil on panel, 65.7 x 45.7 cm. Image © Christie’s

Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi made headlines in 2017 when it became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The old master fetched an astonishing $450.3 million (£343.26 million), and was purchased by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud of Saudi Arabia. Salvator Mundi is one of only twenty known works by da Vinci, and was the last to be held in a private collection. Its rarity helped to drive up the price – works by prolific artists, such as Rembrandt, who has hundreds of paintings and thousands of drawings attributed to him, do not receive nearly as much at auction.


Peter Paul Reubans, ‘Portrait of a Venitian Nobleman’, oil on oak panel, 59 x 48 cm. Image © Sothebys

Rembrandt’s huge body of work does mean that more of his pieces are in circulation or held in private collections rather than museums, making them more likely to appear at auction. In fact, he was one of the top-selling artists of the European Old Masters sector in 2020, along with Andrea Mantegna,Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Peter Paul Rubens.Together, these five artists accounted for 29% of all the sales in the sector.

Circle of Andrea Mantegna (Isola di Carturo 1430-1506 Mantua) ‘The Dead Christ’, distemper on linen, 66 x 77.5 cm. Image © Christie’s

The popularity of Old Masters has never flagged, and recent record-breaking sales make headlines and spark even greater interest in that sector of the art market. When pieces do appear at auction they are snapped up immediately, and although there is a shortage of pieces in circulation due to their age and collectability, there is always the possibility that a newmasterpiece will be rediscoveredand take the art world by storm.