Old Master paintings sleuth Bendor Grosvenor had good reason to bridle at the New York Times’s weekend story proclaiming the Old Master market beyond resuscitation. Grosvenor’s main point of contention was the use of a drop from 2014 to 2015 in auction sales volume of 33% as a measure of the “value” of the market.
Sales volumes only measure the total amount spent; they don’t track relative values of similar objects. Grosvenor has a good counter-argument for why the Old Master market may actually be lively, not moribund, below.
But before we get to that. There has been a bit of news from the Getty that the museum is seeking an export license for Parmigianino’s Virgin With Child, St. John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene (above.) Grosvenor notes that a rediscovered Pontormo with a £30m price tag was recently removed from the export license list. Both of these items suggest that institutional and private buyers continue to participate in the Old Master market per Grosvenor’s contention:
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.
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 […] 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.