Puzzling parities

bacon_record.jpgHear-hear, salonistes. A Francis Bacon sold for almost $28 million Thursday night at Christie’s in London. Maybe it’s time to buy old masters.

Don’t get me wrong. Bacon is my idol. He was the first living artist to bring me to tears, years ago when I was a college freshman. The record earning papal portrait, Study for Portrait II, is a gut wrenching, museum-quality picture. Lucky is the collector who can possess such a trophy.

But 28 million dollars? Think again. I do not mean to deny Bacon the glory bestowed upon him by such a princely sum – if any modern painter deserves it, he does. My point is that the prices of post-war and contemporary artists are starting to make the old masters look inexpensive. The price comparisons with today’s hottest art stars are borderline bizarre.

If you want to get a sense of how much $28 million can buy you in today’s old master market, consider that not a single painting sold for that amount at Sotheby’s Important Old Master Paintings and European Works of Art sale in January. The star and catalog-cover image of that sale, another dark brooding religious portrait, that of Saint James the Greater at prayer, by none other than Rembrandt, sold for just under $26 million – above its estimate, but below Bacon’s Thursday price.

Auction records for Bacon and Rembrandt are now, in fact, almost equal (Rembrandt’s marginally higher record, $28.7 million, was set just last year). Much as I admire Bacon, this doesn’t compute. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew Rembrandt. Rembrandt was a friend of mine. Francis Bacon, you’re no Rembrandt H. van Rijn.”

The real story is not that available works by Bacon and Rembrandt are selling in the same price range (that is partly a function of the scarcity of Rembrandt masterpieces – if The Night Watch or The Return of the Prodigal Son came to market, they would surely blow away all standing records). What is truly amazing is how many pretty decent old master paintings you could buy for a fraction of Bacon’s newly established record.

A $28 million shopping spree at the aforementioned January old master sale could have assembled a handsome little picture gallery. You could have gone home with another Rembrandt painting, plus works by Peter Brueghel the Younger, Rubens, Van Dyck, Zurbaran, Goya, El Greco (attrib.), and Reynolds – and still you would have money left to build a small pavilion to hang them in.

As another season for record-shattering contemporary sales approaches, it’s worth considering that the prices being paid for today’s and yesterday’s hottest stars are comparable to the values of painters whose acclaim has endured through several centuries. Is a Gursky really worth the same as a Brueghel? Every age deserves to put its cultural heroes on a tall pedestal. But as far as my entirely hypothetical, non reality-based collecting dollars are concerned, I am going out to buy some old masters.

4 thoughts on “Puzzling parities”

  1. New money buys what it ‘knows’; what it reads about, hears about. Contemporary and modern have been making the general news more than old masters over the last half century or so…

    But I guess also that less literal content suits our modern times better. We are bombarded with images from the day we are born. So maybe we get more bored with any one image over time than our ancestor collectors? A little abstraction allows us to see the stream of images we are used to, rather than one image intended by the artist?

    Either way, I too would like to see a chart of “entire sale value” and “average price per sale item” for old master versus modern and/or contemporary auctions over the last fifty years. Would be very interesting to see if the empirical supports the anecdotal.

  2. I would buy Old Masters also, if only I could. Last week when the Doig painting sold for $11.5+/-MILLION I happened to be visiting the shop of a most respected Old Master dealer.

    He showed me a pair of small Canaletto views of Venice, small but magnificent. He then pointed out a Rose Period portrait of a woman, small again, but haunting and a painting that you could stare at for hours at a time with inexhaustible pleasure. Garcon a la Pipe of the $104million variety it was not, but a 1907 painting by the 26 year old Master was sitting right in front of me. I couldn’t buy these pictures, but the guy who bought the Doig could have taken home all three of these treasures and still had more than a million and a half left to buy something else.

    How can this happen???

  3. By the way, everyone is speculating over the identity of the Doig buyer. I know who it is.

    It was purchased by a very wealthy man who was told by his art consultant that he had to have that picture, that it would bring the attention of the world to his doorstep. If he bought this painting he would be seen as one of the world’s great collectors of contemporary art. The wealthy man instructed his art consultant to buy it at any price.

    In another city, or maybe even just in another office in the very same city, another art consultant told another very wealthy man the same kind of story. In collecting art, he was advised, greatness is often measured by the records you set in the auction room. His client, the other very wealthy man, issued the same instructions.

    The advisors for the two men of limitless means set out to pay whatever it took to land the trumped up trophy. One finally gave up. The other, who likely never heard of Canaletto, is the buyer of the Doig.

  4. that is partly a function of the scarcity of Rembrandt masterpieces – if The Night Watch or The Return of the Prodigal Son came to market, they would surely blow away all standing records

    This is key here, I think. Minor works by Bacon are not selling for $28. Head (Man in blue), which is about 1/3 the scale, but within 5 years of Study for portrait II, sold for only 3.5 million the day before (1/9th of the price of the Study for portait II). Clearly it’s the image: Bacon’s popes (that is a pope, right?) being more desirable.

    What is truly amazing is how many pretty decent old master paintings you could buy for a fraction of Bacon’s newly established record.

    Is a “decent” old master the equal of a Bacon stunner, though? That’s the question, IMO. Signature pieces sell for more for a reason.

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