Hear-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.