Sold masters

voge-1A Rembrandt is coming up for auction this fall, highlighting anew the relationship of old-master and postwar-contemporary values. “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” from 1658, owned by pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, is the kind of picture that comes to market only once in a blue moon. It’s a museum piece. The Christie’s estimate is $30-41 million, a record for an old master.

Compare that to sums recently paid for new and historically recent works: a reported $140 million for a Pollock, $86 million for a Bacon triptych, almost $24 million for a Koons sculpture (unadjusted dollars). If the sale comes in toward the low end of the estimate, the Rembrandt would be in the same league as Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” (close to $34 million).

To be sure, those extraordinary prices are from the frothiest of the boom years. But the question remains, as the downturn approaches its anniversary, has the widely anticipated realignment of old master values come about? Is there really a “flight to quality” and blue chip art?

1 thought on “Sold masters”

  1. James Wilentz of OldMastersNewPerspectives writes:

    It’s the paradox of rarity that applies to the art market’s highest end.Because here have been so few great Old Masters pictures to go around for so long, collectors had to find their trophy pieces in a market with a more steady supply. It’s not as if Old Masters didn’t use to trump contemporary art.. Think about the enormous prices Frick or Mellon paid to form their collections. That wasn’t because they had a more well-rounded taste; it’s because Duveen and Berenson were pilfering the coffers of Europe to make such acquisitions possible.

    In terms of an overall shift today, I’d agree that there hasn’t been a major recalibration. However, take a look at some of the sales figures during the summer auctions in London this year. Old Masters actually outsold contemporary art.

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