The Back Room: Old Masters, New Life?

This week: an Old Masters auction overview, an Ernie Barnes mystery, a Winfred Rembert groundswell, and much more.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist. Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Illustration by Artnet News.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: an Old Masters auction overview, an Ernie Barnes mystery, a Winfred Rembert groundswell, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,913 words).


Top of the Market

Back From the Dead?

Sotheby's sale of Old Masters in New York on January 26, 2023. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s sale of Old Masters in New York on January 26, 2023. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Has the European Old Masters market found a new lease on life? Results from the genre’s marquee auctions in New York this January gave more merit to the idea than we’ve had in years. But a closer look suggests that it would be wise to keep our expectations in check.

Our colleague Eileen Kinsella wrote that the Old Masters sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s last month “marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings… museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers.”

Recent data backs up her claim. In 2022, Sales of European Old Masters (which we define as artists born between 1250 and 1820) continued a two-year ascent, generating $785.3 million, per the Artnet Price Database.

That total represents 11 percent year-over-year growth compared to the $704.4 million brought by the genre in 2021—as well as its highest total in the past half-decade.

Meanwhile, lots by ultra-contemporary artists (which we define as those born after 1974) moved in the opposite direction in 2022. Annual sales in the genre declined for the first time in five years, dropping from $741.4 million in 2021 to $668.2 million last year.

Against this backdrop, the biggest hits at the Old Master auctions of January 2023 felt like something more than a random anomaly. Consider some of the…


New Artist Records Set

  • Peter Paul Rubens’s Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist sold for $26.9 million after fees (estimate: $25 million).
  • Goya’s Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés… sold for $16.4 million after fees (estimate: $15 to $20 million), more than doubling his previous high of $7.7 million.
  • Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper sold for $10.7 million after fees (estimate: $3 million to $5 million).
  • Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s album of illustrations for the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine sold for $2.7 million after fees (estimate: $1.5 million to $2.5 million).

New high marks were also established for the likes of Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de LairesseThomas DaniellGiuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores (called Penot).

At the same time, it’s crucial to step back and contextualize the new records and fanfare against…


The Big Picture Results

The total for all evening sales at both houses was just under $149.4 million after fees. That’s more than 2.5X the combined $56 million worth of Old Master sales made in London in December, a total that was itself one of the best seasons in years, Kinsella noted.

And yet, to get an accurate picture, we also need to compare January’s auction totals to their respective presale estimates.

(Mea culpa: Although we normally try to collect hammer totals for an apples-to-apples comparison with presale estimates, that wasn’t possible this time. Nevertheless, even the premium-inclusive prices below help orient us.)



  • Main sale: $44.2 million after fees (low estimate: $46.7 million)
  • J.E. Safra collection sale: $18.5 million after fees (low estimate: $19.2 million)
  • TOTAL: $62.7 million after fees (low estimate: $65.9 million)
  • What Else to Know: Experts said that Christie’s made two shrewd choices to spur bidding: first, to offer all 75 lots across both sales sans reserve; second, to return these auctions to their usual January slot after a lackluster experiment in April. The Safra collection was 100 percent sold, too.



  • Main sale: $28.8 million after fees (low estimate: $23.0 million)
  • Fisch Davidson collection sale: $49.6 million after fees (low estimate: $40.0 million)
  • Theiline Schumann collection sale: $8.0 million after fees (low estimate: $6.7 million)
  • TOTAL: $86.4 million after fees (low estimate: $69.7 million)
  • What Else to Know: The Fisch Davidson collection (which, like the Macklowe collection, was sold as part of a divorce settlement) had been guaranteed in full, but all 10 Baroque lots found buyers en route to becoming the top auction of this cycle.


The Bottom Line

Overall, January’s Old Master auctions paint a fuzzy picture of the genre’s future.

The optimist’s view? In an unquestionably bizarre economy, the raw total of dollars spent on the category, as well as the relatively healthy performance of its top lots, represent greater signs of strength than they would in more carefree times. Add in the emergence of new buyers, especially in the U.S. and Asia, and Old Masters may have legs.

The skeptic’s view? The macroeconomic trends have been stabilizing considerably, few of the individual Master auctions meaningfully outperformed their presale expectations, and an uncharacteristically high influx of quality works this season elides that supply in this genre is still an outsize challenge—and almost always will be.

We lean toward the skeptical view. Aside from the aspects above, the art world’s true propulsion is its social value. Yes, Old Master specialists have done well to update their sales strategies and reframe their narratives in a more progressive, inclusive direction. But it’s hard to imagine the genre generating a comparable cool factor and event calendar to new art over the long term.

So it’s not surprising that the stability of Old Masters would draw in more collectors in a shaky economy. Just don’t expect the category to maintain its hold once buoyancy returns.




Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks the disorienting news that there are two versions of Ernie Barnes’s Sugar Shack, the prized painting that energy magnate Bill Perkins bought for a staggering $15.3 million at Christie’s last May… and it turns out the other one is owned by Eddie Murphy (yes, that Eddie Murphy).

Oh, also, the New York art scene has determined that the Whitney may just be the worst party venue in the entire industry.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • The Dallas Art Fair has listed the 88 exhibitors for its upcoming edition (April 21–23), with Alexander Berggruen and Micky Meng among its newcomers. (ARTnews)
  • The sixth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh opens today (through February 11), though cofounders Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani have nixed the preview day and VIP lounge to strengthen the event’s “festival” spirit. (Financial Times)
  • Of the 20 exhibitors participating in this year’s 1-54 Marrakech at the La Mamounia Hotel (February 9–12), 12 are newcomers from inside and outside the African continent, including Superposition Gallery (Miami Beach)Foreign Agent (Lausanne, Switzerland), and Mmarthouse (Johannesburg, South Africa). (Press release)


Auction Houses

  • Sotheby’s appointed Wendy Lin as its new chairman of Asia, replacing Patti Wong, who left the house at the end of last year to start her own namesake advisory. (Artnet News)
  • Phillips named Qing Shen as senior consultant in mainland China, where she will be tasked with “developing the company’s client base to support the expansion of Phillips.”  (Press release)
  • France acquired Gustave Caillebotte’s A Boating Party (1877) courtesy of $47 million worth of funding from LVMH. The piece will join the permanent collection of the Musée d’Orsay. (ARTnews)



  • A slew of new artist representations were announced this week, including sculptor Brandon Ndife joining Greene Naftali, artistic duo TARWUK going to White Cube, and Silverlens taking on the estates of Carlos Villa and Leo Valledo. (Press releases)
  • In Los Angeles news, the opening of Lisson’s Hollywood space has been postponed until April 15 due to construction delays, but the gallery will premier a Ryan Gander pop-up exhibition at Dries van Noten’s Little House gallery on February 14; and Sargent’s Daughters West named Angela Robins director of its L.A. outpost. (FT / Press release)
  • Marion Papillion has been reelected as president of France’s Professional Committee of Art Galleries (CPGA). The organization has also expanded to 15 members, with Philippe Joppin from High Art now acting as vice president. (Le Journal des Arts)



  • The British Museum unexpectedly closed its doors during this week’s “Walkout Wednesday” strikes in the U.K. More than 100 members of the institution’s security and visitor services staff had previously pledged to strike for one week starting February 13. (Artnet News)
  • After 12 years in his role, executive director Carl Goodman is leaving the Museum of the Moving Image to take on the role of president of the Florida Holocaust Museum. (New York Times)
  • Kapwani Kiwanga has been tapped to represent Canada in the 2024 Venice Biennale. (Artnet News)


Tech and Law

  • Yuga Labs stated in a recent court filing that the company has no “copyright registrations” over the 10,000 Bored Ape Yacht Club images, likely answering why copyright infringement is not among the charges in its lawsuit against artist and provocateur Ryder Ripps for his appropriation of BAYC artwork. (ARTnews)
  • Following a six-year investigation, a court in Geneva found veteran antiquities dealer Ali Aboutaam guilty of illegally bringing artifacts into Switzerland accompanied, in some instances, by forged documents. (Artnet News)
  • A Ukrainian art dealer is standing trial in France this week after being accused of stealing a prized Paul Signac painting and other artworks from museums and auction houses throughout the country. (Artnet News)

[Read More]


Hermès wants you to believe only one thing: He is a business guy or he is an artist… [but] he is both.”


—attorney Rhett Millsaps, describing his client Mason Rothschild during opening remarks in Rothschild’s trial against Hermès. The luxury brand behind the famous Birkin bag is suing Rothschild for trademark infringement over his “MetaBirkin” NFT series, which the artist and his counsel argue is protected artwork in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s “business art” practice. (Bloomberg Law)


Work of the Week

Winfred Rembert’s Cotton Pickers With Overseer

Winfred Rembert, <i>Cotton Pickers with Overseer </i>(2006). Courtesy of Brunk Auctions.

Winfred Rembert, Cotton Pickers with Overseer (2006). Courtesy of Brunk Auctions.


Date:                    2006
Seller:                  Anonymous European Owner

Estimate:             $150,000 to $200,000
Selling at:            Brunk Auctions
Sale Date:            February 4, 2023


Posthumous acclaim for Winfred Rembert (1945–2021) keeps gaining steam. This weekend, four of Rembert’s works are being offered at Brunk Auctions, with a joint high estimate of up to $380,000—and the potential to go for much more.

Rembert is known for his colorful paintings on tooled and dyed leather. Like Cotton Pickers with Overseer, they often depict his memories of a childhood spent in poverty in rural Georgia, followed by seven years on a chain gang. Rembert’s life’s story, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow Southwon the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2022.

Two weeks ago, his painting The Black Cat (n.d.) fetched a premium-inclusive $302,400 in Christie’s “Outsider and Vernacular Art” sale, more than doubling the low estimate of $150,000 and setting a new auction record for the artist. The following day, we learned that his estate would be co-represented by Hauser and Wirth and Fort Gansevoort, with a solo show opening at Hauser’s uptown New York space on February 23.

Of the four works on offer at Brunk, Cotton Pickers with Overseer carries the highest estimate. The composition depicts rows of colorful figures amidst a sea of cotton, with white balls creating a visual rhythm. Towering above them is a white man on a horse, the overseer, depicted in profile. A single figure of a Black woman faces the viewer in the lower right corner, a witness.

When the work was first exhibited at the Adelson Galleries in 2010, it was priced at $35,000 and didn’t find a buyer, according to Adam Adelson, the gallery’s executive director. Thirteen years later, Brunk set the starting bid at $75,000, and it’s unlikely to go unsold this time.

—Katya Kazakina


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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