How to Master the Old Master Market: 7 Practical Strategies From Top Experts

Don't chase brand names, learn your labels, and keep a conservator on speed dial.

Experts examine previously unknown Michelangelo drawing. Photo courtesy of Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images.

The most recent round of Old Master auctions in London earlier this month demonstrated once again that work by 25-year-old MFA graduates isn’t the only kind of art that can offer a major return on investment.

At Sotheby’s Old Master and British Works on Paper sale in London on July 5, a rare drawing by Dutch artist Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael titled A Fish Market rocketed to a final price of £872,750 ($1.1 million)—more than ten times its pre-sale estimate of £40,000–60,000.

Joachim Anthonisz. Wtewael, A Fish Market Courtesy Sotheby's.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, A Fish Market Courtesy Sotheby’s.

“It was one of those perfect storm situations,” says Gregory Rubinstein, senior director and worldwide head of Old Master and early British drawings at Sotheby’s. “It was a newly discovered drawing by an extremely rare artist. It was the perfect combination of interesting subject, good condition, and being an important drawing that was previously unknown.” Even so, Rubinstein concedes he was surprised at just how high the price rose.

At Sotheby’s main Old Master evening sale on July 5, an intriguing 16th-century portrait that had been reattributed several times incited similarly intense competition. The work, formerly attributed to Quinten Massys and later to Lucas Cranach, this time bore the name of Flemish painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen and sold for $2.8 million, the second most expensive price for the artist at auction. (George Gordon, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of Old Master Paintings, says that given the level of pre-sale interest, the auction house was “pleasantly surprised rather than astonished” by the price.)

Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Portrait of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary Courtesy Sotheby's.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Portrait of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Welcome to the wild and woolly world of Old Master sales: While market share has shifted decisively toward contemporary, the Old Master field is not nearly as sleepy—or as inaccessible—as some might think. The artists may no longer be alive, but their work is constantly undergoing re-evaluation thanks to new forensic technology and scholarship.

Still, the sector can often seem intimidating to the uninitiated. We reached out to experts to find out what advice they have for collectors interested in dipping their toes into the Old Master waters. Here are their top tips.

1. Seek Impartial Advice, Especially at the Start

You don’t have to look far to find a qualified Old Master expert. “The easiest thing to do, especially in America, is go to the local curator at the museum and get advice from them,” says New York-based dealer Adam Williams.

“The curator is going to want you to buy good things because in the long run he or she wants you to give them to the museum. We certainly get phone calls from curators who will say, for instance: ‘We’ve got a collector who wants to start collecting Italian 18th-century view paintings. Do you have anything good? If not, do you have anybody else who has something good? There’s a sort of network.” Curators, Williams says, offer “completely independent advice.”

A portrait of an elderly bearded man "attibuted to Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn" sold at Christie's London for £2.1 million ($2.7 million), compared with an estimate over £1 million earlier this month. Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

A portrait of an elderly bearded man “attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn” sold at Christie’s London for £2.1 million ($2.7 million) on an estimate over £1 million earlier this month. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

2. Learn Your Labels

When it comes to the attribution of Old Masters, “you’re dealing with what I would call degrees of certainty rather than black and white, or mathematical certainties,” says George Goldner, who served as chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of drawings and prints for more than two decades. He now works as an advisor, including to top collector Leon Black.

“I wouldn’t automatically assume that because an auction house or a dealer calls something by a certain artist—without a modifier—that that means they’re 100 percent. It means they’re fairly confident or quite confident,” Goldner says.

Buyers should familiarize themselves with common labels applied to works in the sector—including “attributed to,” “circle of,” and “follower of”—and understand the distinctions among them.

“Circle of” means an artist who was generally in the orbit of a particular artist and was influenced by him, as has been the case with works by artists in the “circle of” Rubens, Raphael, and Frans Hals. “‘Follower of’ is still vaguer because it can be of a different century,” says Goldner. “You could be inspired by or follow an artist of a far earlier time period.”

Old Master Sales as of June 2017, courtesy of artnet Analytics.

Old Master Sales as of June 2017, courtesy of artnet Analytics.

3. Look Beyond the Headlines (But Don’t Bargain Hunt)

“Personally, I think that the market for Old Masters is seriously depressed,” dealer Richard Feigen told artnet News. “Everything is focused on contemporary art now.”

Feigen says that particular genres—such as 17th-century Italian art and British art from the late 18th and early 19th centuries—”have been completely neglected despite being critical to art history. The price discrepancies between Old Masters and contemporary art are enormous. In other words, what you pay for contemporary work is, in my view, many times it’s worth art historically.” (Indeed, the £52.5 million total generated by Sotheby’s Old Masters evening sale in London earlier this month is less than half the £117.4 million total made by the house’s contemporary art evening sale in London in March.)

Still, Feigen says, “It’s a big mistake for people to hunt for hidden bargains. The chances of something slipping through are very small and the number of experts out there is considerable. I think the real bargains are things that are fully recognized for what they are in areas that are very neglected.”

4. Don’t Chase Names, Chase Quality

Brand names aren’t everything. Goldner says: “You shouldn’t start out saying, ‘I want to own a Parmigianino.’ You should say, ‘If a really good Parmigianino comes along, I’d be happy to have it because he’s one of my favorite artists.’ But if a good one doesn’t come along then don’t buy a third-rate one just so you can tell your friends. That’s a real mistake, and, frankly, it’s one of the most common ones.”

5. For Opportunity But Less Risk, Consider Drawings

When Goldner was first starting out, he followed a friend’s admittedly bold advice to buy anonymous drawings as a way of developing his eye without spending a fortune. Of course, in those days, as he points out, Old Master drawings could be had for a few hundred dollars. Today, a buyer should expect to pay a few thousand—but the relative risk, considering the opportunity, is still low, he says.

“Go to an auction, find good quality works in decent condition, take them home and study them. That way you can’t be cheated because you’re not overpaying for a name—you have no idea who made them.”

Don’t have the budget for educational bidding? Visit museums or galleries and look carefully at the work on view to figure out what you like. The point of the exercise, Goldner says, is simply to look as much and as carefully as possible.

6. Hire a Good Conservator

Especially at the higher end of the market, Williams notes, you need to have a good restorer on speed dial. “If a painting has not been cleaned for 100 years, it’s very difficult to tell” how it will hold up to or look after its cleaned. Condition is “terribly important and affects the value enormously,” in the Old Master sector, he says. “You can buy a Titian for half a million dollars and you can buy a Titian for $50 million. One is a wreck and one is a good picture.”

7. Don’t Buy Strictly for Investment 

This last point might seem counter to the notion of finding value and spotting opportunities in overlooked corners of the Old Master market. But all of the experts we spoke to reiterated that it is important, above all, to buy what you like. That way, even if the work doesn’t appreciate, you’ll still enjoy what you own.

“I’ve been at this for 40 years,” says Goldner. “And I can tell you that there’s nobody who’s smart enough to tell you what something is going to be worth in ten years. If someone tells you they can predict what something will be worth in five years, they’re lying to you. Fashion changes, but it changes in an unpredictable pattern. Buying art as an investment is a fool’s errand. Making money in art is very very difficult. It’s usually an accident rather than a plan.”

Williams adds: “If you’re passionate about something and you get into an area that you love and you really care about, you’ll buy well and it will be a good deal long-term.”

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