Despite the multimillion-dollar auction prices that the most exciting Old Master paintings and drawings continue to achieve at public auction, the Old Master market itself is in a curious state of flux. Though clearly a favorite among curators and scholars, Old Masters (at least in America) have long been surpassed in popularity by Impressionism and modern art -– and the market lags far behind contemporary art, with its speculative heat.
Certainly for pictures of the most fashionable schools and subjects, the demand is strong and prices keep inching higher. Eighteenth century vedute (views) by Canaletto and Francesco Guardi are the Old Master equivalent of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne, so the £11,432,000 ($20,126,760) paid for Canaletto's The Bucintoro at the Molo, Venice at Christie's London on July 6, 2005, and the record £18,600,000 ($32,746,478) for the same artist's Venice, the Grand Canal, Looking Northeast from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge, achieved at Sotheby's London the next day, don't seem to be surprising sums in retrospect.
Ditto the $4,720,000 for Gerrit Dou's winsome Still-Life with Sleeping Puppy, paid at Christie's New York on May 25, and the £3,760,000 ($6,619,718) for the Duke of Westminister's fine Jan van HuysumStill-Life of Fruit, which sold at Christie's London on July 8. Dutch pictures and vedute remain the backbone of the market.
Clearly, such high prices reflect an unassailable truth -- works by the greatest Late Gothic and Renaissance masters can no longer be found on the market (and, it is safe to say, that those that remain in private British collections will never leave the country).
Still, surprisingly, prices for the overwhelming majority of Old Master pictures and drawings have remained at a steady and even reasonable level for the past 20 years. While the last work by the early Renaissance painter Duccio di Buoninsegna available for sale was snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum for approximately $45 million only a few months ago (and that price now seems almost cheap), excellent early Italian pictures by lesser names still remain relatively affordable.
At Sotheby's London auction in July, a fine painting by Lorenzo Monaco of St. Peter Seated on a Bench (est. £200,000-£300,000) brought £388,800 ($684,507) and an Adoration of the Magi by the Ferrarese master Ludovico Mazzolino realized £366,400 ($645,070) (est. £80,000-£120,000). During the same week, over at Christie's London, an eccentrically appealing Madonna and Child appearing before Sts. Francis and Jerome by Francesco Zaganelli made £108,000 ($190,140) (est. £40,000-£60,000).
And despite the whopping £6,504,000 ($11,740,072) paid for Andrea del Sarto's beautiful chalk drawing of The Head of St. Joseph at Christie's London on July 5, the price was pushed to that level by a tiny group of only four or five aggressive bidders, the victor being London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni (acting for a client). The Sarto is a beautiful one-off, its attractiveness enhanced by its illustrious provenance (it was part of Giorgio Vasari's collection and later was owned by the esteemed 18th-century French connoisseurs Pierre Crozat and Pierre-Jean Mariette).
Yet, other high quality drawings sold for surprisingly low sums. Masterly 16th-century German sheets have virtually disappeared from the market, so it was something of a shock to see a fine pen Landsknecht by Dürer pupil Hans Leonhard Schäufelein bring just £187,200 ($337,906). "We recently acquired another drawing from the same series," says Metropolitan Museum curator George Goldner. "But if we didn't have one, I would have certainly bid on this one. It represents a kind of taste that was far more prevalent in the early- to mid-20th century than now, with great collectors like Henry Oppenheimer or Robert von Hirsh."
For later 16th-century and early-17th-century German drawings, the market is even more rarified. Goldner was able to acquire several interesting drawings at Sotheby's London on July 6 for paltry sums, including The Three Graces by Sebastian Schyz for £12,000 ($21,126) above a presale estimate of £3,000-£5,000; An Allegory of Painting by Joachim Luckteke for £6,720 ($11,830), again over its presale high estimate, which was a modest £3,000; and a terrific design for a fountain, sold as "South German School" and since identified as by Wendel Dieterlien, for £11,400 ($20,070) (est. £2,500-£3,500).
For later Italian, French and Spanish pictures, the market is impossible to predict. It was surprising to see such strong interest in the 18th-century French pictures from the Champalimaud Collection at Christie's London on July 6, as they were decidedly unfashionable and of secondary quality. A pair of overdoors of Clio, the Muse of History and Song and Erato, Muse of Love Poetry gently catalogued as by "François Boucher and Studio" sold for £1,184,000 ($2,084,507) (est. £300,000-£500,000) and a good but rather ordinary Jean Honoré Fragonard overdoor of La Jardière realized £1,184,000 ($2,084,507) (est. £400,000-£600,000). One wonders now what a truly great work by this master might bring -- say, one of the "Fantasy Portraits," for instance.
The most sought after Spanish pictures are either 17th- or 18th-century still-lifes or pictures by Francisco Goya, though discerning collectors can still make inexplicable bargains by looking elsewhere -- it was an astute American private buyer who obtained the finest painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to be auctioned in many years, St. Augustine in Ecstasy, at Christie's New York in May for just $1,920,000.
Italian pictures are equally unpredictable, though the luscious paintings by the 18th-century Bolognese Gandolfi family of painters might attain "Tiepolo levels" in a few years. Sotheby's London sold two excellent examples by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734-1802): a sketch of St. Guistina and a Guardian Angel Commending the Soul of an Infant to the Madonna and Child brought £198,400 ($349,295) (est. £60,000-£80,000) and an identically estimated Head of an Old Man realized £176,000 ($309,859).
And while the modernistically sparse kitchen still-lives of the Spaniard Luis Melendez are highly esteemed and expensive, the equally charming and appealing (if not quite as fine) works of similar subjects by his 18th-century Italian contemporary Carlo Magini seem cheap by comparison. A pair of Magini kitchen pieces with meat, eggs, vegetables and cheese surrounded by various jugs and pots sold at Christie's London on July 7 for just £153,600 ($270,422) (est. £120,000-£180,000).
In short, if one is willing to go beyond the fashionable trends and popular painters, fine Old Master pictures and drawings are still surprisingly available to intrepid and adventuresome collectors.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.