The notion of becoming a collector of Old Master paintings — a category at Christie’s that spans 500 years of art across prices ranging from a few thousand pounds to £450 million — can seem intimidating. But, as specialist Maja Markovic explains in the video above — with the help of some examples being sold in Christie’s Old Masters Evening sale in London on 3 December — there are a few basic rules you can follow to secure a work you love, as well as a good investment.
Below are some more pointers, from condition to subject to provenance, that can be considered when navigating the Old Masters market, illustrated with examples from our auction archives.
The main questions to consider when looking include: is the artist an established name? Is the work from a good or particularly pivotal moment in the artist’s career or development? Is the attribution given in full (or qualified as ‘Studio’/ ‘Circle’/ ‘Follower’ of the artist)? Is the work included in the key literature on the artist — and if not, have the current experts been consulted? Has the work been included in any recent seminal exhibitions on the artist?
Christie's specialists tend to recommend acquiring a good example of a work by a relatively minor artist, instead of a mediocre example, perhaps in a bad state, by a more established name.
This has always been a motivating factor when investing in works of art, since provenance adds interest and a certain legitimacy and weight to the object if esteemed collectors have considered it worthy of their collections. Charles I, for example, bought a superb collection of paintings and sculpture from the celebrated collection of the Duke of Mantua in the late 1620s.
Examples of pictures being sought after because of their interesting provenance include Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, above, which was sold from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Paris in 2009 for €2,193,000 against an estimate of €400,000-600,000, and Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Gentleman, from the collection of Elizabeth Taylor, which sold in New York in 2012 for $2,098,500 against an estimate of $700,000-1,000,000.
More historic provenance can also add value. In December 2016 Chrisite's offered a Constable sketch of Beaching a Boat, Brighton, below, which had been bequeathed to the artist’s daughter, Isabel Constable, and was later held in two celebrated collections on the Continent in the first half of the 20th century.
This work had also been included in the seminal exhibition of Constable’s celebrated ‘six-footers’ at Tate Britain, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California.
These are particularly important factors to consider. While some Old Master paintings can appear to be in a bad state at first glance, this may be due to the original surface being obscured by layers of old discoloured varnish and dirt, which is often superficial.
It is better to invest in a slightly neglected work, which can be treated relatively easily with sensitive restoration, than in one that has been subjected to numerous campaigns of restoration in the past, some of which may have resulted in the original surface being abraded and over-painted. If in doubt, consult a restorer.
In terms of rarity, it is always important to consider how prolific the artist was, and how frequently his work appears on the open market.
When excellent condition and rarity come together, works can achieve exceptional prices — and offer buyers a unique opportunity to acquire a work of significance and beauty. When a rare and exquisitely rendered portrait of a lady by the court painter William Larkin (above) came up for sale in July 2016, it made £266,500 against an estimate of £40,000-60,000.
Similarly, a stunning and beautifully preserved view of the Côte d’Opale in Picardy by Richard Parkes Bonington (above), executed shortly before his premature death in 1828 at the age of 25, was offered in the summer of 2016 and realised £1,370,500 against an estimate of £400,000-600,000.
Historically, family portraits or pictures collected on a Grand Tour have frequently become prized family heirlooms. At Christie’s we try to alert family members when portraits of their ancestors, or paintings associated with a particular house, which may subsequently have changed hands, come up for sale.
Alternatively, portraits of both royal sitters and important historical figures are likely to resonate with future generations. The same can apply to topographical views of European cities, university towns, or particular landscapes.
The advantage of buying Old Masters is that good examples of portraits, topographical views, still lifes and other genres can be found at varying price levels. In the £5,000-10,000 price bracket, for example, you can find decorative works catalogued as ‘Studio’ or ‘Circle’ of established artists, as well as fully attributed paintings by lesser-known Masters.
If you are interested in portraiture, there are wonderful 16th-century and early 17th-century Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits that can appeal to a modern aesthetic, the style being relatively flat and geometric, with pure blocks of colour.
Around 20 to 30 years ago, 18th-century Italian mythological scenes were in high demand, which drove up prices. Today, these works are more accessible (£10,000-20,000), while fine examples of idealised landscapes by artists such as Locatelli and L'Orizzonte (below) come on the market relatively frequently.
Wonderful Dutch and Flemish still lifes can be purchased at all price points. There are fine 17th-century paintings by second and third-tier Dutch and Flemish masters available for under £20,000, including intricate flower pieces and sumptuous table displays adorned with silver salt cellars and lobsters.
You can also acquire less ambitious works by more established artists for around £15,000 to £20,000, including portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds (see above). Prices can vary depending on the identity of the sitter, which is not always known. Portraits of royal sitters, on the other hand, have remained in demand throughout the centuries.
The same applies to topographical views of Venice and London, which have been coveted by new buyers and seasoned collectors due to the enduring appeal of the two cities.
Below are the Old Master paintings offered in our upcoming sales, which will probably contain examples of many of the styles and periods listed above. If you would like further information on our auctions or about buying your first work in this category, our international team of Old Masters specialists are ready to help.