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The Market for Old Masters Paintings

The Market for Old Masters Paintings
February 1, 2023
Bradley Calleja

Image: Christie's

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Their names might not be as recognizable to the art investment world as Monet, Warhol, or Basquiat, but the leading figures of the Old Masters era are still delivering six and seven-figure results at auction.

Whether or not those results are meeting expectations is another story. Christie's opened the 2023 Old Masters season with an auction featuring 76 works from the highly-acclaimed collection of banking heir Jacqui Eli Safra and 36 paintings from various estates. In total, Safra's assemblage of old-timey art realized $18.5 million, while the remaining lots realized $44.2 million. The total handle of $63 million closed slightly above the low-end estimate of $65 million but completely whiffed on the high-end, which was set by Christie's at $95.5 million.So, while the overall Masters market might be muted, who are the artists still making noise?

Sarah Miriam Peale, considered the first professional female artist in the United States, established herself through portraits of early American statesmen like Thomas Hart Benton and military leaders like Marquis de Lafayette. While Peale curated portraits of prolific 19th-century figures, her current auction record is a painting of... a watermelon. The oil-based fruit was sold by Christie's for $277,200, which crushed its pre-sale estimate of $60,000 by nearly 5x and attracted a lively bidding war with institutions and private collectors acting as participants.Another artist who struck a new record was the Spanish star Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Goya has registered seven-figure sales in the past, and his early-1800s dual portrait of a mother and daughter hammered for $16.4 million. Those were perhaps neither the most notable sales...nor the crappiest (bear with us).

The big-ticket results carried over to the Old Master sales at Sotheby's, which were highlighted by one of the most impressive flips for a painting we've seen. In 2002, the art collector Albert Roberts uncovered a work, which was covered in bird droppings, in a shed in upstate New York. The painting was acquired through a local auction for $600 and later authenticated by an art expert who determined the work to be an oil sketch by Anthony van Dyck. The work, titled A Sketch for Saint Jerome, sold for $3.1 million at Sotheby's, representing a 512,400% total rate of appreciation or 50.2% annualized.

The Old Masters have yet to find their place within most art investment portfolios, and with the continued underperformance of the broader market, it's hard to see the thesis changing soon. That said, the auction week continues to deliver a select array of breakout performers. While the Contemporary and Impressionist movements remain king, the annual six and seven-figure sales found among Masters works indicate there's still an appetite, albeit a shrinking one.

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