Old Masters



Our Friday TOP! Every other Friday Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week we present the Top 10 auction results for works by Old Masters.

While most Old Masters are today exhibited in the world’s most prestigious museums and most-visited monuments, some rare works – more often than not, showing signs of age – occasionally makes appearances at auctions. Accounting for only 4% of total auction transactions, Old Master art generated 11% of global auction revenue in 2010; although no new Old Master records were set in 2010, the last ten years have seen nine of the ten best-ever auction results in this segment.

Top 10 : best auction results generated by Old Masters

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Peter Paul RUBENS $69 714 000 The Massacre of the Innocents 07/10/2002 (Sotheby’s London)
2 RAPHAEL $42 7232 00 Head of a muse 12/08/2009 (Christie’s London)
3 Jacopo da Carucci PONTORMO $35 200 000 Portrait of Duke Cosimo I… 05/31/1989 (Christie’s NY)
4 RAPHAEL $33 285 450 Portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici,… 07/05/2007 (Christie’s London)
5 REMBRANDT VAN RIJN $29 577 600 Portrait of a man with arms akimbo 12/08/2009 (Christie’s London)
6 Giovanni Antonio CANAL $29 144 620 Venise, the Grand Canal,… 07/07/2005 (Sotheby’s London)
7 Jan VERMEER VAN DELFT $26 720 600 Young Woman seated at the Virginals 07/07/2004 (Sotheby’s London)
8 REMBRANDT VAN RIJN $26 064 000 Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62, Perhaps… 12/13/2000 (Christie’s London)
9 Andrea MANTEGNA $25 500 000 Descent into Limbo 01/23/2003 (Sotheby’s NY)
10 REMBRANDT VAN RIJN $23 000 000 Saint James the Greater (1661) 01/25/2007 (Sotheby’s NY)

From time to time an exceptional discovery is made that triggers passionate bidding when the work is put up for sale. This was notably the case for Peter Paul RUBENSThe Massacre of the Innocents. In fact the work had only just been attributed to the great master, whereas before it was always assumed to be the work of Jan van den Hoecke. The work became the most expensive Old Master ever sold through auction when it fetched $69.7m (£45m) at the Old Master sale on 10 July 2002 in London beating Jacopo da Carucci PONTORMO’s superb Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de Medici which had held the record for thirteen years since it was acquired for $35.2m on 31 May 1989 at Christie’s New York by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

With the spectre of economic crisis haunting auction rooms, two results for Old Masters contributed to reviving confidence in the art market. On 8 December 2009, at Christie’s in London, RAPHAEL’s drawing Head of a muse made the headlines when it was acquired for $42.7m, and REMBRANDT VAN RIJN’s Portrait of a man with arms akimbo fetched $29.5m. This latter result became Rembrandt’s new record, adding $3.5m to his previous record for Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62, Perhaps Aeltje Pieterdr.Uylenburgh which fetched $26m at Christie’s London on 13 December 2000.

In 2007 it was the same two artists who made the Old Masters segment shine in the auction world generating its best results: Raphael’s Portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino fetched $33.2m at Christie’s London on 5 July 2007 and Rembrandt’s Saint James the Greater was acquired for $23m at Sotheby’s New York on 25 January 2007.
Even then, in a period of rapid price inflation, the Old Masters segment remained much less volatile and speculative than the Contemporary Art segment.

Although it was above all Italian and Flemish portraits that were fetching the highest prices, one landscape found its way into the Top 10: a view of Venice by Giovanni Antonio CANAL. The work Venise, the Grand Canal, looking North-East from Palazzo Balbi was acquired for $29.1m on 7 July 2005 at Sotheby’s London, the highest auction price ever paid for an artists’ representation of Venice.

Another Italian master, whose works are extremely rare on the secondary market (only two of his paintings have ever changed hands at auction) is Andrea MANTEGNA whose Descent into Limbo fetched $25.5m on 23 January 2003 at Sotheby’s New York. The theme of Christ’s descent into Limbo had never before elicited such enthusiastic bidding despite its numerous interpretations by artists throughout the ages.

Young Woman seated at the Virginals, a small work by Jan VERMEER VAN DELFT measuring 25.2 x 20 cm sold for $26.7m on 7 July 2004 at Sotheby’s London. This exceptional work is the only painting by the artist to have been presented at auction since 1921.

The works of Old Masters are so rare on the market that they rapidly rise to lofty prices. With an average of one new record per year in this segment, Old Masters are the pride and glory of a handful of fortunate collectors and the world’s most prestigious museums.