Top Old Masters


Every other Friday Artprice draws up an auction ranking to help you apprehend the Art Market’s major trends. This week we look at the top 10 auction results for Old Master artworks in 2018.

Rembrandt, Brueghel, Cranach, Canova, Rubens… museum-worthy names, some of whose works are still circulating today on the auction market. In the West, a little over 40,000 Old Master artworks changed hands at auctions last year. Relatively few compared to the 183,000 Modern artworks sold over the same period and the even larger number of Post-War and Contemporary artworks. In all, the Old Masters segment represented 9% of the Western Art Market in terms of lots sold, generating 5% of its total turnover. These may be small percentages… but by no means reflect a lack of interest from major museums or collectors, but rather the absolute scarcity of masterpieces in circulation. However, while rarity explains the Old Masters segment’s poor figures versus Modern and Contemporary art, it also has a substantial leverage effect on its prices. When a widely appreciated work is presented for sale, it can fetch a much higher result than expected, regardless of its size. Indeed the small formats and works on paper often generate superb bidding contests.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Lucas VAN LEYDEN (1494-1533) 14 598 946 A young man standing 04/12/2018 Christie’s Londres
2 Frans I HALS (1580-1666) 12 808 179 Portrait of a gentleman, aged 37/ Portrait of a lady, aged 36 06/12/2018 Christie’s Londres
3 REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606-1669) 12 082 995 Study of the Head and Clasped Hands of a Young Man As Christ in Prayer 05/12/2018 Sotheby’s Londres
4 Gilbert STUART (1755-1828) 11 562 500 George Washington (Vaughan type) 09/05/2018 Christie’s New York NY
5 Pieter II BRUEGHEL (c.1564-1637/38) 8 063 225 The Netherlandish Proverbs 06/12/2018 Christie’s Londres
6 Lucas I CRANACH (1472-1553) 7 737 500 Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony
19/04/2018 Christie’s New York NY
7 Anthonius VAN DYCK (1599-1641) 7 488 080 Portrait of Princess Mary
06/12/2018 Christie’s Londres
8 Peter Paul RUBENS (1577-1640) 7 163 887 Portrait of a Venetian Nobleman 04/07/2018 Sotheby’s Londres
9 Antonio CANOVA (1757-1822) 7 014 562 Bust of Peace 04/07/2018 Sotheby’s Londres
10 Ludovico CARRACCI (1555-1619) 6 703 300 Portrait of Carlo Alberto Rati Opizzoni in armour 05/07/2018 Christie’s Londres
copyright © 2019

The Best Results

In 2018 the global Old Masters segment generated $595 million from the sale of some 40,000 artworks, mainly consisting of paintings (76% of the turnover), a small number of 3-dimensional works, and drawings and prints (42% of the segment’s transactions). However, the year’s best result was not hammered for a painting, but rather for a drawing: A young man standing, drawn in black stone on a sheet measuring 27.9 x 13.2 cm by Lucas Van Layden generated $14.5 million. A rare work by this 16th century Dutch artist (only 28 drawings by the artist have survived), it was estimated around £1.5 million, but finally fetched £11.48 million, perfectly illustrating the relationship between scarcity and surprise results. The result not only sets Lucas Van Layden’s new auction record, it makes him one of the few Old Masters – along with Raphaël and Leonardo da Vinci – to have crossed the $10 million threshold. Even the superb Rubens nude study sold on January 30th did not reach this price level, despite being larger (Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms, 49.1 x 31.5 cm, fetched $8.2 million at Sotheby’s New York on 30 January 2019).

Stijn Alsteens, Old Masters specialist at Sotheby’s, recalled that Van Layden led the way for Rembrandt and Rubens, two of the world’s most coveted artists and both present in this ranking. Indeed the $12 million (two million above the its high estimate) generated by Rembrandt’s small 25.5 cm oil painting last year is another example of ‘major artist’ rarity that collectors cannot resist. For Rubens, the year’s best result was hammered last July in London for the portrait of a Venetian nobleman that also fetched $2 million above its high estimate, for a final result of $7.1 million.

In total, only four Old Masters reached above $10 million last year. In addition to the new record for Lucas Van Layden and the excellent result for Rembrandt’s canvas, the other two 8-digit results (in USD) were hammered for works by Frans I Hals and Gilbert Stuart, with the latter also generating a major surprise. Indeed, American painter Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington fetched an unexpected new record for the artist at 10 times its high estimate (final price $11.5 million). The prestige of the subject (George Washington) was not the only factor that contributed to the bidding intensity; it was substantially driven by the work’s provenance, being part of the very prestigious Rockefeller collection dispersed in May 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Beyond the actual history of an artwork and how it came to be created, the history of its subsequent transmission and conservation (i.e. provenance) can have a major impact on the final price.