Old Masters, the originality of the French market

(Old Masters: artists born before 1760)

Recent data attests to an extraordinary level of enthusiasm for historical masterpieces, particularly in museums where attendances have grown at least tenfold in the last 20 years. You only have to look at the massive queues to access the Louvre Museum’s current Leonardo de Vinci exhibition to appreciate this.

In fact, with 260,000 tickets pre-sold as soon as online ticket sales opened, the da Vinci exhibition became a victim of its own success, proving intense interest in da Vinci’s work… his artistic and scientific genius, the mystery of the Mona Lisa, the fiery debates surrounding his Salvator Mundi, the world’s dearest artwork to date ($450 million). Elsewhere, the Old Masters market attracts interest for the individual histories of the works, but also for the History they convey to us.

France – a focal point for artistic encounters over the centuries – still has a substantial reservoir of resources in this domain with lots of exceptional works hidden away and sometimes even forgotten. Several recently rediscovered masterpieces fuelled the French art market in 2019, including a Caravaggio, a Cimabue and a work by the Master of Vyssi Brod. Authenticated and appraised by Eric Turquin Expertise, they were sold through provincial auctioneers rather than in Paris, London or New York, taking a risk that is now clearly worth taking in the era of ‘dematerialized’ auctions.

Share of Old Masters in France’s 2019 art auction turnover

Share of Old Masters in France’s 2019 art auction turnover

The exception becomes the rule

The early part of 2019 was marked by the presentation in London, Paris and New York of the Judith and Holofernes (1607) painting attributed to CARAVAGGIO (1570/71-1610), with its sale scheduled for 27 June 2019 in Toulouse. Estimated between USD 115 and 170 million, its sale in France would have considerably restructured existing rankings. But the work was finally sold privately two days before its public sale was due to take place.

In the second half of the year, two works, also found by chance in France, somewhat offset that anti-climax: one attributed to the legendary Cimabue, the other to an artist historians refer to as the MASTER OF VYŠŠÍ BROD (act.1350). The latter, a small (22 cm) masterpiece discovered in Dijon and depicting a Virgin and Child (circa 1350) was sold for ten times its high estimate, reaching nearly $7 million.

The story behind the Vyssi Brod work is exactly the sort of story the market loves… just like the earlier discovery in a house in Compiègne north of Paris of a CIMABUE (c.1240/50-c.1302) painting which fetched a stunning $26.7 million at Senlis Auction House, the year’s best result in France. The authentication process identified the work as Le Christ moqué, one of eight elements from a devotional diptych painted by Giotto’s famous master Cimabue (aka Cenni di Pepo) who also painted The Flagellation of Christ at New York’s Frick Collection and The Madonna and Child at London’s National Gallery.

That result was simultaneously the year’s best art auction result in France and the best Old Master result in the Western world. A superb marketing operation… conducting by a tiny provincial auctioneer, that would ‘normally’ have been consigned to Christie’s or Sotheby’s in London or New York.


The Master of Vyssi Brod - The Virgin and Child on the Throne

The Master of Vyssi BrodThe Virgin and Child on the Throne (La Vierge et l’Enfant en trône)
$6.8 million – 30 November 2019 – Cortot-Vregille (Dijon, France)

A windfall for the major museums

The Caravaggio found in Toulouse was probably bought by an American collector close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a venerable New York institution that is also the new owner of the panel painted by the Master of  Vyssi Brod. Meanwhile, the small painting attributed to Cimabue is expected to join the Alana collection, also in the United States. These sales demonstrate the ability of small provincial operators to attract the attention of large private collectors and even that of international museums like the MET, which has a very active acquisitions strategy. However, these transactions also highlight the tendency of historical gems to leave France.

The three Old Master works in question are expected to go to the United States. However, export certificates for the Cimabue and the Vyssi Brod had not been issued at the time of sale. The French Ministry of Culture has therefore given itself time to pre-empt the two paintings, although the option seems unlikely to be exercised in view of the amounts required and the Louvre Museum’s total budget which does not even amount to the value of the Cimabue painting. In 2018, its total budget was around $22 million, of which less than $10 million in proprietary resources, excluding patronage and donations.

That said, the Cimabue work has still not received its exit authorization, and is currently classed as a “national treasure”. The French State has 30 months to raise the funds necessary for its acquisition, with a view to enriching the collections of the Louvre.

The market share of Old Masters

On the Old Masters segment, Anglo-Saxon marketplaces lacked dynamism in 2019. The best results were around the $10 million threshold from the sales of a double portrait by Jan Sanders VAN HEMESSEN (1500/04-1566/75) at Christie’s in New York and a genre painting by Thomas GAINSBOROUGH (1727-1788) at Sotheby’s in London

The United States obviously doesn’t have as rich a historical heritage as European countries. Its art market is essentially focused on artistic creation from the last two centuries, and particularly on Post-War and Contemporary American artists. The Old Masters segment accounted for less than 4% of American art auction turnover compared with 14% of the French art market in 2019.

Market share of Old Masters in the 2019 auction turnover

Market share of Old Masters in the 2019 auction turnover

China is where the Old Masters market is the most efficient. With total turnover of $469 million the Chinese Old Masters segment generated four times the equivalent total in France ($111.5 million). This dynamism can be explained by much higher transaction volumes than in the West: ZHU Da (1626-1705), SHI Tao (1642-c.1707), WEN Zhengming (1470-1559)  and ZHENG Banqiao (1693-1765) sell more than 20 works every year (when it’s not fifty)… works almost all made over 300 years ago.

The Chinese domination can also clearly be seen in the global ranking of the most successful Old Master artists. In the top 10 names in 2019, there are nine Chinese painters and calligraphers… and Cimabue. ZHAO Mengfu (1254-1322) leads the ranking after a new record at $38 million hammered by China Guardian in Beijing for his Letters. The result added more than $10 million to the Cimabue result despite the latter attracting international bidding. The Chinese Art Market’s ability to count on its own collectors to push auction results very high indeed represents a very substantial advantage…. and Old Masters are very much a priority for many Chinese Collectors.

Top 20 Old Masters in 2019 (by auction turnover)

Artist Auction Revenue ($) Sold Lots
1 ZHAO Mengfu (1254-1322) 40,070,600 6
2 ZHU Da (1626-1705) 28,705,600 21
3 CIMABUE (c.1240/50-c.1302) 26,777,300 1
4 SHI Tao (1642-c.1707) 24,014,900 22
5 WEN Zhengming (1470-1559) 20,955,700 53
6 WANG Meng (1308-1385) 20,684,800 3
7 DONG Gao (1740-1818) 18,999,200 8
8 QIAN Weicheng (1720-1772) 17,967,100 11
9 WANG Duo (1592-1652) 16,120,300 40
10 ZHENG Banqiao (1693-1765) 14,602,900 53
11 Peter Paul RUBENS (1577-1640) 12,707,500 11
12 Joachim Antonisz WTEWAEL (c.1566-c.1638) 11,772,700 2
13 GIOVANNI DI PAOLO (1403-1482) 11,608,800 2
14 Elisabeth VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755-1842) 11,105,300 11
15 DONG Qichang (1555-1636) 10,804,800 85
16 Jan Sanders VAN HEMESSEN (1500/04-1566/75) 10,539,600 4
17 Thomas GAINSBOROUGH (1727-1788) 10,419,400 11
18 SHEN Zhou (1427-1509) 9,586,300 21
19 Jusepe DE RIBERA (1588/91-1652) 9,431,000 19
20 HUANG Daozhou (1585-1646) 9,275,200 11
© Artprice.com © AMMA


Shi Tao - Album of landscapes (山水册 )

Shi Tao – Album of landscapes (山水册 )
$3.6 million – 3 December 2019 – Poly International