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Famine or feast in the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters trade

As the supply of works by the big names dwindles demand is growing for pictures by lesser known artists

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Fifteen years ago there were those in the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters trade who were convinced that the supply of pictures was drying up, but today those same dealers are still here and thriving. Furthermore, according to the trade, the market for Northern European pictures is now more resilient than ever.

Some dealers will tell you that one has to be more flexible in order to adapt to changing tastes and a genuinely dwindling supply of quality pictures in certain areas, but for every dealer who speaks of famine there is one who will offer you a feast of pictures to contradict it.

One of the most noticeable trends has been the increase in demand for paintings by lesser known Flemish names such as Jan Brueghel the Younger, Peeter Gysels and Jacob and Abel Grimmer.

Evert Douwes owns one of the longest established Old Master dealerships in Europe and although his gallery in Amsterdam deals principally in Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, he has always been happy to expand into other realms where necessary. He now deals in everything from sixteenth-century Old Master pictures to twentieth-century Russian Socialist Realist painting.

“Early Dutch and Flemish pictures of quality are hard to find if you want to keep your standards up,” says Mr Douwes, “but we are prepared to go back in time. For example, sixteenth-century painting is becoming more interesting for dealers in seventeenth-century pictures. Most are religious subjects but that type of picture is more and more in vogue. You have to cope with what the market offers you.”

That willingness to explore the art of other epochs is partly a response to the increasing globalisation of the Old Masters market. “Our buyers are becoming more and more international,” says Evert Douwes. “We sell to all kinds of people in all kinds of places; for example, we have many Dutch clients in Los Angeles and Chicago. Today there is also lot of money coming from younger people in the thirty-five to fifty age group who are starting to be interested in art, although perhaps with little knowledge.”

Private collectors are also important to Dutch and Belgian salerooms which, like their British counterparts, go out of their way to cultivate the private contingent, but the trade remain the most significant force. Dominic de Villegas of Brussels auction house Horta says that the demand for Dutch and Flemish Old Masters is strong among both trade and private buyers but the supply is not there to satisfy it. This may explain certain recent shifts in buying patterns. “It is strange that the supply is so poor,” says Mr Villegas, “because prices are very high at the moment and when prices are high it is usually a good time to sell.”

Johnny Van Haeften, one of the main London dealers in Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, says his clients are predominantly American and European, although he confirms that there are very few British collectors of Old Masters. “When we first started around fifteen-twenty years ago, around 80% of our clients were American to 20% European” says Mr Van Haeften, “but now it is probably 50% American to 50% European. Of those Europeans, perhaps 3-4% are British collectors. Many of the others are European collectors who live in Britain. There has been a huge resurgence of interest from Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.”

The market for seventeenth-century Dutch pictures rose steadily thoughout most of the 1990s, according to saleroom experts, who confirm that new collectors joining the field of Flemish painting have contributed to a similar market buoyancy in that field.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Famine or feast?'

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