Art market

The Old Masters market in Germany seems stable but are the collectors a dying breed?

Trade at home is still strong, but Germany is looking for business beyond its borders



Christoph Douglas (Frankfurt am Main) describes the state of the market as extremely stable. There are relatively few highly important masterpieces that are not already in museums or other public collections and there is also far less money involved in Old Masters than in other markets. Both factors make it less likely that works will appear for sale.

The relative shortage of supply creates competition for high-quality pictures, both among dealers and their clients. For Dr Graf Douglas, the two most important centres of Old Master business are London and New York, with Germany having lost its strong market position during the 1930s when many dealers, collectors and connoisseurs were forced to emigrate. He does not see a younger generation of collectors emerging, contrary to the situation in other fields of collecting, such as drawings.

The market for Dutch painting, especially still-lifes, is very strong, more so than for Italian pictures. Good Italian paintings are rare, but if they come on the market, they sell well, whereas it is difficult to find buyers for works of middling quality.

Konrad Bernheimer (Munich and London) says he is glad to have a solid basis of German clients, but acknowledges the greater importance of his international clientele. Describing the difference between the two groups, he stresses that his German buyers tend to display what seem to be quintessentially German characteristics. They remain true to their paintings once acquired and sell only reluctantly.

In Germany, an Old Master painting is still a family heirloom and not something to be speculatively bought and sold, says Mr Bernheimer. He does, however, notice a certain change in the mentality of the younger generation which he attributes to greater flexibility and internationalism in work and lifestyle.

He is also optimistic about the future in that some younger buyers are turning away from the volatility of the modern and contemporary market towards the safer values of the Old Masters.

Mr Bernheimer has noticed a certain preference for seventeenth-century Dutch painting, whether landscapes or still-lifes, with the dwindling number of truly important works selling in New York rather than in Germany. Nonetheless, he sees London as still the centre of the market for Old Master pictures. He finds it difficult to discern a centre of activity in Germany, with its limited numbers of dealers.

Mr Bernheimer’s colleague, Oskar Scheidwimmer (Munich), agrees that the German market is not as strong as that of England or the Netherlands but points to good sales at fairs. In his opinion, clients are very selective, more so than in the past.

Religious subjects are generally more difficult to sell and there are regional differences in clients’ preferences. The largely protestant North of Germany chooses different subjects from the Catholic South of the Rhineland.

Finally, Eckardt Lingenauber (Düsseldorf) elaborated on the importance of the internet and new communications technology for the art market.

In his opinion, globalisation is redefining the trade in Old Master paintings, as dealers and collectors alike are looking for works through the internet. This has an immediate effect on the transparency of the market as it becomes relatively easy to compare pictures and prices around the globe.

Mr Lingenauber sees the future for Old Master paintings as an intense cooperation of dealers through an international network.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Are the collectors a dying breed?'