Art market

Belgian tapestries dealer Bernard Blondeel is selling his inventory at Christie’s on 2nd April

Despite the market for tapestry fluctuating throughout the 20th century, interest is high at present


Last year New York was dazzled by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of Renaissance tapestries, the first to be organised for over 25 years. It brought together some of the greatest tapestries of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in an exhibition that will certainly never be repeated, because of the fragility of the pieces on show.

For centuries, tapestries were the preferred art trophy of kings and popes, ordered by powerful rulers and proffered as diplomatic presents to seal alliances. Leo X, Henry VIII, François I and Louis XIV all treasured their huge collections—thousands, in the case of Henry VIII.

Tapestries were woven in series and were hugely expensive to produce, taking years to complete. The artist’s cartoons, as well as the dyes, gold and silver thread and silk and wool were extremely costly, and François I, King of France, 1494-1547, is said to have spent as much on the tapestries for a palace as for building and furnishing it. And yet today the price of a tapestry, even a masterpiece, is just a fraction of what it once was. A museum-quality piece can be bought for less than the price of a very average Impressionist or Old Master painting. In November 2001, for example, Christie’s sold for £311,750 a piece from one of only three known sets of the “Medallion Months”. Representing December, these tapestries descended directly from Admiral Andrea Doria, who had them hung in his Palazzo Doria in Genoa in the 1520s. It was the only “December” version known to survive and had been a design unknown to scholars until it appeared in the sale.

Without great palaces to adorn, only a few people can actually build collections of tapestries anymore, rather, they tend to buy pieces to complement their decor while most museums buy to complete collections.

The market for tapestries has fluctuated over a long period: in the 1900s and first decades of the 20th century, they were very popular, a time when French & Co paid $2.5 million for a mass purchase of mainly late Gothic tapestries from the estate of J. Pierpont Morgan. They fell from favour in the mid 20th century, but over the last eight to 10 years there has been increasing interest. The world record of £842,000 was set in 1994 by Christie’s London for a set designed by Burne-Jones, “The quest for the Holy Grail”, but this, according to dealer Maes de Wit, is not indicative of the tapestry market as a whole: “These are bought as a Burne-Jones, and not as tapestries,” he says.

All the specialists agree that the New York exhibition has considerably boosted interest in the field, not least because visitors saw, many for the first time, the brilliant colours and sumptuous silver and gold of tapestries in good condition. The exhibition apparently influenced the buyer of the $3 million tapestries sold by Blondeel, mentioned later in this article. Stefan Kist of Christie’s comments, “Tapestries are gradually becoming more desirable, particularly in the US. One reason is that there is still a lot to be learned in this field: often we don’t even know where something was woven. Until recently there was very little work on the subject although scholars are now working on collections and inventories. From the value point of view, tapestries give you a great deal of wall covering for your money,” he adds.

“We are in competition with paintings,” admits Dominique Chevalier; “A tapestry changes a room, it absorbs light, it is much more sensual, whereas a painting reflects light. For many buyers, a tapestry adds a ‘French touch’ to the decor.”

There are just a handful of specialist dealers in this field: S. Franses in London; De Wit in Belgium; Dino Levi in Milan and Chevalier and Hadjer in Paris. Their already small number has been depleted by the retirement of the Belgian specialist, Bernard Blondeel, who is selling his inventory at Christie’s London this month, on 2 April, with more to be offered in New York later this year.

The tapestry market is comparable to other specialities. Condition, rarity, quality and provenance are just as important as for a painting or work of art.

Condition is perhaps the most crucial element in the value of a tapestry, and many are now faded from the brilliance of their original state. According to Mr de Wit, poor conservation can more than halve the value of a piece. Wools and dyes can degenerate over time and the silk can become “cooked” or brittle, in which case nothing can be done to rescue it. The gold and silver threads tend to corrode and blacken, while black and brown wools, because the dyes were fixed using metal mordants, can also corrode. Pieces may have lost their borders or had parts rewoven, particularly around the edges. The degree of acceptable restoration can be 20-30%, and the “December” tapestry mentioned above would have made a higher price if it had not been rewoven in parts. Much depends on what has been restored: if all the faces have been rewoven (as opposed to the sky or the background) the value will be greatly affected.

Because condition is so important, the auction market is not as strong for tapestries as in other fields, and the advantage of the Blondeel sale is that all the pieces have been restored and are “ready to hang.”

Also affecting the price, again just like paintings, is the subject matter. US buyers do not like violent or bloody scenes and demand a certain “prettiness”, particularly pastoral or mythological themes; coats of arms, even dominating the piece, are very saleable. With today’s emphasis on design, mille-fleurs, “cabbage leaf” or tapestries with grotesques are popular, as they integrate well even with modern decors. Scenes of wine-growing or hunting are popular in Europe. Bearing out the importance of the subject, the Blondeel sale features a Brussels tapestry from “The story of David” dating from about 1540. Despite missing its upper and lower borders, it is estimated at €220/ 310,000 (£140/200,000). Galerie Chevalier has a very comparable piece, with all its borders, but its subject, the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau is perhaps a little more difficult and so it is priced at €280,000.

“Everyday” tapestries, particularly 17th- and 18th-century verdures, can be bought from a number of general antique dealers at prices generally around £15,000 ($25,000) but top pieces will usually be handled by the specialists named above. Age does not necessarily dictate price: “It isn’t so much a question of age, but rather of quality.

“Those woven for a special event, bearing the arms of a great family, with a starry provenance, or from a cartoon by a well known artist go to museums or major collectors,” says Mr Chevalier.

Few complete sets come on the market, but when they do, at auction they are traditionally sold as individual lots. Often one individual will buy them to keep the set together, and overall they will achieve stronger prices than as single pieces. Two recent examples of sets on the market were exhibited at last year’s Paris Biennale. Blondeel sold the seven-piece, mid-16th-century “Chasses de Maximilian”, which had an asking price of $3 million, and Galerie Chevalier sold (to the Getty Museum) a set of tapestries with grotesques made in Beauvais in the late 17th century, at a price around $1 million.

A step down from these starry heights are more decorative works, perhaps woven in the same workshops but lacking historical links, quality of design or provenance. For these pieces, generally destined to decorate an interior, size can be a consideration, and Dominique Chevalier notes that anything well over four metres high is slower to sell. Stefan Kist, on the other hand, says he has not noticed auction prices being affected by the dimensions.

As in other areas of the art market, the middle market is weak, and Mr de Wit notes that in the last three Brussels fairs he sold his top pieces but not less expensive lots. “The market is more stable than in, say, the paintings field,” concludes Mr Chevalier. “You won’t make 50% on a tapestry in a few years, but then neither will it go down 50% either.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Woven treasures'