“Very stable, very strong”; “pretty jolly resilient”; “in bounding health”. One does not need to interrogate many Old Master dealers about the state of the market before a pattern starts to emerge.
The market may be in relatively good health, but it is a commonplace that the Old Masters trade has never been subject to the boom and bust cycle that delivered such a bruising blow to Impressionist and modern pictures in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Those markets were—and to some extent continue to be—prone to speculative investment strategies which, after the recession, left many collectors high and dry with works that have still not regained their value.
Old Master collecting is governed by different criteria to those prevailing in the Impressionist, Modern and contemporary markets and to some extent this protects it against changing economic circumstances. If you traced the market for Old Masters from 1970 you would notice the alpine peak of 1989 that is visible on any economic index for the period, but although the market then dipped during the early Nineties it did not plummet to below sea level as it did with Impressionism.
“Collectors of Old Masters tend to be more conservative,” says London Old Masters dealer Johnny Van Haeften. “It’s an acquired taste; a more cerebral thing.” He goes on to explain that “ten million dollars won’t get you very far in the Impressionist market today, but it will buy you a perfectly respectable Old Masters collection and that is why the market is so strong.”
According to some, the main problem confronting someone wishing to start a collection of Old Masters in the present market is the dearth of quality pictures. The situation is exacerbated by a strong economy in which fewer people feel the need to sell.
However, Duncan Hislop of Art Sales Index, confirms that the number of Old Masters being recorded has remained relatively stable since the late 80s, with around 10,000 entering the database each year.
Alexander Bell, Sotheby’s Old Masters expert in London, endorses the inherent strength of the market, but emphasises that “the differential between the best and the average has got bigger in recent years.” Great pictures are relatively rare, says Mr Bell, “which explains the rise and rise of artists such as Canaletto, Pieter Brueghel the Younger or Joos de Momper, all of whom painted a lot, and so their pictures come up a lot.”
Some Old Master dealers are prepared to venture beyond their specialist areas of expertise and indeed the erratic nature of the supply makes this increasingly necessary. London dealer Clovis Whitfield specialises in Italian pictures, particularly seventeenth-century Bolognese painting, but he is flexible about what he sells. “I’ve always sold a lot of Dutch and Flemish as well as Italian,” he says. “That area has always been more profitable for me, although my area of expertise is Italian. You cannot be successful unless you take your chances.”
Northern European Old Master painting is particularly resilient area of the market, but even here the good early pictures are thin on the ground. According to Johnny Van Haeften, who specialises in Dutch and Flemish painting, “The general shortage of quality leads to a lot of frustration, which has the effect of discouraging collectors, which in turn has a diminishing effect on supply. As a consequence certain collectors will turn to Dutch Romantic scenes by nineteenth-century imitators because they can’t get the real Old Masters.”
Frustration is a word which echoes around the Old Masters trade and is equally evident in the much smaller, more scholarly field of Old Master drawings where, again, demand far outstrips supply. However, as one London Old Master drawings dealer points out, “It is still possible to buy very major things in the drawings market, although not on a regular basis and it takes a lot more money than it used to. It may be virtually impossible to buy a painting by Rembrandt but you can buy a Rembrandt drawing. To buy seriously at the top end of the Old Master drawings market you’ve got to be passionately interested and have an enormous amount of money.”
These days the enormous amounts of money tend to come from America where private collectors such as the New York financier Leon Black—who recently secured an important Leonardo drawing from the Bodmer Foundation in Switzerland—are proving a particularly bullish force. Alexander Bell insists, however, that, “You can’t go to any one country and say ‘this is where the Old Masters are being collected now’.”
Many members of the European trade have nevertheless noticed a gradual shift of the market in recent years from London to New York and this is borne out by statistics from the salerooms. The last survey of buyers conducted by Sotheby’s in 1997 showed a preponderance of European over American buyers at London Old Masters sales while the New York rooms revealed a “very similar makeup.”
While around two-thirds of Old Masters material used to be sold in London to one-third in New York, the proportion has recently shifted to a fifty-fifty share. New York has enjoyed two or three years of very strong sales of Old Masters and that trend looks set to continue. As one member of the London trade put it: “Take a look at those palatial new salerooms they’ve built over there. They didn’t do that for nothing.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Scarce but stable'