The Courtauld Gallery, attached to London Univeristy’s Courtauld Institute, has just opened an unusual exhibition tackling a question which intrigues visitors, but is very rarely raised by museums: how much is an object worth? In “The value of art” (until 30 August), the Courtauld is juxtaposing pairs of objects, asking viewers to guess which is the more valuable work. All are from the gallery’s own collection (none, of course, is for sale). Experts from Sotheby’s were called in to give the valuations.
Curator Sarah Hyde wants visitors to think about “the relationship between financial and aesthetic value”. What criteria do you use to decide which might be the more valuable item? And does your response to the objects change when you know which is the more valuable, and why? As a taster, we are inviting readers to tackle some of the pairs—to work out which is more valuable or to give your own estimates. Since photographs are no substitute for the originals, a few clues are given. For the answers to the test of your market knowledge, see the bottom of this page.
1a. Umberto Giunti, in the manner of Botticelli’s “Madonna of the veil”, around 1930. Tempera on panel
1b. Master of the Fiesole Epiphany, “Virgin and Child”, late fifteenth-century. Tempera on panel
The “Madonna of the veil” was bought by Lord Lee in 1930 as a Botticelli for $25,000, but Kenneth Clark later pointed out that Virgin looked like a 1920s screen diva. The artist has recently been identified as Umberto Giunti, a twentieth-century Italian faker. Forgers have now become popular antiheroes who deceive the art establishment—giving some fakes their own market value. Obviously the fifteenth-century Madonna is more valuable, but how much more so?
2a. Circle of Rembrandt, “Portrait of a young woman”. Oil on canvas
2b. Italian School, “Portrait of a Roman man”, seventeenth-century, 1612.
Oil on canvas
The female portrait is now regarded as a copy of a Rembrandt in Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum. Although only painted by a follower, it depicts a young female, and is therefore prized; portraits of older women or men tend to be worth considerably less. The sitter and the artist of the male portrait are still a mystery, but it is a fine work and the place and date it was painted are recorded (Rome, 1612). How does the value of the downgraded Rembrandt compare with the anonymous Italian School portrait?
3a. Palma Vecchio, “Venus in a landscape”, around 1520.
3b. Venetian School, “The toilet of Venus”, late sixteenth-century. Oil on canvas
Obviously, the value of a picture is decisively affected by the name of the artist, so art historians are unavoidably implicated in the marketplace. “Venus in a landscape” has always been attributed to Palma Vecchio, but there are condition problems and it may be an unfinished work. “The toilet of Venus” was bought by Lord Lee in 1923 for £300, as a possible Titian. Five years later Viennese art historian Stephan Poglayen-Neuwall offered to examine the picture: “If it turns out to be merely a work of Titian’s Studio, all you will have to pay me will be my travelling expenses. If I shall have been able to establish the authorship of Titian himself, I should require payment of an adequate fee for my testimonial and publication”, since the picture would have “risen in value from a few hundred pounds to about £15,000-20,000.” Lord Lee declined the offer, and the artist still remains a mystery.
4a. Degas, “Two dancers on stage”, around 1877. Oil on canvas
4b. Degas, “After the bath”, around 1890. Pastel on paper
Pastels are normally worth considerably less than oils, partly because they are more vulnerable to damage. But the price differential is not only a result of the physical characteristics: drawings are often regarded as preparations for finished works in other media, and therefore inferior. Samuel Courtauld bought both works in 1927, paying £8,560 for the oil and £1,800 for the pastel. What are they now worth?
5a. Matisse, “Woman leaning”, 1923. Chalk on paper
5b. Matisse, “Nude seated woman”, 1925. Lithograph
These two works share many similarities: they were drawn by the same artist, at roughly the same date, depicting similar subject matter. But the drawing would fetch much more than the print, which was produced in an edition of fifty. Certain types of lithographs are not easy for the layman to distinguish from drawings, so why is such a high price paid for uniqueness?
6a. Hogarth, “The bruiser”, 1763. Engraving
6b. Thomas Cook after Hogarth’s “The bruiser”,
Although superficially similar, a close examination of the actual prints would reveal that the engraved lines on them are quite different. Hogarth’s original engraving is more valuable, even though Cook’s engraving style is considerably more professional (Hogarth himself admitted that he was too impatient to become a good engraver). How much does it matter whether the engraver was also the designer?
7a. Gauguin, “Bust of Mette Gauguin”, 1877. Marble
7b. Degas, “Dancer looking at her right foot”,
around 1921. Bronze
The Gauguin bust was probably partly or wholly carved by his sculptor friend Jules-Ernest Bouillot, who would have worked from a model by Gauguin. This is reflected in the present estimate (if it were the unaided work of Gauguin, its value might be five times greater). The Degas bronze is from an edition of twenty-two and was cast after the death of Degas.
8a. Wallet, Iranian, around 1300. Brass with silver
8b. Candlestick, Anatolian, fourteenth-century.
Brass with silver
The wallet, based on a leather object, is the only known example of Islamic metalwork of this design and it was made from sheet metal for a high-ranking patron. The candlestick was cast in a mould, and was therefore almost “mass produced” (around seventy similar candlesticks survive). To what extent does this affect the price?
9a. Dish, Iznik, around 1560. Fritware
9b. Dish, Chinese, around 1400. Porcelain
These two dishes illustrate the startling reversals in value which can occur. The Iznik dish is now worth considerably more than the Chinese celadon dish, although centuries ago the Iznik dish would have been regarded by the Ottoman elite as greatly inferior to the Chinese one (probate valuations suggest Chinese dishes were then worth between three and seventeen times more than Iznik examples). But very little Iznik ware has survived, because it was for everyday-use. In recent decades there has been increasing demand for Iznik ceramics by Turkish collectors who are keen to reclaim their heritage, and there is growing demand from the oil-rich nations. What, then, are they worth today?
These valuations represent what the items might currently fetch in a London auction (in most cases Sotheby’s gave the estimate as a range, but we have simplified these to a mid figure).
1a. £25,000; 1b. £125,000
2a. £15,000; 2b. £15,000
3a. £500,000; 3b. £50,000
5a. £105,000; 5b. £22,500
6a. £150; 6b. £15
7a. £175,000; 7b. £113,000
8a. £500,000; 8b. £100,000
9a. £20,000; 9b. £250
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Test your market savvy'