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Cross-border buoyancy in the European Old Master market

Plotting national tastes and identifying certain general market trends

While there is a growing internationalism in the market for Old Masters, according to one saleroom insider, “Most patterns of collecting remain to some extent influenced by national traditions and susceptibilities”, making it possible to identify certain general market trends.

An Italian view

Old Masters of museum quality and importance will always have an international appeal, but there is a consensus that the Italians at present dominate the market for religious paintings and for Italian 18th century view pictures.

According to saleroom experts, there has been a marked increase in the popularity and price of vedute within the last year, particularly when they arrive with a prestigious provenance and are in exceptional condition.

Alexander Bell, head of Sotheby’s Old Masters department in London, says that: “One feature which has been of particular interest has been the relative increase in value for outstanding works by artists traditionally considered to be of the second rank. This reflects the scarcity of major works by great artists and the fact that collectors would prefer to buy an outstanding example by a lesser master than a painting by a major artist which may not be in a pristine state or be of the most captivating subject.”

The meagre supply of Italian painting is keenly felt by the Italian Old Masters trade, one of whom gloomily pronounced that: “Good pictures are getting rarer and prices are going up. If you look at Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues, only one in thirty pictures is Italian.” Nevertheless, most Italian dealers confirm that London is still the place to find the most plentiful supply of Italian pictures.

As with the market for Dutch and Flemish, new collectors of Italian Old Masters are appearing in Italy all the time, according to the trade. The Italians have a reputation for being more open to “tougher images” such as martyrdoms, while one London dealer revealed that recently he had been selling a lot to Italian institutions.

On the other hand, as one Italian dealer observes, “Even religious pictures can be very good pictures, but at the moment most new collectors in Italy are looking for non-religious paintings such as mythological subjects or vedute. Still life painting is a very particular field which I don’t consider to be of any importance.”

Bullish in Spain

Such a curt dismissal of an entire genre might surprise some dealers and collectors, not least in Spain where still life painting has always been an important component of the Old Masters market.

With the exception of the obvious half a dozen or so household names, Spanish Old Masters remain relatively unfamiliar territory to many collectors. Sotheby’s ceased holding sales in Spain in April and now ship material to London or New York for dispersal in their Old Master sales because it fetches higher prices than in Spain.

Christie’s sale of Velasquez’s “Saint Rufina” in New York in January of this year—which established a record for a Spanish Old Master painting at auction—demonstrated the bullish nature of the market when important Spanish pictures come onto the block. As Anthony Crichton-Stuart, head of Christie’s Old Masters in New York, commented at the time: “The bidding was as aggressive as I have ever seen in our auction rooms.”

Of course, one would expect such levels of interest for a museum quality picture by Velasquez, but bidding for the Old Master paintings at Christie’s dispersal of the estates of Ca’n Puig and Castillo de Bendinat in Mallorca in May was equally energetic. As Christie’s Juan Varez recalls, “the activity among non-Spanish buyers at that sale—particularly from London and Italy—was bigger than we have ever seen in Spain and prices were as strong as they would have been had the pictures been sold in London or New York.”

Mr Varez has noticed that Spain is now on the map for international dealers in Old Masters. “I won’t say it’s massive, but there has been a big increase in activity in the last three or four years. Spanish sales are now ‘on the calendar’ for the international trade.”

Spanish museums and other national institutions are also currently very active in the market with museums in Valencia and Bilbao looking to increase their holdings of Spanish Old Masters.

Firm in France

France is widely recognised as one of the more international of European markets, for like Britain and Switzerland, a large proportion of its most prominent collectors are foreign nationals who have taken up residency there.

Reports from the French Old Masters trade broadly endorse findings from elsewhere in Europe that the market is currently on a marked upswing.

Parisian Old Masters dealer Georges de Jonckheere describes the market as “very strong”. The De Jonckheere gallery on the rue du Faubourg St Honoré specialises in Dutch and Flemish Old Masters (“Masters of the Golden Age of Flemish Painting” is currently on exhibition at the gallery until 24 December) which have always been a prominent part of the French Old Masters trade, indeed arguably more so than French or Italian pictures.

“We sell mainly to foreign private collectors,” says Daisy Prevost-Marcilhacy of the De Jonckheere gallery, adding that: “Although we are established in Paris, less than half our clients are French. We are extremely active at international fairs—the Biennale in Paris, Maastricht and the international fine art and antiques fairs in New York—where we establish most of our contacts. Collectors then tend to visit the gallery in person.”

According to Parisian Old Master dealer Etienne Breton,there are currently a lot of new buyers appearing in France, largely as a result of the thriving French economy and a healthy stock market. “These new collectors are interested in Old Master paintings of all kinds,”says M. Breton, “although there are limits to the prices they will pay. $1 million is a common limit for French collectors.” He goes on to add that: “The majority like to buy in France and have a mental problem with buying abroad. But France is still a great source for pictures if you are prepared to do the necessary looking.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cross-border buoyancy'