The art world regularly tells us that Old Master paintings are out of fashion, but those of us who love them (and those of us who have the means to acquire them) don’t particularly seem to care.
On Tuesday night, a very beautiful self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1699) that I told you about back in June sold at Sotheby’s London for a whopping $18.8 million. It’s a new world record price for a self-portrait by the artist, since the last Rembrandt self-portrait to come to market sold for $8.9 million back in 2003. About half a dozen bidders engaged in the bidding spree, probably because this is one of the last self-portraits by Rembrandt remaining in private hands, and also, I suspect, because of speculation that I reported on previously that the picture was probably an engagement present, which the artist executed for his beloved first wife, Saskia.
Then on Wednesday night, the arresting “Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain” (c. 1603) by the great Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), was sold at Christie’s London for around $5.2 million. This is an early, unfinished work, possibly a highly-evolved sketch for a painting now lost or unknown to us, and it’s quite a direct gaze that we’re getting from the unknown sitter. One theory is that this is one of a series of portraits of court ladies commissioned by Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, to decorate the “Gallery of Beauties” in his palace. However, other experts point to a diplomatic trip that Rubens made to visit King Philip II of Spain in 1603, where the artist is known to have painted several portraits of Spanish courtiers. To my eye, the muted colors of the dress and the up-swept hairstyle under a veil are more typical of the Spanish Hapsburg court of the time.
So how do we explain this unexpected level of interest in what have long been two of the most well-regarded but decidedly old-fashioned Old Master painters in Western art?
One possibility is that buyers are hedging their bets in reaction to the economic impact of Covid. Many collectors at the upper end of the market purchase art as a commodity, because it’s easily transported, sold, or traded. While they’re often interested in speculation, which explains why they like to purchase works by Contemporary artists and then flip them a few years later for a profit, in times of uncertainty they may be seeking more proven artists in whom to invest for a rainy day. So while the art-as-commodity buyer may still desire the relative liquidity that high-value works can provide, artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens are what we might think of as “blue chip” artists: on resale, they have pretty consistently held or increased in value.
Another possibility is that explored in this interesting survey/overview in Artsy regarding younger collectors. It notes the trend in recent years to try mixed sales, such as those this week that included both the Rembrandt self-portrait AND the Rubens portrait. These jumble lot jobs throw together big names in Old Master, Modern, and Contemporary works in the same evening, and often achieve more remarkable results than if the art had been placed in more narrowly-themed sales.
Thus, potential buyers are being shown a wider variety of choices in a single auction or show than they might otherwise have considered. Per the Artsy article, dealers and auctioneers see younger, up-and-coming collectors as having more “omnivorous” tastes, rather than sticking to particular artists, schools, or styles. This may be reflective of younger collectors’ heavy use of social media, where people are often interested in very eclectic subjects.
There’s something to be said for this argument, as my own Instagram can tell you, even though I mostly stick to certain specific areas when it comes to collecting art. Still, it’s an interesting development to note, and if sales such as these continue to draw greater interest from buyers who might otherwise eschew auctions or galleries that only specialize in one or two areas of collecting, it could have a significant impact on the future direction of the art market for Old Masters back to how it once was, before there were specialized sales. We’ll just have to wait and see if this is a mere trend, or a permanent shift.
And now, on to some other art stories of interest this week.
Speaking of IG, The Met announced on their Instagram account earlier this week that, in the absence of human intrusion thanks to the pandemic, a mother duck has taken up residence on the roof of the museum, and is currently brooding a clutch of eggs. It’s been decided not to attempt to move her or the nest until the ducklings hatch, and since the museum won’t be opening any time soon, for now this is probably a safe spot for the feathered family. Naming conventions for the birds are, I believe, still up for grabs, and we’re told that the ducks will be moved to Central Park once it’s safe for rangers to do so.
Although a suspect in last week’s arson attack on the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes is now in police custody, there’s still no word on a possible motive. According to prosecutors the individual, who was questioned initially because he had been responsible for locking up the building that night, has expressed great remorse for his setting the fires. In speaking to the press, his attorney describes him as a “believer”, presumably meaning that he is a Catholic or at least a Christian, so perhaps what we are looking at here is not sectarianism but rather mental illness. The man faces ten years in jail and a $175,000 fine if convicted, while the cost of the damage to the destroyed 400-year-old organ and Renaissance stained glass windows is likely to be calculated at many times that amount.
Staying in France, but heading further south, the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence has been able to reopen just in time for its new show “Joaquín Sorolla: Lumières Espagnoles (“Spanish Lights”)”, celebrating the work of the great Spanish Impressionist painter. Sorolla (1863-1923) is probably best-known for his very large canvases of his family, portraits of famous people, scenes of country life, and depictions of the pleasures of the seaside, but the Caumont show takes a different approach than most exhibitions of this type. The exhibition shows not only many of the master’s great, finished works, but also a number of his preparatory work-ups, where he figured out details of composition, lighting, and so on at a more intimate scale. I particularly love the sketchy oil shown below, “El Botijo” (1903), which shows a young woman helping a child to get a drink from a traditional Spanish ceramic water jug with a spout known as a “botijo” on what, based on the figures’ attire and the overall tones of the picture, looks to be a very hot summer’s day. It’s one of the many objects in the show that were lent by private collections, making this show (and its exhibition catalogue) all the more special. The exhibition runs through November 1st, Covid permitting.