New Reasons to Love the Old Masters

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Seigen 1577–1640 Antwerp), Lot and His Daughters, circa 1613–1614. Oil on canvas, 74 x 88½ in. (190 x 225 cm)

If you have walked through the halls of an art museum mesmerized by a da Vinci or a Goya, then you know the unique beauty of the Old Masters. In art history, the term refers to any noted painter who worked in Europe before about 1800.

Categories within this title include Gothic Art, the Early, High, and Northern Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, the Dutch “Golden Age,” Rococo, Neoclassicism, and Romanticism, and includes such beloved painters as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Dürer. Some use it to refer specifically to the period after the Renaissance.

But despite the romance surrounding the Old Masters, contemporary art dominates today’s art world. With lower profits coming from sales of older masterpieces, auction houses and museums are spending most of their resources on modern art.

Some experts see this as a comment on our culture. “We’re losing a sense of the value of the past, including the value of past art,” said Stanford art historian Richard Meyer in an interview with The New York Times, “not just the aesthetic value, but the ways in which it can teach us about the cultures and the people who came before us.”

Old Masters Connoisseurs: More Committed than Ever

Yet, even as the Old Masters fall out of fashion, they are finding new audiences who are more committed than ever. Due to lower prices, such artworks represent a new opportunity for serious collectors, who are snapping up printings and engravings for $4,000, and 17th century European paintings for half the price of a piece of Pop Art.

And when major masterworks do come on the market, they do very well. The second-most expensive work by Peter Paul Ruben ever sold at auction, “Lot and His Daughters,” was purchased for $58 million this past July and set a record at Christie’s.

Other collectors are holding tight to their Old Masters works and being very selective about how they introduce them for sale. More owners are looking to sell privately to protect the value and market of the artwork. Buyers are also utilizing protective methods with their purchases through insurance companies and expert due diligence.

Something Old, Something New: Old Masters in Contemporary Culture

One of today’s biggest museum trends is showing favorite masterpieces alongside works by contemporary artists. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art started an online series called “The Artist Project,” featuring modern artists as they describe the classical works that inspire them.

And the Old Masters are even showing up in pop culture. Beyoncé famously introduced her current pregnancy with a series of photographs by Awol Erizku, an artist known for photographs of black models that reimagine paintings by European Old Masters like Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt. Even those with a cursory knowledge of art history will recognize Beyoncé in the pose made famous by Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”

Beyoncé and Birth of Venus

Placing this talented beauty into a milieu that recalls the very beginnings of Western art seems to challenge the viewer to open their definition of classic beauty. Even as our collective ideas of the beautiful grow and change, the Old Masters signify an important point of origin.

Investing the Old Masters: How to Start

For collectors interested in learning more about the Old Masters, connecting with experts in this critical chapter of art history is a crucial first step. This can be challenging as there are fewer qualified experts today to advise and curate within the genre. For example, Christie’s trains its old master specialists for six to seven years, whereas its contemporary experts get only three to four years. And most young art historians choose to specialize in contemporary art. So, take some time to locate an art adviser with a sense of history and a reverence for the Old Masters, and begin your journey of discovery.

By Rayah Levy, Art Market Expert
LinkedIn March 21, 2017: