The past of memory is confused with the memory of the past.
In 1970, the Metropolitan Museum in New York paid $5.5 million for Velázquez's stunning portrait of his Moorish slave Juan Diego Pareja.
The most expensive work then sold at auction.
In those days, the art market was dominated by the old masters.
Half a century later, they resemble dinosaurs, relics of distant times.
Following in the footsteps of the
Art Basel & UBS Art Market
study , which collects data from 2021, European old masters represented only 4% of auction sales of 24.74 billion euros.
Sometimes there are flashes.
The most expensive work continues to be the
Nothing mattered its terrible state of conservation and excessive restoration.
Christie's sold the panel as a centuries-lost master painting by Leonardo for $450.3 million (382 million euros) in 2017.
The mystery of Leonardo da Vinci grows: a copy of 'Salvator Mundi' costs one million euros
This year only two works by those old creators —according to the Artsy platform— have found space on the list of the 40 most valuable.
Both attributed to Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510).
The first is a tondo (circular box) owned by the bequest of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen,
The Madonna of the Magnificat
A collector disbursed at Christie's about 48.5 million dollars (45.7 million euros, at current exchange rates).
The other is a
Man of Sorrows
of 42.8 million euros, which hides an interesting plot: doubts about its authorship.
Professor Frank Zöllner, responsible for the artist's catalog raisonné, discovered errors in composition in the panel sold by Sotheby's that were incompatible with the virtuosity of the Italian Quattrocento painter.
“If I had the opportunity (and the money!) I would go for the
”, he ironized in the specialized medium
The Art Newspaper
In case you're wondering,
(which many experts attribute to Botticelli and his workshop) ranks 26th and
The $195 million paid in 2022 for
Shot of Marilyn in Sage Blue breaks the bank.
The old masters are haunted by time.
They have lost interest among the young generations, far from the religious world and mythological themes.
It is difficult to make money with them.
Buyers reject many acquisitions because of doubts about their authorship.
They lack the sense of "trophy" of contemporary artists, such as Pollock or Basquiat, and they are difficult to fit into today's homes.
Few want to wake up with a beheaded Saint John the Baptist.
"Nobody is even interested in the religious Goya," he laments, referring to the
by the Aragonese master that was left unsold last December, at the Abalarte house, one of the main experts on genius, who asks not to be cited.
Perhaps the name of Robert Simon is also hardly recognizable, like some old works.
He is an art teacher and his New York gallery has been open for decades.
However, he found a business that is history.
He was the one who discovered
Salvator Mundi .
It only cost him $10,000 (about 9,400 euros) in 2005. The dealer opposes the idea of "reinventing" them.
“That means seeing the Old Masters in contemporary contexts and with 21st century biases and biases.
Isn't it better to run away from current taste to discover what our ancestors considered culturally important? ”, he questions.
But these are days of social networks, immersive experiences, virtual reality, and classical museums seek to attract the public through "dialogue" with contemporary artists.
Little connection with millionaires
Another problem with the voice of teachers is that they have little connection to the millionaires of finance and technology, such as Paul Allen, of our time.
Missing masterpieces that engage.
When was the last time an extraordinary canvas, beyond doubt of attribution, by Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt or Raphael came onto the market?
Given the scarcity of large pieces, the auction catalogs are filled with terms such as: "workshop of", "circle of", "attributed to", "follower of", "in the manner of"... and behind a name, how much more extraordinary better.
Sometimes, not even that hook seems enough before the roller of contemporary production.
"When we bought Velázquez 's Barber of the Pope
for the Prado in 2003
, a very representative paradox of this situation occurred," recalls Miguel Zugaza, former director of the Madrid art gallery and current head of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
“The price we paid for one of the few originals by the Sevillian master from his second trip (1649-1651) to Italy surprised us that it was lower than that of a variant from Francis Bacon's study of
, from the same period, auctioned a few months later”.
But, in a contradictory way, this society continues to travel towards the future in boats dragged towards the past.
The Louvre gets more visits than the Pompidou, the Metropolitan than the MoMA or the Prado than the Reina Sofía, Zugaza recounts.
And surely the most attended exhibition this season will be the Vermeer retrospective in Amsterdam and London.
It is evident that a fracture arises.
The offer is very limited, many works have entered public collections and will not leave there.
And dealers must look for pieces and artists that replace that first level.
"Discovering works, the famous "sleepers", today, with competition and technology, is almost impossible," reflects Jorge Coll, owner of the Colnaghi gallery and representative of the family that owns
Ecce Homo .
Madrid attributed to Caravaggio.
His response has been private sale, which already accounts for 80% of the turnover, and opening paths towards sculpture, drawings or archaeology.
In this way they have obtained works by Donatello, Titian or even Velázquez.
“It is a different way compared to Sotheby's or Christie's and their model based on a lot of volume to achieve profitability”, he values.
There are some institutions that are lucky enough to live outside the laws of market attraction.
The Meadows Museum in Dallas treasures only Spanish art.
Its funds house excellent works by Ribera, Murillo, Velázquez, Goya.
“Our collection is characterized by quality over quantity.
That's why we only acquire firmly attributed pieces that are in good condition,” notes Amanda Dotseth, the institution's chief curator and acting director.
Based on a solid historical account, her strategy is to buy works by lesser-known old masters, at affordable prices, and that they attribute themselves.
Auction houses defend the business of the masters and certain niches such as old drawings.
This segment of the market —describes Stijn Alsteens, international manager at Christie's— has had the best two years in its history.
“We have achieved world record after world record of unquestionable artists: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Leonardo da Vinci, Cavaliere d'Arpino, Taddeo Zuccari and Jean-Antoine Watteau”.
In old graphic works they use Rembrandt as an example.
Christ crucified between two thieves: the three crosses
were sold in July for 1,482,000 pounds (1.7 million euros).
The second highest price paid in history for an engraving of that category.
Teachers resist the passage of time.
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