The divergence between contemporary and old master pictures is often noted in abstract terms, and the highest priced contemporary works evince sneers from fuddy-duddys like me. But the contemporary market is broadly based, and it's interesting to compare across a range of prices. So rather than the usual post-mortem on the old master sales, I've made some direct comparisons. I've selected some old masters sold in the past couple of months from different price points and juxtaposed them with the closest comparison in price from the contemporary sales conducted by the same auction house in the same city. I think it gives some context to the debate about the state of the old master market.
This sublime Solimena sold fractionally above estimate recently, but it's a bargain for one of the most beautiful and perfect Italian baroque pictures at auction recently. The catalogue entry is excellent; I get the sense the writer liked it, too. It's a small and really attractive image of a quality that would hold up in any of the world's greatest museums. Yet it made just $350k.
Two weeks earlier a minor and, to my eyes, artless sketch by Roy Lichtenstein sold for exactly the same price (above). Nearest prices in the same contemporary sale were for works by John Chamberlain and Lucas Samaras - not exactly household names. I've chosen the Solimena deliberately because I think it's a really great and undervalued picture, but it was well marketed and selected as the cover lot for the catalogue, so it's not exactly a sleeper. Yet it only made as much as some relatively quite minor and quite commonplace contemporary works.
Richard Parkes Bonington A Coastal Landscape with Fisherfolk Christie's London £2,490,500
This wonderful languid landscape by the excessively rare Bonington sold for nearly £400k less than Martin Kippenberger's Untitled (below). I think the Bonington is the most beautiful English landscape picture sold in years, by a significant artist who died young and whose oil paintings are absent from many of the best public collections of British art. It's beautiful, easily appreciated, rare and art historically important. But cheaper than a Kippenberger that doesn't even have a title.
At the lower end of the market, a classic Dutch townscape by Berckheyde sold at Christie's for £48,750. It's not a picture that I love, and I think you could do better for the money. But I've chosen it because it's a good and decorative picture, easily recognised and appreciated. Yet it's slightly cheaper than a limited edition print of Marilyn Monroe by Vik Muniz, from 2004, which fetched £50k on 1 July. And Sotheby's got just £37,500 for this gorgeous (but deeply unfashionable) Bonito.
Jan de Bray A Violin Player accompanying two young singers Sotheby's 8 July £125,000
I really thought this would soar, but it just beat the estimate modestly. It's an early work, and not his best, but still fabulous in my view. Six days earlier the same price was achieved for Ai Weiwei's Coloured Vases, neolithic vases vandalised in 2002 with industrial paint by a living artist who can churn out as many more of them as there are neolithic vases.
Ferdinand Bol Portrait of a Boy Sotheby's 8 July £5,189,000
At the top end, Bol's Portrait of a Boy won many hearts and no one was surprised that it exceeded the estimate and smashed the record for Bol. But was £5m so much for such a fabulous picture? It's less than Yves Klein's Untitled Blue Monochrome, which is a blue monochrome painting without a title (sold on 1 July for £5,525,000). I reckon even I could knock you up a pretty good copy of the Klein, but who could replicate that Bol? I'd take just the still life over the Klein! In the same sale as the Klein, a Basquiat and a couple of Warhol dollar sign pictures sold in the same range, but works by Richter and Bacon sold for three times as much, and a Warhol dollar bill for four times as much. These are iconic pictures, but none is particularly uncommon and to my mind none comes close to the artistry of the Bol.
We're used to seeing top contemporary pictures smash records, and truly outstanding old masters rarely come to market. But the depth of the contemporary market is striking. It's not just a handful of top names selling for vast fortunes. At every price point contemporary art is selling strongly. Contemporary art lacks rarity value, and has none of the history and romance that comes with a picture like the Bol, possibly a portrait of the artist's son, painted during one of the greatest flowerings of human civilization and then hung for centuries in one of England's grandest country houses. For a hundred times less money, the Berckheyde is another really fine picture with similar associations with the Dutch golden age, a timeless masterpiece within reach of thousands of the 'mass affluent'. Yet Warhol trumps Bol, a trivial sketch by Lichtenstein is valued on a par with a baroque masterpiece, and a pop art print outsells the Berckheyde. Reports of the demise of the old master market may be over-stated, but in relative terms the contemporary market is powering ahead.
All pictures sourced from auction houses.