A recent article in the New York Times, Can the Old Masters Be Relevant Again, seemed to paint a rather gloomy picture of the art market, particularly that for older masters. The author did hold out some hope, however, pointing out that the focus on the part of so many of the wealthiest art buyers on contemporary art left great opportunities in the art market for real connoisseurs. Yet there still opportunities in the Old Master, 19th and Early 20th Century Paintings or Sculpture art markets – but where might such opportunities be found?
The major auction houses sell thousands of works of art every year but it is often hard for even knowledgeable collectors to have the time and expertise to check that the description given in the catalogue is accurate. The conditions of sale, even at the major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, mean that the buyer cannot always rely on statements about condition nor the reasonable presumption that the vendor has proper title is not guaranteed. While Phillips’, another London based auction house, could never seriously compete with Sotheby’s or Christie’s, it was originally an art auctioneer but has evidently abandoned any attempt to be seen as a forum for connoisseurship. Its new management is instead concentrating exclusively on contemporary art buyers, often speculators with no interest in art or culture of the past. Phillips’s chairman (who, surprisingly, once worked for Christie’s) is reported as saying “we have no intention of selling old masters pictures or 18th-, 19th-century pictures, because these markets are now so small and dwindling… The new client base at the auction houses — and the collecting tastes of those clients — have moved away from this veneration of the past.” So for Phillips’ and its clientele, the art market for anything other than modern and contemporary art is to be ignored as irrelevant.