Obsessed by the present, who's got time for Old Masters?

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Obsessed by the present, who's got time for Old Masters?
In a photo provided by Christie’s shows, a sale of old masters at Christie’s in London in December. Paintings from before 1850, once a bedrock of the market, now account for just a tiny percentage of auction sales. Instead, buyers want works by living artists with a strong Instagram presence. (Christie's via The New York Times)

by Scott Reyburn

NEW YORK, NY.- The art market, like pretty much everything else in our culture, has become all about the here and now.

The seismic shift in collecting taste from the old to the very new was summed up in December by a little-reported result in Christie’s annual evening auction of master paintings in London.

Highest price of the night was $3.6 million for the 1735 canvas “The Reading Party,” an acutely observed scene of an elegant young woman reading aloud to two aristocratic friends in a park. One of just 11 known “tableaux de mode,” or “pictures of fashionable life,” by Jean-François de Troy, this museum-worthy masterwork set a seemingly impressive auction high for the artist.

But that price was the same as the record $3.6 million given in March for British artist Flora Yukhnovich’s 2020 semiabstract canvas “Warm, Wet ’N’ Wild,” inspired by another 18th-century French painting. Admired for her highly decorative, ironically titled riffs on Rococo-era old masters, Yukhnovich is one of several young female painters whose works soared to seven figures at auction last year. In 2019, large new paintings by Yukhnovich were selling for $40,000 at a London gallery.

European pictures dating from before 1850 aren’t as fashionable with collectors as they once were. Yet Sotheby’s and Christie’s will be hoping to buck the trend when they offer a bumper haul of old masters paintings with a combined estimated value of more than $175 million in New York this month.

Sotheby’s has great expectations for Peter Paul Rubens’ gruesome 1609 painting “Salome Presented With the Head of St. John the Baptist” that is the star lot of its Jan. 26 auction of Baroque masterworks from the Fisch Davidson collection. (The painting has been guaranteed by Sotheby’s to sell for at least $25 million.)

Like a scene from “Game of Thrones,” the Rubens shows a grinning maidservant pulling the tongue out from St. John the Baptist’s freshly severed head as she presents it on a platter to Salome. Traders in old masters say that this is the sort of subject that appeals to a new group of contemporary-minded clients.

Eric Turquin, a Paris-based painting expert, said that in recent years, some “people from the contemporary art world” have been buying old masters. They were drawn to “very strong images of violence” from the Baroque period, but, he added, “Our buyers are fewer and richer.”

Fifty years ago, when the Metropolitan Museum purchased Diego Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” for $5.5 million at Christie’s in London, a record for any artwork at auction, old masters were the dominant sales category. Last year, they accounted for just 4% of auction and private sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, according to data provided to The New York Times by the companies’ press offices.

Now, contemporary art holds sway, reflecting the fast-forward cultural preoccupations of our society.

Experts say that younger collectors often regard art from the distant past as remote and irrelevant, and find the technical aspects of a sale off-putting. “Old masters are difficult to approach because of the problem of condition and attribution,” Turquin said. Today’s buyers tend to be interested in paintings by artists who are younger than 45, not older than 400.

Anders Petterson, a founder of the London-based auction analysts ArtTactic, said, “Over the last three years, we have seen a significant increase in demand for artworks by a younger generation of artists.” In January, ArtTactic published a report on the outlook for “NextGen” artists, defined as those younger than 45. Works by younger, Instagram-lauded artists such as Yukhnovich have routinely been “flipped” at auction for many multiples of their original gallery prices. Last year, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips offered works by a record 670 artists in that demographic, grossing more than $300 million, according to ArtTactic.

The fixation with “the Now” (as Sotheby’s calls its most of-the-moment auction category) could be viewed as just a byproduct of fashionable 21st-century life. But for sociologists, changes in the art market are one of the many elements that reflect how the pace and preoccupations of our culture have altered over more than 100 years. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen’s landmark socio-economic study, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” showed how free time and superfluity — what we now call luxury — conferred status, or “reputability,” on the wealthiest individuals in late 19th-century America.

Giana M. Eckhardt, professor of marketing at King’s College London, is co-author of a 2020 paper called “New Dynamics of Social Status and Distinction” that summarizes 21st-century academia’s attempts to update Veblen. For Eckhardt, technology has contributed to a speeding up of the tempo of contemporary existence — a phenomenon called “social acceleration” — which profoundly changes human perceptions of the passage of time.

“If you look back at human development, there were tens of thousands of years in which things didn’t change that much,” Eckhardt said in an interview. “Humans have not developed enough to be able to react to social change that is this quick. This leads to people putting a value on the new in different ways from the past.”

So where does that leave the art of the past?

Clearly, the most famous names of art history still have enduring value. In Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum’s coming Johannes Vermeer exhibition, opening next month, is generating huge public interest. An old master is still the world’s most expensive painting at auction, after the $450.3 million given for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” in 2017. And last year, an exquisite Jean Siméon Chardin still life, “Basket of Wild Strawberries,” dating from 1761, was sold by the Paris auction house Artcurial for $22.6 million. The painting was bought by the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, which must wait until December 2024 to learn if the work, classified by French authorities as a national treasure, can be exported to the United States.

“The Kimbell, which refrains from following fashion, acquires works not just for today, but for the next hundred years — works that will stand the test of time,” Eric Lee, the Kimbell’s director, said by phone. Lee did concede, however, that technology was accelerating the way that visitors experienced time’s passage. “Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter,” he noted.

In the market, the question is whether the art of the distant past can make some kind of comeback. For all the upbeat talk of contemporary-art collectors rediscovering old masters, there is, in reality, little chatter about Rubens, Chardin or de Troy overheard at Art Basel or at Frieze.

“In terms of an individual purchasing art, art that reflects the new is going to provide a higher social status,” Eckhardt said. “That will be reflected in the price as well.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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