Rubens in Today’s Art Market: Priceless vs. Over-Priced


On the 30th of May 1640, Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens died in Antwerp (now Belgium). Known for his history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects, one of his more recently discovered works,  The Massacre of the Innocents (1611–12, oil on panel, 142 × 182 cm, Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario) powerfully captures the drama and dynamism of the biblical genocide of the Bethlehem Innocents, as related in the Gospel of Matthew.

The panel caused a major stir in the art market on the 10th of July 2002, when it sold for £49.5 million (US$76.2 million) to Canadian businessman and art collector Kenneth Thomson, 2nd Baron Thomson of Fleet, at a Sotheby’s auction in London. This painting was unlikely to ever set such a record: at the end of 2013 it was still the highest auction price for an Old Master painting ever reached in Britain. Problems of attribution made it a very surprising rising star for the auctioneers. For a long time, it was believed that it was not executed by the master himself. After being miscatalogued by Vincenzio Fanti in 1767, the Massacre was attributed to one of Rubens’ assistants, Jan van den Hoecke, until it was sold to an Austrian family in 1920. Subsequently loaned since 1923 to Stift Reichersberg, a monastery in northern Austria, it was only in 2001 that the painting was rediscovered by George Gordon, a Sotheby’s expert in Flemish and Dutch art. He saw pertinent similarities in it to Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, painted around the same time. The work was finally recognised for what it was. Following the auction, due to rebuilding and expansion at its intended exhibition site, the painting was loaned to the National Gallery, London until its transfer to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2008, the original recipient of Thomson’s generous donation.

Since this last record price obtained for an Old Masters work, however, the commercial market has been suspiciously disinterested in classical or historical artworks. “With eight-figure prices now routinely being paid for big-ticket names like Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, and millions for hot young artists, where does that leave more traditional sectors of the market? Take Old Masters, for instance. Up until the 1980s, paintings by canonical figures such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Velázquez were the main income-generators for Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Since then, they’ve fallen out of fashion with wealthy collectors, who increasingly want to buy instantly recognizable works by “brand” artists rather than connoisseurs’ paintings whose authorship might be open to question. (…) “Old Masters just aren’t sexy,” said the London-based art adviser Wendy Goldsmith, a former head of 19th-century pictures at Christie’s. “Supply is a problem. There’s so little on the market and it’s difficult to learn about. There are no young dealers coming through the ranks, and there just isn’t the same financial upside that you get with contemporary art.” (Scott Reyburn, ‘Where’s the Appetite for Old Masters?’ The New York Times, May 25, 2014).

81XEFgoYt4L._SL1360_Lack of signature, attribution and tracing put new auction thrill seekers, contemporary and modern collectors and financial art gamblers off the Old Masters. In 1987, the sale of Van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888) signalled a new era of sales, in which, for the first time, a “modern” painting became the record holder, as opposed to the old master paintings before. Currently, as far as paintings are concerned, on the most expensive list, Rubens’ Massacre is preceded by works by the following artists: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso, Gustave Klimt, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman and, at the top of the list is Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players (1892-3), purchased through a private sale in April 2011 for no less than $250 million! All these are modern and contemporary works. A lot has to do with recognition of provenance and the artwork as a ‘product’ of a well-known ‘name’, much easier to trace in recent art. The New York-based art adviser Todd Levin stresses that “brand-recognition is important”. This might be the explanation why Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucien Freud (1969) is now the most expensive art work ever sold at any auction, having fetched $142.4 million during Christie’s contemporary auction in New York in November 2013.

Brands cause trends, and the art world is no different. “I think becoming a brand name,” conceptual artist Damien Hirst told The Independent in 2000, “is a really important part of life.” Historically, the driver of value was the aesthetic charismatic power of an artwork on the person who wished to possess it. In the 1960s, with Andy Warhol ad Pop Art, however, that visual attractiveness started making way to commercialized culture and a new industry of art. Andy Warhol’s idea of business art was fully exploited by artists such as Jeff Koons, who is essentially a stockbroker turned millionaire pop artist. His Balloon Dog (Orange) from the 1970s is now the most expensive work by a living artist ever auctioned, having sold for $58.4 million. (Forbes).

It seemed that starting with the 1960s, the emotional connection toward art, which traditionally created subjective personal value, had been, in many ways, superseded by the artwork’s value as a financial investment. YBA Damien Hirst’s most famous piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde—sold 51W0rxblNzL._to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen for a reported $12 million (Bloomberg). Andrew Rice wrote in 2012 that, “Hirst’s work was in such demand, he relied on teams of assistants to produce it, working with varied product lines in the manner of a fashion designer. (…) Hirst’s devotees credit him with clever, Warhol-esque subversion. But Andy Warhol never received more than $50,000 for a painting during his lifetime, while Hirst has profited handsomely from his artistic statements. London’s Sunday Times estimates his fortune at around $350 million, making him the richest artist in the world.” (Andrew Rice, ‘Damien Hirst: Jumping the Shark’, November 21, 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek). The irony is hard to miss: Hirst’s serialised art produced by his workshop teams got to be sold at extortionate prices, while Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents was kept on the back burner by art auctioneers precisely for it supposedly being painted by one of the master’s apprentices…