Amy Raphael looks at how, In an ever-changing market, today’s star artists are being given a run for their money by the Old Masters

Peggy Guggenheim met Samuel Beckett in Paris on Boxing Day, 1939, at a dinner thrown by Beckett’s employer, James Joyce. That night, Guggenheim reportedly took Beckett back to her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where the wealthy socialite and the young, avant-garde writer  spent 12 days together. There was much talk of art: Guggenheim had started collecting the previous year  and her great love was the Old Masters. But her new friend had other ideas. ‘Beckett told me one had to accept the art of one’s day, as it was a living thing,’ she recorded in her memoirs.

Guggenheim started to collect modern artists instead of her beloved Old Masters and, of course, her name has since become synonymous with contemporary art. For at least the  past decade, the art world has all too readily been embracing Beckett’s belief that one has to accept – some might say, even hype up – the art  of one’s day. World sales records are constantly being broken. In November last year, Jeff Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ sold at Christie’s in New York for $58.4m – $3.4m above its estimate. It became the most expensive work by a living artist to be sold at auction. 

Despite such inflated prices, there is no sign that the market  for contemporary  art is about to crash and burn. And yet the Old Masters are making a comeback in a way that would most certainly have pleased Guggenheim, were she still alive. In July this year, the Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale at Sotheby’s soared past its estimated total to reach an impressive £68.3m, the highest figure ever recorded for such a sale at the London auction house. And the shift isn’t just occurring in the British capital, either; earlier in 2014, the Christie’s  Old Masters Week in New York achieved a grand total of $68m.

The tide has been turning for  a while now. In 2011, works by the Renaissance master Tintoretto were shown in the official main exhibition  at the hyper-contemporary Venice Biennale. In London that same year, Grayson Perry became the first contemporary artist to curate a show at the British Museum – an installation of his own works alongside objects made by unknown men and women throughout history from its collection. Meanwhile, in January 2012, Koons gave a talk on medieval woodcarving at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.  

In October 2012, the Frieze Art Fair, held annually in Regent’s Park in London, launched a new event: Frieze Masters. Frieze London has long had the Kitemark of cool. Widely accepted as one of the leading contemporary-art showcases, both its London and New York fairs attract the most powerful people in the art world, ergo, if even Frieze is embracing this market, then it’s official: old is cool again.

The genius of Frieze Masters is to place the old alongside the new, in  a contemporary setting. ‘We show only art, not furniture, jewellery or antiques, as was once the norm when displaying Old Masters,’ explains Victoria Siddall, director of Frieze Masters. ‘You can see a 7,000-year-old idol next to a medieval sculpture, which, in turn, is next to an 18th-century sculpture next to a Donald Judd, so you can see how sculpture developed through history.’

Frieze has also been successful in bringing together contemporary artists and museums through its Frieze Talks series. ‘We did one recently in New York with Ed Ruscha and Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection,’ says Siddall. ‘You wouldn’t expect someone like Ruscha [who is associated with the Pop Art movement] to have a strong relationship with  the Old Masters, yet he was talking about Giovanni Bellini, Hans Memling, Hans Holbein and Édouard Manet.’

Alistair Hicks, art advisor to Deutsche Bank, the main sponsor of Frieze Masters, is usually preoccupied with late 20th-century and early 21st-century works, but is unequivocal about the importance of Frieze Masters. ‘Most of the artists I’m fascinated with have an extraordinary relationship with older art. When you hear artists talk about their influences, you rarely hear them talk about their peers; instead, they are completely fascinated by what came before them. Indeed, some of the best art libraries are to be found in their houses.  You won’t find many contemporary artists who don’t enjoy going round Frieze Masters.’

Most art-related stories in recent years have tended to focus on, let’s say, Damien Hirst generating more than £111m in his 2008 Sotheby’s sale. But Old Masters make news, too.  The headline sale of last year’s Frieze Masters was ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which went for $9.6m. Johnny Van Haeften, one of London’s most respected dealers in this market, discovered the painting in East Africa. ‘It’s every dealer’s Holy Grail to find something of this calibre and it will be a hard  act to follow. It’s certainly the greatest discovery of my lifetime. At the moment, I don’t have anything to show at Frieze Masters this year to equal  it, but you never know.’

Van Haeften insists public perception of older art is changing. ‘People are beginning to understand that Old Masters aren’t dark, dreary, yellow, unvarnished pictures. They  can be vibrant, colourful and exciting. Many have hidden meanings and symbolism. Brueghels are very popular right now because they’re such fun. Someone who’s made a lot of money may want to own a Damien Hirst or  an Andy Warhol to show they have  real money and they’ve arrived, but  to show style, sophistication, elegance and culture, you really need at least one Old Master.’ 

He has just lent a few Old Masters to an estate agent selling  a classic, stucco-fronted house in Grosvenor Crescent. ‘The agent didn’t want to sell the house empty. The paintings were hung in a contemporary way: in the dining room, one wall is covered by a mirror and a large, opulent still life has been hung on the wall opposite. It looks sensational.’ 

Old Masters may be rising steadily in value, but they still represent excellent value for money. As Van Haeften points out, you could buy Andy Warhol’s ‘Turquoise Marilyn’  for $80m or you could use the same money to buy a Brueghel, a Canaletto and a Rembrandt, even, and still  have money to spare. An entire house can be decorated with good-quality Old Masters for £10m. Alexander Bell, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, says you could even buy ‘a really  lovely Old Master for tens of thousands of pounds’.

Bell remembers that, when he joined Sotheby’s in 1986, he thought the very small contemporary-art department was rather ‘sweet’. How things have changed — and are changing yet again. ‘If you look at first-time bidders in our sales this year, the contemporary-art market had the most, with 2,000, but Old Masters did well, with 900. We’re really not that  far behind. Buyers are far more catholic than they used to be and will now buy contemporary art and Old Masters.’ 

Sotheby’s used to hang its Old Masters — as did most auction houses — densely, on a dark red or dark blue background and alongside decorative arts. The palette has now changed  to greys, the decorative arts have  been ditched and the paintings have room to breathe. ‘People feel more comfortable with the new presentation – it’s likely that it’s not that different from their own home,’ says Bell. ‘Among the pictures that perform  best in today’s market are those that have the strongest, simplest images. Work by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rubens and van Dyck do particularly well.’

The issue with Old Masters will always be supply and demand. With living artists, of course, supply is not an issue. It’s not really an issue with Brueghel the Younger either, because he was so prolific. But as Van Haeften puts it, ‘the supply of Old Masters is finite’. Perhaps, then, it’s never been  a better time to invest. 

Jonathan Green, the deputy executive chairman of Richard Green, a family business with two galleries  on New Bond Street, says important pieces of art will always fetch extraordinary prices, regardless of genre. ‘Evidence from the fair at Maastricht and from the Sotheby’s  and Christie’s auctions this summer seems to support the idea that Old Masters by big names that are in  mint condition have never been more popular,’ he says, adding: ‘The cream  is certainly rising to the top.’

Green’s advice for first-time buyers of Old Masters is simple: ‘If money is no object, start at the top.  However, if the budget is more limited, there are many opportunities to buy good works by less celebrated Dutch artists at very reasonable prices.  Italian vedute [large-scale landscape paintings] by artists other than Guardi, Canaletto and Marieschi are a good buy, as the Italian market has been very subdued over recent years.’

This isn’t a seismic shift in the art landscape – more an acknowledgement that without the old, there would be  no new. As Frieze Masters has proved, the worlds of contemporary and historic art are finally turning to face each other, following years of self-consciously ignoring one another. After all, today’s artists might one day be Old Masters themselves.