Paintings by Old Masters have delivered some of the art market’s most notable highs in recent years, preeminent among them the Christie’s 2018 sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) for $450 million, the highest price ever achieved for an artwork at auction. Since then, auction houses have been pushing to make the classic category as big a rainmaker as modern and contemporary art, which eclipsed Old Masters decades ago. Often, that means combining the two categories in curated sales, as was the case with the Leonardo.
“In a way, Old Masters artists are just as much brands as Warhol or Koons,” said Karl Hermanns, Christie’s global managing director of Old Masters. “If anything, Leonardo is the greatest artist brand of all.”
Unlike contemporary art, Old Masters collecting lacks rampant speculation, and very few major works remain in private hands. Unlike the headline-grabbing prices seen by contemporary works, far fewer Old Masters sell in the multimillions, and buyers for the market’s top lots remain a select few. Hedge fund manager J. Tomilson Hill is among the leading collectors of works from this period, which he juxtaposes with his equally significant holdings of modern and contemporary art in exhibitions at his Hill Art Foundation in New York. Responsible for some of the most expensive trades in the category, Hill last year purchased Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (ca. 1607) privately, just before it went up for sale in a French auction, where it carried a high estimate of $170 million. In 2015, he dropped $44.7 million on Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, a painting by 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Pontormo.
In July, Sotheby’s blockbuster multi-category auction saw a Rembrandt self-portrait, painted when he was 26, achieve $18.8 million, a new benchmark for the Dutch master. The buyer remains unknown.
Names to Know:
Debra & Leon Black
Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein
Janine & J. Tomilson Hill
Jo Carole & Ronald S. Lauder
New York and Wainscott, New York; Washington, D.C.; Palm Beach, Florida; Paris; Vienna
St. Moritz, Switzerland
Rose-Marie & Eijk van Otterloo
Lynda & Stewart Resnick
New York, São Paulo, and Geneva
Carlos Slim Helú
Correction: The print version of this article misstated J. Tomilson Hill’s business affiliation. He is no longer the chairman Blackstone Group.