These days, Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and a host of other familiar names dominate at auction. But it wasn’t always so. Before the last couple decades, the Old Masters category—featuring artists who were active between the 14th and 18th centuries—was all anyone could talk about. Although its prominence has waned, the category has still set a number of auction records. Both public auctions and high-profile private museum acquisitions of works by art historical giants like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Peter Paul Rubens, among others, have grabbed headlines, with works sometimes selling for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Major private deals of masterpieces in recent years have also moved the category to new heights. In 2019, billionaire J. Tomilson Hill, former chairman of private equity firm Blackstone, was revealed as the buyer of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (ca. 1607) in a last-minute behind-the-scenes purchase made just before the work was slated to go up for auction in Toulouse, France, with an estimate of $170 million. (The price Hill paid for the work has never been revealed.) And in 2003, Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos with a Page (1533), depicting an armored general, was purchased for $70 million by Los Angeles’s Getty Museum in a private deal with France-based Axa Insurance Group, which had loaned it to the Louvre for more than a decade leading up to the Getty’s acquisition.
Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (1529-30)
Price Realized: $35.2 million
Sold at Christie’s New York in 1989, Italian Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo’s 16th-century portrait of a young man in military dress went for $35.2 million to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Thought to be a portrait depicting either Florentine Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici or nobleman Francesco Guardi, it was estimated to sell for $20 million. At the time of the sale it more than tripled the previous record for an Old Masters picture sold at auction, Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, which sold for $10.5 million at Christie’s in 1985. Before going to auction, the painting had been on view since 1970 at the Frick Collection. It was sold by executors for the estate of New York philanthropist Chauncey Devereaux Stillman.
Francesco Guardi, Venice, a view of the Rialto Bridge, Looking North (1760s)
Price Realized: £26.7 million ($43 million)
In 2011, a monumental 18th-century painting of a view of Venice by Italian painter Francesco Guardi sold to an anonymous bidder for a record price of £26.7 million ($43 million) at Sotheby’s in London. Painted in the mid-1760s, the canvas was passed down to through generations of the Guinness family, which offered it at auction. It outperformed, selling slightly above its estimate of £25 million.
J. M. W. Turner, Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839)
Price Realized: £29.7 million ($44.9 million)
In 2010, J. M. W. Turner’s Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino sold for £29.7 million at Sotheby’s, realizing the second-highest price ever achieved for the British artist at auction. The winning bidder was dealer Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, who bid for the work on behalf of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the painting now resides permanently. (Scott J. Schaefer, the Getty’s curator of paintings at the time, told the New York Times that it was the best Turner of all time on the occasion of the purchase.) Sold from the Rothschild family collection, the work depicts an Italian city and acts as a showcase for Turner’s technical prowess. The painting had appeared on the market only once before Sotheby’s sale in the 171 years since it was completed.
J. M. W. Turner, Rome, from Mount Aventine (1836)
Price Realized: £30.3 million ($47.6 million)
In December 2014, British artist J. M. W. Turner’s Rome, from Mount Aventine set a record for the artist when it sold for £30.3 million ($47.6 million) at Sotheby’s London. Originally painted for the artist’s friend publisher John Pye, the work realized a price that made Turner the most expensive pre–20th century British artist of all time.
Raphael, Head of a Young Apostle (ca. 1519–21)
Price Realized: £29.7 million ($47.8 million)
In December 2012, at Sotheby’s London salesroom, a 16th-century drawing by Renaissance titan Raphael sold for $47.8 million after a 17-minute battle between four bidders. The dramatic sale set an auction record for the artist, doubling its pre-sale estimate. Sold from the prominent Devonshire Collections at Chatsworth House in Bakewell, England, where the work resided since the early 18th century, the work drew a result was three three times its pre-sale low estimate of £10 million. It was completed as a study for the artist’s last painting, the biblical scene The Transfiguration, which is held by the Vatican Museum.
Raphael, Head of a Muse (ca. 1510)
Price Realized: £29.1 million ($48 million)
In the early 16th century, Raphael was commissioned by the court of Pope Julius II to paint frescoes for the Stanza Della Segnatura, the Papal library and private office. Head Of A Muse was completed as a preliminary draft during Raphael’s preparation for one of the the biggest achievements of the Renaissance—The Parnassus, a fresco for the Vatican depicting the mythical story of Mount Parnassus, where the god Apollo lived with the nine Muses. Its first recorded owner was Dutch collector Gosuinus Uilenbroeck in 1725, later passing through the hands of Sir Thomas Lawrence, an artist and prominent old master drawings collection, and then to King William II of Holland. The work—the last drawing related to Raphael’s Vatican commission that was still privately owned—first came to market in 2009 at Christie’s, where two bidders sparred over it. Eventually, it hammered at £29 million, going to an anonymous phone bidder for almost double its estimate of £16 million.
Peter Paul Rubens, Lot and His Daughters (ca. 1613–14)
Price Realized: £44.9 million ($58.2 million)
In 2016, Peter Paul Rubens’s Lot and His Daughters—a Biblical scene representing the seduction of Lot by his daughters during the family’s exile—sold at Christie’s in London for a price of £44.9 million. The work, which had been in a private collection for more than a century, had previously been part of collections of high-profile figures such as the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Purchased by a charitable foundation during Christie’s summer sale, the Rubens masterpiece is displayed on long-term loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (1611–12)
Prize Realized: £49.5 million ($76.5 million)
In July 2002, Rubens’s rediscovered painting Massacre of the Innocents, which depicts the Biblical scene of a violent massacre in Bethlehem, fetched a price of £49.5 million ($76.5 million) at Sotheby’s. Previously attributed to the Flemish painter Jan van den Hoecke and estimated at £4 million–£6 million, the work soared past its estimate at the house’s London venue, hammering at a price of £45 million and going to Canadian businessman and art collector Kenneth Thomson. He subsequently donated it to Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, where it was one of the star works in a 2019 survey of Rubens’s early work that also traveled to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Sandro Botticelli Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel (1480)
In January 2021, Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel sold at Sotheby’s in New York for a record-breaking $92.2 million. The rare portrait, said to be one of the last secular Botticelli portraits in private hands, went to a Russian buyer bidding on the phone with Sotheby’s London-based specialist Lilija Sitnika, hammering at its pre-sale estimate of $80 million. Coming from the collection of the late real estate developer Sheldon Solow, who bought it in 1982 for £810,000 ($1.3 million), the painting broke the artist’s previous record of $10.4 million, made by the sale of the Rockefeller Madonna at Christie’s in 2013.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit (1634)
Price Realized: €160 million ($195 million)
In February 2016, the Dutch and French governments, on behalf of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris, carried out a landmark joint private acquisition of Rembrandt’s rare pendant portraits depicting Dutch couple Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. Facilitated by Christie’s, the works were purchased through a private deal for prices between €80 million each. Completed in 1634, the intricately painted portraits of the newlyweds showcased the sitters’ patronage of the young artist, who at the time was only 28. The rare portraits, which are the only known full-length paintings by Rembrandt, were formerly in the Rothschild collection in 1878. Before the private sale, they had last been exhibited publicly in 1956 in the Netherlands. While the two paintings are owned separately, due to French law, the museums have pledged that the pair will always be showcased together at either museum.
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500)
Price Realized: $450.3 million
Arguably the most widely publicized art sale in history was the auction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which raked in more than $450 million at Christie’s New York in 2016 during a postwar and contemporary art event. After a drawn-out 19-minute long bidding war, Salvator Mundi became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Sold from a private European collection, the winning buyer was later revealed to be Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The work depicts Christ signaling the cross with his right hand and holding a translucent orb in his left. Long believed to be a copy of a lost Leonardo work, the painting was reattributed to the Renaissance master following its restoration in 2006. Prior to the sale, the painting went on display in 2011 at the National Gallery in London. Despite all the attention paid to the work, many historians have cast doubt on whether Leonardo really painted Salvator Mundi, and it did not appear in the Louvre’s 2019 Leonardo retrospective.