Past masters

Por­traits, mytho­log­i­cal scenes and land­scapes are a plea­sure to own, says Cle­men­tine Sin­clair, Old Masters spe­cial­ist at Christie’s

Country Life Every Week - - Future Heirlooms -

WHEN buy­ing fine art with a view to pass­ing it down, the most im­por­tant start­ing point is to buy some­thing you like and want to spend time with. ‘If you en­joy liv­ing with a work of art, this will en­hance its per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance to you, which may well res­onate with your rel­a­tives as well,’ be­lieves my col­league at Christie’s, Mod­ern British spe­cial­ist Angus Gran­lund.

There are a few key fac­tors to think about when look­ing. In the case of Old Masters, you need to fo­cus on the artists, the prove­nance, con­di­tion and rar­ity. And don’t for­get to keep records of the paint­ings, as well as how and why you ac­quired them, so that this can be passed down with the pic­ture.

With Old Masters, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing a good piece by a rel­a­tively mi­nor artist rather than a medi­ocre ex­am­ple—some­thing in a bad state, for ex­am­ple—by a more es­tab­lished name. Con­di­tion is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when buy­ing some­thing to be en­joyed by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Watch out for works that have been sub­jected to nu­mer­ous restora­tion cam­paigns and don’t dis­miss some­thing that looks in bad state at first sight—it may be that the orig­i­nal sur­face is be­ing ob­scured by su­per­fi­cial var­nish and dirt that can be treated rel­a­tively eas­ily.

You should also think about whether the paint­ing is from a good or par­tic­u­larly piv­otal mo­ment in the artist’s ca­reer or artis­tic de­vel­op­ment, whether the at­tri­bu­tion is given in full and whether it has been in­cluded in any re­cent sem­i­nal ex­hi­bi­tions on the artist.

If the op­tion of find­ing some­thing very per­sonal to the fam­ily, such as a por­trait of an an­ces­tor or paint­ing of a fam­ily house is un­likely, my ad­vice is to think about buy­ing por­traits of royal sit­ters or im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. Equally, topo­graph­i­cal views of Euro­pean cities, univer­sity towns or the lo­cal land­scape may res­onate with fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

£5,000 to £10,000 at auc­tion

At this price level, you can find dec­o­ra­tive works cat­a­logued as ‘Stu­dio of’ or ‘Cir­cle of’ es­tab­lished artists, as well as fully at­trib­uted paint­ings by lesser­known masters. If you’re in­ter­ested in por­trai­ture, there are 16th-cen­tury and early-17th-cen­tury El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean por­traits that can ap­peal to a mod­ern aes­thetic, the style be­ing rel­a­tively flat and geo­met­ric, with pure blocks of colour. Twenty to 30 years ago, Ital­ian 18th-cen­tury mytho­log­i­cal scenes were in high de­mand, which drove up prices. How­ever, th­ese works are more ac­ces­si­ble to­day: fine ex­am­ples of ide­alised land­scapes by artists such as Lo­catelli and L’oriz­zonte come on the mar­ket rel­a­tively fre­quently.

Won­der­ful Dutch and Flem­ish still-lifes can be pur­chased at all lev­els: al­though some can command very high prices, you can find re­ally in­ter­est­ing fine 17th-cen­tury paint­ings by se­cond- and third-tier Dutch and Flem­ish masters for less than £20,000, in­clud­ing in­tri­cate flower pieces and sump­tu­ous ta­ble dis­plays adorned with sil­ver salt cel­lars and lob­sters.

You can also ac­quire less am­bi­tious works by more es­tab­lished artists for about £15,000 to £20,000, in­clud­ing por­traits by Thomas Gains­bor­ough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Prices can vary de­pend­ing on the iden­tity of the sit­ter, which is not al­ways known.

£20,000 to £50,000

Por­traits of royal sit­ters and topo­graph­i­cal views of Euro­pean cities, no­tably Venice and Lon­don, which have been in con­stant de­mand through­out the cen­turies due to the en­dur­ing ap­peal of th­ese two cities, can be ac­quired in this range.

Among the re­cent sale of por­traits of royal sit­ters, an English School, mid-16th-cen­tury Por­trait of King Henry VIII, sold for £36,000. A paint­ing by Apol­lo­nio Domeni­chini of The Grand Canal sold for £19,700 and A View of the Thames with Saint Paul’s Cathe­dral from Black­fri­ars by Henry Pether re­alised £27,500.

£50,000 and above

The ad­van­tage of buy­ing in Old Masters is that good ex­am­ples of por­traits, topo­graph­i­cal views,

£10,000 to £20,000

still-lifes and other gen­res can be found at vary­ing price lev­els. At £50,000 and above, it’s pos­si­ble to ac­quire higher-qual­ity works by more es­tab­lished names.

You’re also more likely to be able to buy a work that is rare and in an ex­cep­tional state— when th­ese two fac­tors come to­gether, works can achieve re­mark­able prices and of­fer a unique op­por­tu­nity to buy a work of sig­nif­i­cance and beauty that can be en­joyed for gen­er­a­tions to fol­low.

For ex­am­ple, when a rare and exquisitely ren­dered por­trait of a lady by the Court painter Wil­liam Larkin came up for sale at Christie’s in July last year, it made £266,500 against an es­ti­mate of £40,000 to £60,000 and when a lu­mi­nous and beau­ti­fully pre­served view on the Côte d’opale, Pi­cardy, by Bon­ing­ton, ex­e­cuted shortly be­fore his pre­ma­ture death in 1828, was of­fered last sum­mer, it re­alised £1,370,500 against an es­ti­mate of £400,000 to £600,000.

This el­e­gant and rare Wil­liam Larkin por­trait of a lady sold at Christie’s in 2016 for £266,500

Jan Frans van Bloe­men, known as l’oriz­zonte, painted this charm­ing Ital­ianate land­scape, de­pict­ing the tomb of Ce­cilia Metella

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