Art Market

How Old Masters Dealers Are Attracting a New Generation of Collectors

Justin Kamp
Jul 27, 2020 10:25PM

Abraham Mignon, Still Life with Plums, Peaches, Apricot, Grapes and a Melon, with a Roemer Glass and a Flute Glass, all on a Draped Table, a Goldfinch on the Window Sill, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Lady, Three-Quarter Length, wearing an elaborate black dress and cloak, before a red drape and a distant landscape, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

For many collectors, the category of Old Masters might conjure a certain air of impenetrability. From the extensive history and scholarship that goes into collecting centuries-old works to the often significant price points, this category of European art has historically been the realm of wizened collectors with particular habits. This trend toward specialization has been reflected in the category’s sales numbers—sales of works by Old Masters have seen a steady decline in volume and value over the past decade, according to economist Clare McAndrew’s report “The Art Market 2020.” In 2019, the category accounted for just 7 percent of the fine art auction market by value, making it the smallest of the fine art sectors. But as new generations come up and new habits and technologies emerge, those in the business of selling Old Masters are adapting. For dealers and auction houses, attempting to bridge the generational gap and reverse the sales decline has required a variety of tactics.

“If you would have asked me [who collects Old Masters] 15 years ago, it would have been an easy answer: 50-plus Western Europeans and North Americans,” said Andrew Fletcher, the head of Sotheby’s Old Masters department. “Now it’s fairly evenly spread between Asia, North America, and Central and South America. There’s also far more in the 35 to 50 age bracket than there were 5 or 10 years ago. I don’t think we’ll ever attract a 20-year-old, though—this is a category that takes a while to get into. You want to be more confident in your collecting before you approach the Old Masters.”

Bernardo Bellotto, Dresden a View of the Moat of the Zwinger, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


To build that confidence, Fletcher said Sotheby’s will occasionally organize private sales of works by Old Masters, especially in growing markets such as Hong Kong. In a private setting, the auction house and buyer can have a greater degree of contact, and this more personal form of sale allows collectors to be more confident in their ability to face the often “scary, impersonal” world of public auctions. Fletcher said this approach has proven invaluable in building up a base of Old Masters collectors in many markets, but especially in Asia, where collectors tend to be younger.

Another tactic the auction house has for getting younger collectors interested is cross-category sales, like Tuesday’s “Rembrandt to Richter” auction at Sotheby’s in London, which will feature Dutch masterworks alongside Pop and postmodern pieces—and which Fletcher said has already received considerable interest from clients he had never interacted with before. The approach has paid dividends for other auction houses, most notably Christie’s, which in 2017 sold Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) for a record-shattering $450.3 million in the midst of an evening auction of post-war and contemporary art.

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man, Half-Length in Black, with a Broad-Brimmed Black Hat and a White Ruff, Holding his Gloves, within a painted oval, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, A Village Scene with Peasants Carousing, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Such blurring of historical categories and orthodoxies reflects a different collecting ethos: Whereas traditional collectors of Old Masters might have a specific area of specialization, be it French Rococo works or 17th-century Dutch portraits, Fletcher said younger collectors approach the category less academically, and their buying habits encompass a wider array of works as a result.

“That idea of creating a scholarly collection that covers every aspect of one area is kind of gone now,” Fletcher said. “Just as they’re buying contemporary art, Impressionists, and Old Masters, within the Old Masters they’re shopping around, too. They’re not inhibited from what they want to collect anymore. It’s just what they like.”

Some dealers trace these wide-ranging preferences back to the aesthetics and organization of social media, which has become an invaluable tool for reaching younger collectors. Charles Mackay, gallery manager at The Weiss Gallery in London, said that the highly visual, interconnected nature of the internet is instrumental in the new generation’s approach to collecting.

Giuseppe Vermiglio
The Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1620
The Weiss Gallery

“The huge surge of content that is easily accessed through the likes of Instagram, and even Pinterest, has made exploring the art world a much less intimidating experience,” Mackay said. “The ability to save, share, and engage on these truly global platforms has also democratized the system of learning and promoting the art world at every level internationally. The spark of a collector’s passion can start through a friend taking them to a local auctioneer, watching a Netflix documentary about the art world, or happening upon a dealer’s Instagram profile—the possibilities are endless.”

Social media isn’t the only tool available for capitalizing on collectors’ diverse interests. Sotheby’s has found success in recent years by partnering with brands such as Highsnobiety, which released a line of Old Masters–inspired streetwear ahead of Masters Week in January of this year; or celebrities like Fab Moretti of the Strokes, who collaborated with renowned dealer Fabrizio Moretti on an exhibition in 2019 that had a 100 percent sell-through rate. Earlier that year, Sotheby’s partnered with Victoria Beckham as part of its “Female Triumphant” sale, which highlighted women artists in the category. Partnerships and targeted sales like these have proven just as important as social media in cultivating a perception of the Old Masters category that fits with new generations’ interests.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Woman Sitting Half Dressed Beside a Stove, 1658
David Tunick, Inc.
Studio of John Michael Wright
Sir Willoughby Aston as a young man, 2nd Bt. (1640 – 1702), of Aston Hall, Aston-by-Sutton, Cheshire, ca. 1660
The Weiss Gallery

By embracing these younger collectors’ omnivorous tastes, Old Masters dealers and auction house departments have been able to reach a demographic that may have been previously inaccessible. But these new buying habits have been accompanied by a change in some of the traditional sales techniques that dealers and auctions houses have used in the past. David Tunick, founder of David Tunick, Inc. Old Master Prints and Drawings in New York, said that his business tactics have changed considerably in recent decades.

“We always thought that Old Masters and 19th- and 20th-century classic works demanded close personal relationships, where you’d call someone in Sydney, Düsseldorf, London, or what have you, and tell them about something exciting that just came in,” Tunick said. Fletcher shared a similar sentiment, stating that 20 years ago, he would have likely been able to name the potential bidders on any given Old Master work before it came to auction. In many ways, it was a category composed of small networks of dedicated buyers and sellers. The increasing prevalence of social media and associated technologies has both expanded the market for Old Masters, and made it more anonymous.

Anthony van Dyck
Mary Barber, later Lady Jermyn (d. 1679) [?], ca. 1637
The Weiss Gallery
Rembrandt van Rijn
Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
David Tunick, Inc.

“It’s become a lot harder to individually target people,” Fletcher said. “But at the same time, you’ve got this wonderful new marketing machine through the internet and social media that kind of does the job for you. You don’t need to individually target. Your message gets out there so far and wide that there’s no need for that pre-sale targeting.”

Tunick added that collectors of all ages now seem to be in more of a hurry. “We have an inventory of a few thousand things, solander boxes and a warehouse full of interesting museum-quality material,” he said. “Forty years ago, collectors and curators would come in and sit for hours and go through those boxes. That doesn’t happen anymore. Everyone is too busy, plus you have the phenomenon and distraction of art fairs, a kind of one-stop shopping in which we also enthusiastically participate as exhibitors in New York and Maastricht.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Whalley Bridge and Abbey, Lancashire Dyers Washing and Drying Cloth, n.d. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Despite this, Tunick is confident in the opportunities the internet offers the category. He said transitioning his business online has been a “welcome challenge,” and that Old Masters works have become more accessible than ever because of high-resolution image sharing and Zoom capabilities. He pointed out that since his business moved almost entirely online because of the pandemic, he has still been able to achieve significant sales every month since March. While some older buyers are hesitant to make use of online viewing rooms or email inquiries, the vast majority of clients have embraced the expansive possibilities of the internet.

As technology continues to advance and tastes continue to change, the Old Masters category will continue to adapt. From private and cross-category sales to virtual viewings and Zoom meetings, the tactics will constantly update, but the works will remain timeless.

“Selling ‘pre-contemporary’ art online will never be as straightforward as selling studio-fresh artworks,” Mackay said. “There are too many physical nuances that are impossible to convey on a screen. However, these platforms prove a great starting point for conversations.”

Explore a collection of Old Master works available on Artsy here.

Justin Kamp