Art Market

How Medieval Art and Old Masters are Entering the Contemporary Market

Alina Cohen
Feb 6, 2020 5:55PM

Saint Margaret and Saint Elizabeth presenting a donor, possibly from the church of Saint Peter, Cologne, c. 1525–30. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

An enamelled orb from the Shrine of Saint Ursula, c. 1170. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

Walking down West 24th Street in Chelsea right now, you can duck into an exhibition featuring T.J. Wilcox’s video art, see a painting created with a push mop, and find expressive portraiture made by millennials. At Luhring Augustine, however, you’ll find an assortment of objects significantly different from this contemporary fare.

The gallery—which normally exhibits work by a roster that includes Christopher Wool, Sanya Kantarovsky, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Rachel Whiteread—is playing host to stained glass windows, a crucifix, and monumental columns with carved lions at their bases. All were fabricated between 1150 and 1570, during the late Middle Ages (the medieval era roughly spans the 5th century through the 15th century).

The exhibition, “Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art from Europe” (on view through March 7th), is a collaboration with London-based medieval art dealer Sam Fogg. It offers an enlightening reprieve from Chelsea’s emphasis on blue-chip newness—and, ironically, feels like one of the freshest shows on view. Gallery co-founder Roland Augustine said he and his business partner, Lawrence Luhring, are excited about temporarily breaking from “the monolithic exercise of contemporary art shows, one after the other.” Yet between the markets for these two eras of work, there’s more overlap than one might expect.

Crossover collectors

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1607. Courtesy of Eric Turquin.


According to Andrew Fletcher, senior director at Sotheby’s London, about 20 percent of Old Master buyers also purchase contemporary art. “This percentage has been pretty solid for 10 years, with no particular trend of growth,” he said. “Still, it is a significant amount of crossover.” When a long-lost Caravaggio was destined for auction last summer, a buyer of both contemporary art and Old Masters snapped it up before the sale. Auction houses have also been making inroads with young collectors over the past few years, marketing Old Masters to them with the help of celebrity partnerships.

Within the broad Old Masters category, Fletcher believes 14th- and 15th-century painting has enjoyed the most consistent “micro-market” over the past 50 years, maintainting price stability. “Botticelli, for example, has always been popular with almost no major dips in value or demand perceptible, compared to other areas such as French Rococo art,” Fletcher said, asserting that the latter aesthetic has dipped in and out of fashion.

In Luhring Augustine’s first medieval show, “Of Earth and Heaven: Art from the Middle Ages”—mounted with Fogg’s help during the winter of 2018—the most expensive object cost between $3 million and $4 million, while the least expensive started at $100,000, according to the gallery. The gallery sold a fine, rare, and monumental drawing for the Rouen Cathedral from the early 16th century to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The most expensive object in “Gothic Spirit” is priced at $3.6 million.

Master of the Saint Lambrecht Votive Panel, The Nativity, c. 1430. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

A standing virgin, c. 1150. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

For his part, Augustine insisted that the gallery’s interest in medieval art extends beyond the merely commercial. “Gothic Spirit” allows him to show work that seems “underappreciated, undervalued, and rich in narrative”—work that elicits very different stories from the tales of soaring market rates for the heavyweights of modern and contemporary art.

The exhibition catalogue, for example, details how a Florentine workshop established around 1390 specialized in bone carving and created an intricate octagonal casket. Another text introduces readers to Simon Bening (ca. 1483–1561), described as the greatest master in the art of illumination in all Europe, who created The Imhof Prayerbook for Nuremberg merchant Hans Imhof. One exhibited object even boasts a provenance featuring two monarchs: The Flight into Egypt (ca. 1457–1521), a page from an illuminated manuscript by court painter Jean Bourdichon, which was originally created for France’s King Louis XII and eventually passed to the British crown.

An Old Masters comeback?

Jan Gossart, Portrait of a Man, ca. 1520–25. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Economist Clare McAndrew’s most recent report on the art market backs up Augustine’s claims of an undervalued and underappreciated market for Old Masters. According to the report, in 2018, Old Masters accounted for just 6 percent of the value of the auction market for fine art and 8 percent of the total number of transactions; that year, Old Masters accounted for the fewest sales of all the fine art sectors (which include Impressionist and Post-Impressionist; modern; and post-war and contemporary).

Overall, McAndrew found, the Old Masters market has been declining for nearly 10 years, even despite the outsized impact of Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), the Old Master painting some attribute to Leonardo da Vinci that was offered during a post-war and contemporary art evening sale at Christie’s in 2017, where it sold for $450 million. But this drop may also represent an opportunity to initiate and educate a new class of collectors.

To coincide with “Gothic Spirit,” Fogg and Luhring Augustine organized a daylong conference about conservation. One panel featured major medieval art collector Paul Ruddock, who spoke with Fogg, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Griffith Mann, and Met conservator Lucretia Kargere. The event underscored the importance of taking conservation seriously for collectors interested in medieval art. “It’s part of the deal,” said Luhring. “It’s assumed that you will have to deal with that.”

Beyond Luhring Augustine’s work, museums that cater to contemporary audiences are illuminating achievements in art from the Middle Ages. Fletcher noted that in addition to blockbuster exhibitions on household-name artists such as Leonardo and Raphael, shows of work by lesser-known figures, including Jan Gossart (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010–11) and Hans Baldung Grien (at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in 2019–20), “have brought the brilliance of their art to the attention of the wider public.”

New masters inspired by the old

Workshop of Anselmo da Campione, a pair of monumental lions, c. 1210–20 (lions and columns), with 19th-century capitals covering those of Parma bapistry. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

Hans Leinberger, The Presentation in the Temple, c. 1516–18. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg.

Contemporary artists are also taking inspiration from their medieval and Renaissance predecessors, keeping old work alive through radical new interpretations. Given the opportunity to curate an exhibition at collector Tom Hill’s Hill Art Foundation in Chelsea (“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper Pagan Paradise,” on view through February 15th), sculptor Charles Ray recently selected a spare assortment of bronze Christ figures to pair with his own sleek, contemporary sculptures of a half-eaten apple, a reclining mime, and a mountain lion attacking a dog.

The Hills themselves purchased a large stained glass window by the 16th-century glazier Valentin Bousch from “Of Earth and Heaven.” Titled The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, the piece once belonged to media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who hung it in his apartment in Clarendon, New York.

This year, Luhring Augustine has already sold Three figures from a Crucifixion Group (ca. 1510–20) from “Gothic Spirit.” The expressive wooden sculpture, which features three figures—one palms her face in grief, another looks skyward, and the Virgin Mary faints in their arms—found a home with a collector of modern and contemporary art whose wife collects Shaker furniture.

The quintessential contemporary artist Jeff Koons has amassed a world-class collection that mingles modern art stars with Old Masters. And the contemporary–medieval crossover isn’t limited to the West, either. Fletcher noted that a number of Chinese artists, including Liu Ye, Zeng Fanzhi, and Liu Dan, have claimed “that Old Master paintings or drawings have played an important role in their growth.”

While some contemporary galleries, such as David Zwirner, have mounted exhibitions that pair centuries-old work with contemporary objects, Augustine said he wasn’t interested in such a “didactic” approach. “We wanted it to be fun as an exercise, but a serious exhibition,” he said. In the Chelsea white cube, Fogg was able to mount two spiral columns with bases that resemble lions that couldn’t fit in his London space.

Luhring Augustine’s architecture also makes for a brighter, less cluttered venue than the dark, crowded museum halls that typically house medieval work. At the gallery, centuries-old objects have room to breathe.

The surprising material elicits thoughtful responses from gallery-goers, according to Luhring. “This show slows the viewing pace down,” he said. During the previous iteration, visitors “were hanging out here much longer. It’s unfamiliar, so people are taking the checklist and reading.” Placed in such a novel context, everything old becomes new again.

Alina Cohen