In January, art advisor and collector of contemporary works Nicolai Frahm, known for his collaboration with British collector Frank Cohen, found himself at an Old Masters sale. Albrecht Dürer – Masterpieces from a Private Collection, mounted by Christie’s, featured 62 of the artist’s most celebrated prints. It was expected to raise in excess of $4.6m, but in the event totalled over $6m for the sale of just 47 works. Frahm had intended to get one, “but I ended up buying three”. These included the elaborate Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin and St John before God and the Elders, not easily digestible subject matters for a contemporary audience. As he says, “I’m more interested in the imagery than the religious iconography. The stranger it is, the more I like it.”
Once upon a time, the young man bent on seduction who would invite a hesitant lady up to his apartment to look at his etchings was an amusing cliché. Buying Old Master prints was where every fledgling collector began. Today, such a figure would be an oddity. Ever since the Young British Artists started sweeping to prominence in the late 1980s, what has been cool is the cutting edge, the very new, with collectors’ appetite for contemporary art seemingly insatiable across an increasingly broad range of media and international artists. The print that requires a magnifying glass and years of scholarship to appreciate its fineness no longer seems to carry much kudos. It’s the bold 2m canvas or sculptural multimedia installation in your sitting room that has become a badge of cultural know-how.
But over the past few years, there has been a discernible counter ripple in the tide. It is partly due to the enormous discrepancy in cost, as the Old Master market has seen its auction prices stall significantly below those achieved at impressionist, modern or contemporary sales. Who would believe that you could get a painting by Velázquez for around £3m or even a Constable for £22m, when a Munch can go for $120m? There has been a cultural shift, too, a recognition – reflected in museum exhibitions and even contemporary-art shows deliberately mixing works from different periods – that the art of the present is profoundly rooted in and informed by that of the past. There is also, it seems, a readiness among confident collectors, who have cut their teeth on the contemporary market, to trust their own taste in this other arena.
As Frahm explains of his recent venture into the field, “My interest is in Old Masters who inspire contemporary artists. I have always loved Dürer. I feel he has been extremely influential.” While maintaining his love for the new (he opened a contemporary exhibition space in London with Cohen earlier this year), he has begun collecting Danish Golden Age paintings from the early 19th century and is in the process of creating a modern version of the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities in his home. He is also looking into collecting the prints of 18th-century poet and artist William Blake.
Agent and dealer Edmondo di Robilant, co-owner of Robilant + Voena gallery, confirms that Frahm is not alone. Presenting work that spans a broad spectrum, from Italian baroque and mannerist paintings to modern and contemporary artists such as David LaChapelle and Agostino Bonalumi, he declares: “For a long time we had Old Master collectors who would dip their toes into contemporary because they felt they should. In the past two or three years, we have seen a small number of contemporary collectors begin to look backwards. American collectors are far less rigid anyway.” As Alan Stone – co-owner of US-based Hill-Stone, which deals in Old Master prints, drawings and modern works – comments, “All collecting today is eclecticism, not the catalogue-oriented approach of years past.” This means that “people are more willing to move out of their area to find images that are compelling”.
One such individual is art consultant Tanja Gertik. A client of hers has a substantial collection of contemporary works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and various Italian postwar artists. He also, however, has a painting by the 17th-century Dutch landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael. “From my perspective, the underlying criterion has to be quality,” says Gertik. “Some people like to collect in their comfort zone of a particular school or region. I like to move beyond categories; my job is to spot these opportunities.”
There is no doubt that the leading auction houses and the Old Master dealers have been redoubling their efforts to attract this new audience. Alexander Bell and Andrew Fletcher, international department head and head of auction sales respectively in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings division, have observed that almost all the new collectors work in the finance sector. They tend to be drawn to pictures that make a strong visual impression and there is more of a focus on image than on artist. As a consequence, in its December Old Masters sale, the firm chose pale-grey walls and a more spacious layout for the pictures that would enhance these qualities, “freshening up the work”, as Bell says. The cover image for the sale catalogue was a bold 16th-century Florentine portrait of a young boy – a brightly coloured image, without complicated religious iconography, by an unknown artist. Sotheby’s statistics show that while the highest proportion of young collectors (20‑40 years old) who are active in Old Masters come from Europe (46 per cent last year), 15 per cent are from the Middle East, 19 per cent from the US and 19 per cent from Asia.
Christie’s has adopted similar strategies. For the past four years it has organised an advance show of top lots from all its summer sales under the title of Masterpieces. I was told that “this was entirely because of the way contemporary buyers view and purchase the art. The whole category business does not resonate with them.” Georgina Wilsenach, its head of Old Master and British paintings in London, confirms that “if you are mixing very good contemporary or impressionist and Old Master art, it is not the category that matters but the quality”. Christie’s runs themed sales and sells whole collections, such as January’s Renaissance sale, or Dutch Old Masters from the Pieter and Olga Dreesmann Collection in July 2012. Strikingly, more than half the new bidders in the latter put in offers for the top 15 lots. “They want the very best.”
Last autumn Frieze Masters, a fair for galleries exhibiting art from prehistory to 2000, was established alongside Frieze London, the city’s flagship contemporary event, partly in order to encourage these new collectors. Its director, Victoria Siddall, explains how the architecture of the tent, designed by Annabelle Selldorf, with its muted palette of greys, helped create an environment that was markedly different from the plush gilt and rich colours of traditional Old Master fairs: “We were guiding the dealers to present their work in a very minimal way. For a lot of the people who came, there was a sense of discovery.” Indeed, 60 per cent of them were under 45. Selldorf, who hangs contemporary works alongside Dutch Old Masters in her home, says, “As an architect, I don’t think of contemporary galleries as white cubes, Old Master galleries as full of period detail. The priority is to create an environment where there is space and tranquillity to contemplate the art, without boundaries.”
David Koetser, a Zürich-based agent and dealer who owns Koetser Gallery, also seized this opportunity to reach modern collectors. “I tried to imagine an apartment with contemporary furniture and Lichtenstein and Warhol on the walls. To me, what is important in such a context is the power, the form and the colour of the image. Connoisseurship, provenance and so on are secondary.” At Frieze Masters 2012 his stand was notable for the device of hanging pictures from the ceiling in their packing cases. He sold seven Old Masters, all to contemporary collectors, including an austere still life by Adriaen Coorte for $3.7m. Another exhibitor to embrace the union of old and new was Bernheimer, which juxtaposed Old Masters and photography. This year both galleries return for the fair’s second run, which opens on October 17.
Fabrizio Moretti, president and owner of Moretti Fine Art, which deals in Italian gold-ground paintings and has stands at both incarnations of Frieze Masters, explains that the key is just to get people to look. “You need to make people aware that these things are available.” For a show in May he joined forces with dealer Adrian Sassoon to exhibit the astonishing modern jewellery of Italian goldsmith Giovanni Corvaja alongside the paintings, in order to, as he puts it, “create a little movement in the gallery”.
The final word should go to Olga Dreesmann, who sold all her and her husband’s Dutch Old Masters so that they could focus more on their collection of Picasso drawings and sculptures. She lives in a modern house where both Old Master and contemporary works are on display, including a cabinet of curiosities with items that range “from a neolithic Chinese pot to a piece by Imran Qureshi”. Collecting across categories “has made us realise how modern the 17th-century Dutch Old Masters were, and appreciate their craftsmanship even more”, she says. In return, “by a boomerang effect it makes us appreciate the craftsmanship of today’s works and the thought-provoking experiences that they offer”.