How do you make the old new?
The art trade here faced that perennial challenge as old master auctions, the Masterpiece fair and the London Art Week gallery trail tried to reinvigorate interest in artworks and objects from before the 20th century.
Such art isn’t exactly on-trend. Last year, European old masters represented just 7 percent of the world’s fine-art auction sales, even with a sensational $450.3 million injection from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.” The number of visitors to the National Gallery in London was down 17 percent in 2017 from a year earlier, and those to the National Portrait Gallery fell 35 percent. How can centuries-old paintings and sculptures of gods, saints and aristocrats appeal to consumers in a digital present?
Fortunately, some of today’s most influential creatives have recently turned to old art for new ideas. On June 16, American pop’s royal couple, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, released a joint album, “Everything Is Love,” under the name The Carters. A virtuoso video for their single “Apes**t,” set in the Louvre with the couple rapping in front of the “Mona Lisa” and dancers gyrating in front of Jacques-Louis David’s “Coronation of Napoleon,” has attracted more than 65 million views on YouTube.
Less than a week later in London, the fashion designer Victoria Beckham, inspired by a visit last year to the Frick Collection in New York, hosted in her flagship Mayfair store a six-day exhibition of 16 portraits from the July old masters auction at Sotheby’s. The popup preview, funded by the auction house, coincided with London’s contemporary art sales and generated a blaze of publicity.
“Popular culture is certainly having an effect,” Alex Bell, Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of old master paintings, said Wednesday night after his 66lot auction raised 42.6 million pounds, or about $56.3 million. Mr. Bell pointed out that more than 7,000 people had visited Sotheby’s during the presale view, almost twice the previous high for such an event. “It’s the V.B. effect,” he said. What effect such celebrity endorsements had on the actual bidding was more difficult to quantify.
A photograph of Ms. Beckham standing next to a portrait of a lady by an artist in the “circle of Leonardo da Vinci” had, for example, drawn more than 193,000 likes on her Instagram account by Monday. Perhaps that might have encouraged at least one of the four bidders who pushed the price to £550,000, more than double the low estimate. It could also have been the “Salvator Mundi” effect. It should also be pointed out that the total at the Sotheby’s auction was down 19 percent from the £52.5 million achieved at the equivalent old masters sale in July last year, which included a £18.5 million J. M. W. Turner. Top-quality works by the biggest names — the combination that drives growth in every sector of the art market — remain in chronically short supply.
Sotheby’s was able to offer an imposing 1630s head-and-shoulders portrait of a nobleman by Peter Paul Rubens that had never been seen at auction before, estimated at £3 million to £4 million. This had also been shown by Ms. Beckham, but a frowning middle-aged man with a beard was hardly Rubens’s most appealing subject; it sold to a telephone bidder for a respectable £5.4 million, the top price of the sale.
“The auctions were thin,” said John Lloyd, a private dealer in old masters based in London. “There were a lot of boring German and Flemish pictures that weren’t great quality.”
But one telephone bidder was prepared to spend £5.5 million on half a dozen of the better-quality Flemish paintings in the sale, culminating in £2.65 million for an exceptionally rare group of four circa-1420 panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary by a precursor of Jan van Eyck.
There wasn’t much of a Beckham or Jay-Z effect to be felt the following evening at Christie’s, where the usual crowd of besuited dealers watched another tranche of moderate-quality old masters sell for low estimate prices in the £100,000 to £500,000 range, or not sell at all.
The only moment of excitement came when three telephone bidders pursued a tender and finely preserved painting of the Holy Family from around 1520. The work, by the early Flemish painter Gerard David, went for £4.8 million, a new auction high for the artist.
Christie’s achieved a total of £31.2 million from 61 lots, 29 percent down from the equivalent sale last July.
Masterpiece, whose ninth edition closed last Wednesday, describes itself as “the world’s leading cross-collecting fair,” pointing to its eclectic mix of art, jewelry, antiques and a Riva speedboat.
The Switzerland-based MCH Group, which owns Art Basel, acquired a 67.5 percent stake in the fair in November as part of its “global collector events strategy.”
Prompted, in part, by declining revenue from its Baselworld jewelry fair, MCH is planning to expand its art events business in Asia, the Middle East and the United States, positioning Masterpiece as a luxury brand.
Under MCH’s management, Masterpiece expanded to 160 exhibitors from 153. The fair, held as usual in a temporary structure on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, was almost 20 percent bigger. It is also gaining ground as an event where dealers can make sales, up to a certain price point.
“You see a very different crowd here from Art Basel,” said James Holland-Hibbert, a London dealer in modern British art who said he sold seven works priced at £100,000 to £350,000. “They’re shoppers rather than collectors, but they are prepared to spend.”
The powerhouse contemporary gallery Hauser & Wirth exhibited at Masterpiece for the first time and said it sold Jean (Hans) Arp’s 1928 Surrealist relief “Cuillère et Nombrils” (Spoon and Navels), which had an asking price of 1.5 million euros, or around $1.7 million.
There was also a smattering of old master sales, like a 1560s portrait of a gentleman by the Italian painter Antonio Campi. Priced around £200,000, it was sold by the London dealers Agnews to a new British client.
Foot traffic and sales were somewhat slower in the 40 or so galleries participating in the London Art Week promotion.
Callisto Fine Arts, a specialist in Italian pre-20th-century sculpture that is based in a fourth-floor apartment in Mayfair, typified the discoveries dealers make and the sales challenges they face. Callisto was offering what it says is the only known three-dimensional portrait of the novelist Mary Shelley, carved in marble by the Roman sculptor Camillo Pistrucci and dated 1843. The author has drawn plenty of publicity this year as it is the bicentennial of the publication of “Frankenstein,” but the sculpture remained available, priced at £100,000, and had not even been viewed by curators at the National Portrait Gallery, according to Callisto’s founder, Carlo Milano.
On Wednesday, by contrast, the marketing power of Sotheby’s propelled a rediscovered 1814 marble “Bust of Peace” by the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova to £5.3 million, an auction high for the artist. On Thursday, Sotheby’s announced that the prominent New York trader Otto Naumann had given up dealing to join the auction house as a senior vice president for old masters.
Mr. Milano is grateful for the spotlight that Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s video extravaganza has shined on the old masters. “That was the best bit of publicity we could ever hope for,” he said. “We have to remove the air of aloofness that hangs over old masters.”
It may be wishful, or even desperate, thinking, but dealers and auction house specialists are understandably hopeful that the sight of Jay-Z rapping in front of Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” will encourage a new generation to take an interest.
The challenge is finding an artwork as interesting as that Géricault for them to buy.