The Best Art Money Can Buy

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What would you do with $76 million? Buying a painting may not be the first thought that comes to mind, but for those who adore the works of the Old Masters it really is the first choice.

The allure of the finest works of art in the world was the subject of a seminar at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art by Christopher Apostle, director of Old Master paintings at the famous auction house Sotheby's. He opened his talk with an look at "one of the most important and beautiful paintings to have come on the market in years." This was a portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velasquez, done by him in 1650 while in Rome.

Apostle described the painting  as "nothing less than one of the most humane and noble portraits ever painted." This is even more mremarkable since the sitter was not a grand person, but merely his studio assistant. It created a sensation at the time it was first exhibited, and when it came up for auction at Christie's on November 27, 1970, "it created a sensation again."

The painting was consigned to Christie's by the Earl of Radnor, who had refused several previous offers, one of them being a blank check!

It opened with a bid of 300 guineas, an old-fashioned English currency still used in the auction house. After just 2 minutes and 15 seconds, it had set a new world record for a work of art: $5.5 million, the previous record being a paltry $2 million. But "subtle changes were taking place" in the art world, said Apostle. "It was the last time an Old Master would hold the world record." The purchaser was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where everyone can now see it.

Modern works now rule the roost when it comes to high auction prices. "Earlier art has been eclipsed entirely. The new world record is $104 million set in 2010 for a sculpture by Giacometti." Another reason for the change is simply the fact that "truly great Old Masters are not available any more." They are all locked away in museum collections.

What keeps people busy in this field now is mostly detective work- trying to identify the artist of a disputed work, for example. Apostle gave a riveting example of this in regard to one of the famous painters who ever lived: Leonardo da Vinci. "Early in 2009 I was asked to see a painting at the Getty museum. It was from the Harry Hahn collection, and was a wedding gift to his wife in 1919. The painting had been attributed to da Vinci. It is nearly identical to a work entitled La Belle Ferronniere in Paris but the Han work is on canvas, while the one in Paris is on a poplar panel."

Hahn sought the opinion of a great art expert, Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) in an effort to prove it was by da Vinci, but Duveen said it was just a copy, and he even organized an event where the two paintings were placed side by side in the Louvre after being sued for slander by Hahn. It was the most theatrical element of a sensational court case in 1929, but the jury returned a verdict of undecided. Even so, Duveen paid Hahn the enormous sum of $60,000 as compensation for what Hahn viewed as the ruinous opinion of Duveen.

The painting languished for decades until it was studied by the Getty, who enlisted Apostle to place a value on it for auction purposes. "I gave a $30,000 to $50,000 estimate for a copy of an Old Master. The press loved the story- I've never had so many people interested in a sale." When it sold at Sotheby's in 2010, the copy owned by the Hahn family sold for an astounding $1.5 million.

Another way Old Masters come on the market now is when they are uncovered beneath the later work of lesser artists. Such was the case of a Rembrandt, who, even in his own time, was called "the wonder of our age." Apostle said Rembrandt "fits the bill of an Artist with a capital A." In 1634 he did one of his many self-portraits, which did not sell. Some unknown artist later added to it, including full hair to the figure, and placing a silly hat on his head. In 1956 the hat was removed by restoration experts and a second cleaning was done in the 1980's. "It reappeared in our Paris offcie in 2003," said Apostle, and it sold at auction for seven million pounds (about $11 million).

Even though modern works now command the highest prices, a truly great Old Master can still get a hefty bid at the auction house. In his career of some thirty years, Apostle said that seeing such a work is rare. One that "raised the hair on the back of my neck" was The Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens. Languishing in an Austrian monastery for many years, it now holds the record for an Old Master, selling for $76 million in 2002.

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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