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History Lesson: The Timeless Appeal of Old Masters

Andrew Fletcher, Global Head, Old Masters Department at Christie’s, on the timeless appeal, and educational value, of his specialism

Christie’s has redefined the market for Old Master paintings, reaching new price levels in auctions and private sales. In 2017, the auction house made history by selling Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million—more than double the previous record for any work of art sold at auction. Four years later, and measuring just 2.8 inches squared (7 cm), Head of a Bear sold for £8.86 million ($12.2 m) in 2021. In March of this year, Christie’s appointed Andrew Fletcher as Global Head of the Old Masters Department. He tells Luxury Defined about his career background and why he is passionate about Old Masters.

How did you first become interested in Old Masters? 

I’m not sure there was one moment, but I remember, as a teenager, my mother taking me to an exhibition in Dulwich, London, on Pieter de Hooch and I instantly fell in love with Dutch 17th-century painting. I studied French and History of Art at university, and I was lucky enough to spend a year as the porter to the Old Masters department at Christie’s Paris, and that was where my love of the fusion of Old Masters and the commercial world was born. I was fascinated by the process from consignment to the point of sale, with the auction itself being the crescendo of that process.

Visitors outside the Louvre art gallery and Museum entrance in Paris, France
Home to possibly the most famous Old Master, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre was built as a grand fortress. It became a royal palace in the 16th century and a museum in 1793 with the glass pyramid added in 1989. Credit: Alamy

What is the enduring appeal of Old Masters? 

In a modern world where contemporary art often makes all the headlines, it is gratifying that the most visited museums are still the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London, principally known for their ancient artifacts. I think the public maintains a love for Old Masters because of the visual window they provide into history.

The artists themselves tended to be such fascinating people. Take Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo—the triumvirate that moved art forwards at record speed in a short space of time and all of whom were extraordinary, but with hugely different characters. Or any of the fascinating female artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, who forged successful careers in a male-dominated art world. There are brilliant stories to be told around great artists.

Venus and Cupid painting by Artemisia Gentileschi
Venus and Cupid by Artemisia Gentileschi (above) sold at Christie’s London for £2,422,500 ($3,335,783) on July 8, 2021. This is the second highest auction price achieved for this artist. Credit: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2021

How did the pandemic affect the market? 

Auction houses and dealers had to pivot quickly, and an amazing amount of technological progress was made in the space of a couple of months. Clients had to change their behaviors, too, relying on the exceptional quality of the digital images available, sophisticated online viewing rooms, and relationships with the specialist teams for guidance. After the initial shock, the auction market has been unbelievably resilient, to the extent that 2021 was one of the strongest years on record and 2022 has continued in the same vein.

A visitor looks at a drawing by Raphael entitled 'Head of a Muse' at Christie's on December 4, 2009 in London.
Head of a Muse by Raphael realized £29,161,250 ($48,009,960) when the drawing was sold by Christie’s on December 8, 2009, creating a world auction record for the artist. The work measures 12 x 8.5 inches (30.5 cm x 22.2 cm). Credit: Alamy

If a reader were interested in collecting Old Masters, what advice would you give them?

Buy what you like because you will always have something you can enjoy. Collectors need to be aware of condition, attribution, and provenance. We are dealing with very old objects that have lived through multiple centuries and the condition of a painting can affect its value enormously. Collectors seem less inclined to focus, as they once did, on one particular area, and I think this is a good thing, and follows my advice to be open and diverse in your collecting.

Banner image: Exhibition of Old Masters, the National Museum, Wales