The Old Master Painting Trap –

The Old Master Painting Trap –

n02948_9In my last past on the Old Masters I gave an in depth definition of an Old Master and explained exactly what an Old Master is in art historical terms.  Although the characteristics that define an Old Master are relatively straight forward and specific in art historical terms, the market has a much broader definition for an Old Master.  According to the Christie’s Old Master Paintings department on their website “Masterpieces by the most famous Western artists from the 14th to the early 19th century have appeared in Christie’s auctions, including Raphael, Cranach, Titian, Velázquez, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Reynolds, Canaletto, Gainsborough and Fragonard. Subjects include still life, landscape, genre, portraiture, religious and grand history themes, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $35.8 million for Turner’s Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (2006)”.  This explanation of the works that Christie’s Old Master Paintings department sells is very broad and judging by the huge price range that they quote will cater for a huge number of different works of varying quality and importance.

Because the market is so vague when it comes to defining an Old Master artwork the ability to be able to profit from the purchase and sale of Old Masters is made all the more difficult.  Most of the people who deal in Old Masters have some sort of scholarly background that enables them to be able to determine whether a work of art that comes under the Old Master banner is actually going to be a good investment.  Upon hearing the phrase Old Master, many people automatically see dollar signs and assume that an Old Master has to be worth huge amounts of money.  Unfortunately this is not the case and many people get caught out because they are unaware that a painting that can be defined as an Old Master is not necessarily worth huge amounts of money or is a good investment.

I conducted a search on ebay for “Old Master” and came up with a total of 66 works of art that according to the market definition can technically be called Old Masters.As an example of the type of work I am talking about, one of the works that appeared on ebay as an Old Master was a watercolour painting by Julius Caesar Ibbetson (English Painter, 1759-1817) which was described as “18thC British PAINTING OLD MASTER – JULIUS IBBETSON”. The dates for this work fit the market’s Old Master definition and the artist is a well known and highly regarded artist whose work has been sold by the major auction houses and is in the collections of major museums (et. Tate, British National Portrait Gallery). Is Julius Caesar Ibbetson an Old Master?. Well according to the market it would appear that he could be considered an Old Master. One would most likely expect that such a painting would be worth considerable amounts of money but the watercolour painting being sold on ebay by Julius Caesar Ibbetson has a starting bid of US$99. According to the last watercolour painting by Ibbetson sold for US$1466 with most of his watercolour paintings selling for around the $1000-$2000 mark. Considering that the painting being sold by Ibbetson on ebay is at least a couple of hundred years old the value of this painting has not increased very much at all. In fact, taking inflation into consideration the value of this painting may not have increased in value at all from when it was originally purchased from the artist. Looking back through the auction records for Ibbetson it would appear that his watercolour paintings of around the same size were selling for $1000-$2000 from as early as 1986 provides further evidence that  that the value of the artists work has not increased in value much, if at all.

The “old master” tag is used far and wide as a lure aimed at deceiving buyers into thinking that they are either buying a long lost masterpiece or a work of art being sold at a mere fraction of it’s true value. In most cases, however, the work is being sold for exactly what it is worth or even more than it is worth. Just because a painting is is called an Old Master or fits into the Old Master category does not mean it is extremely expensive or a good investment. As always, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)


Julius Caesar Ibbetson 1759-1817  (from Tate collection)

Sand Quarry at Alum Bay ?exhibited 1792

Oil on wood
support: 190 x 254 mm

See previous posts on the Old Masters here:

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

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