Sotheby’s explores the market for Old Master copies

Sotheby’s explores the market for Old Master copies

Last week, Christie’s announced that it will sell a Leonardo da Vinci painting guaranteed to fetch $100 million (£75.2 million), in a contemporary art sale in New York (a move that must have ruffled a few feathers in the Old Master department).

Here, it will feature alongside Andy Warhol’s multiple image silk screen painting, Sixty Last Suppers (derived from Leonardo’s iconic Last Supper mural in Milan), guaranteed at $50 million. Meanwhile, a fine copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper, made circa 1800, is for sale at Sotheby’s London this month.

After Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper oil on copper, unframed A later copy after Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.1 1. Tempera and oil on plaster, 460 x 880 cm.; see L. Syson and L. Keith, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’, London 2011, reproduced pp. 252-253, fig. 100. Unframed: 26.2 by 60.5 cm.; 10. by 23. in. Est. £2,000-3,000 CREDIT: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY’S

This Leonardo copy shares both its subject matter and association with Leonardo with the Warhol, but, at £2,000 to £3,000, comes at a tiny fraction of the price. Of course it’s not the original, but then the Warhol itself is taken from a print of a copy of the original Last Supper.

Nor is the 1800 copy an exact copy. The background light streaming in from the windows in the original is missing, as are details of food on the table. It’s also only 2ft wide, compared to the 28ft original. It has age and quality, though, the two main considerations when valuing the works, says Chloe Stead of Sotheby’s Old Master Department, who has assembled more than 50 Old Master copies for the first specialised sale on this subject.

After Frans Hals, The laughing fisher boy, oil on canvas (80 x 64 cm.; 31. x 25. in.) Est. £2,000-3,000 CREDIT: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY’S

In the sale, estimates range from £400 for a religious panel “after” Fra Angelico (meaning a copy of a known work), and up to £12,000 for a painting of Rembrandt’s mother from “the circle of” Rembrandt (ie by someone closely associated with Rembrandt). The terms used to grade the type of copy take a little getting used to. We also have “manner of” (not a copy, but in the style of, usually later), and “follower of” (by a contemporary or near contemporary). “Studio of” is the closest a copy gets to the original’s author, and only one work in the sale is in this category – a rather grubby looking Saint Francis from the studio of early 17th-century baroque painter Bernardo Strozzi, estimated at £4,000 to £6,000.

Better quality “studio” or “workshop” copies would be too expensive for this sale, which is aimed at new collectors, says Stead, cutting their teeth in buying affordable Old Master paintings. Similarly, modern copies made in the last 100 years are not included, nor are copies made by well-known artists who routinely copied Old Masters as part of their studies – though there are one or two named artists in the sale.

Frans Van Mieris The Younger (Leiden 1689 – 1763) Lady and Cavalier 30.5 x 23.9 cm Est. £6,000-8,000 CREDIT: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY’S

A work by the 18th-century artist, Frans van Mieris the Younger, for instance, is a version of his grandfather’s 17th-century painting of a lady and a cavalier in the Royal Collection. In 1983 it sold to the dealer Robert Noortman for £8,500. Perhaps he suspected it was by Mieris the elder, who can make millions, but it is now estimated at £6,000 to £8,000.

For most dealers, the main appeal of copies is to see whether in fact they might be originals. “After” Frans Hals is a painting of a fisher boy (£2,000 to £3,000) that Claus Grimm, a Hals expert, believes is an original by another, anonymous artist.

Temptingly familiar are a 16th century copy of a portrait of Henry VIII by a “follower of” Holbein (£6,000 to £8,000), and an 18th-century copy “after” Caravaggio of The Cardsharps (£2,000 to £3,000).

Follower of Hans Holbein The Younger, Portrait of King Henry VIII Est. £6,000-8,000 CREDIT: COURTESY OF SOTHEBY’S

In 2006, Sotheby’s famously sold another version of the painting, judged as by a “follower” and valued at £20,000, to art historian Sir Denis Mahon, who thought it an original Caravaggio and valued it at £10 million. However, in a court case brought by the seller against Sotheby’s, the judge ruled that the painting was more likely a copy.

Having been sneered at by most serious dealers, the market for Old Master copies is now picking up: in 2012, for instance, a period Velazquez copy, estimated at £8,000, sold for £181,250. As befitting the experimental nature of the Sotheby’s sale, it is being held online, where no buyer’s premium is charged. Nevertheless, physical viewing is essential. “Viewing the object is important to us when evaluating the date and condition of the painting,” says Stead.

Online viewers can blow the image up and see the back of the painting with all its cracks, stains and labels, but if Sotheby’s experts need to see the object in the flesh, so does the buyer.

After Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper is exhibited as part of the Highlights from Old Master Copies Online: Imitation & Influence sale (17th Oct-30th Oct) at Sotheby’s London from Friday 27th October until Monday 30th October.