In Search of Quality & Value: A Return to Old Masters


Previously published on


Giambattista Tiepolo’s Portrait of a lady as Flora

By Emily Waldorf

Did you know that Jeff Koons, John Currin, and Damien Hirst all collect Old Masters? In a follow up to my post, “The Recession’s Silver Lining: Art Quality & Value Improve,” I wanted to pinpoint where exactly quality and value are to be found in an uncertain market. All signs from the floundering fall and winter auctions (with the exception of the blockbuster one-off YSL sale) indicated that collectors are abandoning the overhyped contemporary market and returning to Old Masters and other traditional areas of collecting.

At this year’s Tefaf Maastricht, the world’s biggest art and antiques fair, prices for contemporary works were being cut up to 20% whereas Old Master prices held steady. Bloomberg cited New York dealer Richard L. Feigen, who commented on the relative inflation of contemporary art vis à vis Old Masters:

The disparity in price rises between Old Masters and contemporary has been crazy…Some Old Master pictures haven’t increased in price in the last 20 years and there are people with a lot of cash at Tefaf looking for a place to park it.”

Old Masters are a more stable asset than contemporary art, and less likely to be subject to inflation, which some would argue was caused by the overzealous appetites of the hedge-fund crowd.

When ascertaining value, it all boils down to the question of rarity when comparing Old Masters to contemporary art, or more precisely, the work of a dead artist with that of a living artist. For insance, there is a limited supply of Rubens paintings but you have to take a contemporary artist’s word for it that he wont flood the market with more work, thereby devaluing his work that is already in collector’s hands.

J.M.W. Turner’s The temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored

J.M.W. Turner’s The temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored

Other areas of collecting that are gaining attention for quality and value right now are antiquities and silver. So why not branch out and diversify your collection? Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé incorporated Old Masters, antiquities, and silver as well as important modern works in their collection and the end result was magnifique, proving that diversification is the best strategy in the art market, but it may fail you in the stock market. If Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and John Currin are putting their contemporary art dollars and investing it in Old Masters, so should you.

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