Combined, Sotheby's and Christie's moved £39 million ($63.25 million) in art from the Old Masters & 19th Century category at the beginning of July. Though it's still nothing compared to the levels reached the year before, it was good enough to top the Contemporary Art auction performances at those houses the month before. Collectors, together, cast a £1 million vote for age over beauty, a stunning development in an art market that has become accustomed to emphasizing the value of twentieth century pieces.
The rise in older works is akin to a flight to quality in financial markets, as the rarer, more reliable pieces have substantial track records and are less likely to fall victim to changes in taste. Speculation isn't as rampant in the Old Masters as it is for contemporary works: the market is a known quantity, with room for very few "discoveries," while there are still many twentieth century artists among us ... some of whom are even deigning to create their own paintings.
The success of the Old Masters category last month is due in part to the availability of inventory. Sotheby's was fortunate enough to be chosen for the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection, which brought in more than £5 million. Christie's saw three new records set, though the house didn't keep pace with rival Sotheby's, despite sending more lots under the gavel.