“What’s in a name?” Not in the Romeo and Juliet sense, but in terms of old master paintings, we know that an artist’s name is inextricably tied to a work’s market value. A work authenticated as painted by “Pieter Brueghel the Younger” commands a massive premium compared to a work whose authorship is listed as “after Pieter Brueghel the Younger” or “school of Pieter Brueghel the Younger.”
But when a work of art cannot be definitively tied to an artist, are there factors of an anonymous painting that impacts the price the work can command in the marketplace? This question is explored in a fascinating new volume, “Anonymous Art at Auction: The Reception of Early Flemish Paintings in the Western Art Market (1946 – 2015),” by Anne-Sophie V. Radermecker (Brill, 2021). This is a must-read for those who want to better understand the features that impact the market value of anonymous Flemish art.
Radermecker was a co-author of a 2017 article, “The Value Added by Arts Experts: The Case of Klaus Ertz and Pieter Brueghel the Younger,” which researched the impact of an art expert’s opinion on the market price for Brueghel the Younger’s paintings at auction. The authors concluded that when Klaus Ertz, the author of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s catalog raisonne, provided authentication for a Brueghel work, it had a meaningful impact on the price paid. Buyers paid roughly 60 percent more for works authenticated by Klaus Ertz than works without authentication.
Radermecker’s current monograph makes clear from the outset that an artist’s name is the equivalent of a “brand.” But what about the thousands of paintings for which the artist in unknown? The book details the market reception of indirect names, provisional names, and spatiotemporal designations, which are identification strategies that experts and art historians have developed to overcome anonymity.
Building a brand name during an artist’s lifetime was clearly important, conveying three key attributes: recognition, reputation, and popularity. But because many paintings were not signed, the scholarly community used stand-in authorship titles for works that were painted by the same artist or studio.
These stand-ins for names act as identifiers and play a role in determining a work’s economic value. Example of stand-ins for names include “Master of the female Half-Lengths,” “Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy,” and “Master of the Prado Redemption.” This volume points out that value increases when works are ascribed to a painter, in the form of a stand-in name, when the true author’s name is not known.
By ascribing identities for works without named authors, authorship uncertainty is reduced, and new, alternative brands are created. The reduction of authorship uncertainty leads a buyer to feel more confidence in a work, which adds to buyer’s willingness to pay higher prices. Interestingly, the author suggests that the somewhat haphazard nature of application of name labels over the period of the study (1946 – 2015) was a stumbling block that diminished the efficacy of labels.
The author defines a broad set of stakeholders, including art historians, experts, curators, restorers, dealers, etc., who are involved in proposing and establishing names for otherwise anonymous artists. The author makes the point that while the motives of parties from the scholarly field are not theoretically commercial in nature, they must understand their considerable impact on the market.
Further, Radermecker makes the case for the impact of the scholarly field when ascribing certain works as “significant” or disparaging works by referring to their authors as “minor masters” or “pale copyists.” The role of museums as authorities is discussed in the context of historicizing and legitimizing artistic output. The author argues that museums can place artist brands as well as anonymous artist in context and help the general public understand the value conveyed by artist brands.
The book details the curious fact that an objectively lower-quality work linked to a known artist (and their brand) can command significantly higher price than a higher-quality work that is not connected with secure authorship or artist brand.
Further complicating authorship is the very real studio environment in which Netherlandish artists worked. The old master as a “lonely genius” which solely created paintings is a very nineteenth-century notion and colors the market still today. Research conducted over the past 50 years has shown that most artists did not work alone but were frequently part of a larger workshop. The attribution of many paintings continues to be given to a sole artist when the actual participation of the artist and their workshop often varied greatly.
A case is made for anonymous works providing an alternative artistic experience than those of brand name artists. Without artist’s names, the viewer (and potential buyer) focuses on the physical object and its properties in order to provide an option on the work, which then leads to a value determination.
In an intriguing chapter titled “Paintings without Names,” the market reception of painting that lack all nominal designations was analyzed. A sample of 1,578 auction sales results were put through regression analysis, with the finding that works labeled “Netherlandish” were, on average, 22.6% more expensive than works labeled “Flemish.” Further, works that contain the names of locations where major masters settled and created their work also led to higher valuations. Specifically, works labeled “Antwerp” and “Bruges” commanded +30.6% and +59.2% higher prices. The author concludes that these city names not only function as a location of origin, but also as a label of quality related to the artistic hub.
The author has created a nomenclature made up of eight designations that each had a different impact upon sale price, depending on the specificity of the information provided. Designations specifying a work’s location of production led to prices that are higher on average, as noted above. The author also found that 3 other factors were correlated with higher prices – the work’s state of preservation, the length of catalog notes (which in theory correlate to an expert’s potential involvement) and the mention of earlier attributions.
Radermecker‘s thorough analysis and thought-provoking conclusions provide stakeholders (particularly auction houses) with valuable information to leverage when working to maximize the price paid for anonymous artworks.
It comes to no surprise to any collector that a firm attribution to an painter positively impacts a painting’s value. But what does this mean in the world of Bruegel / Brueghel? The recent attribution of “Wine on St. Martin’s Day” to Bruegel the Elder from a previous attribution of Brueghel the Younger catipulted this painting’s value to 25M Euros if sold on the open market (1). An upcoming auction for Brueghel the Younger’s “The Wedding Dance” at Palais Dorotheum on October 21, 2014 will test the value of attribution for his son, in one of Bruegel / Brueghel’s most popular painting motifs.
In February of last year at rather rough looking painting of “The Wedding Dance” was put up for auction at Bill Hood and Sons in Florida in the USA.
This work, “attributed to Brueghel the Younger” was estimated at $10,000, but on the day of the auction soared above the estimate to land at a sale price of $21,000.
In the time since the auction, the painting was carefully restored, and the owner (or Palais Dorotheum, the seller) worked with the preminant scholar in the area of Brueghel the Younger, Klaus Ertz, to determine whether the work was an autograph Brueghel the Younger.
The Dorotheum website explains the attribution, “The present painting was analysed using X-ray technology and infrared reflectology. The analysis found that the pigment matched that usually used by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Furthermore, the manner of working is that of Pieter Brueghel; the wooden panel was prepared using a white chalk base and the imprimatura was applied on the diagonal using a wide brush, as is the case with most of Brueghel’s paintings. The entire composition was meticulously sketched on to the prepared panel. In the underdrawing there are multiple pentimenti.” (The phrase “meticulously sketched” is interesting, since Christina Currie and Dominique Allart in “The Brueg(h)el Phenomenon” show that Brueghel the Younger and his workshop typically used pouncing to transfer images from the preparatory cartoon to the surface of the paining. Hopefully Currie and Allart can examine this painting to tell us more about how the image was tranferred, since it is only one of two examples of this scene in round (“tondi”) form.)
The Dorotheum description concludes by stating, “The present painting is of an exceedingly high quality and should be considered among Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s masterpieces.”
In other words, the attribution raises the price from $21,000 to up to $378,000 (the high end of the sales estimate, which I think this painting will achieve.)
Below is an image of the restored patining on sale at the auction.
The summer auction season is upon us, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s offering stellar works by Brueghel the Younger.
One of most interesting works at auction is the version of “Massacre of the Innocents” at Christie’s. It is interesting for the mystery related to the signature. From the Lot Details:
“The form of the signature on the major versions is considered to be of significance in placing them within the chronologies of Pieter the Elder’s and Pieter the Younger’s oeuvres. The Royal Collection picture is signed ‘BRVEGEL’, which is now accepted as the Elder’s signature; the Vienna version is signed ‘BRVEG’ at the extreme right edge, although the letters ‘EL’ or ‘HEL’ may have been inadvertently trimmed off; a version in Bucharest is signed ‘P. BRVEGEL’. At the time of its sale in Paris in 1979, the present version appears to have born a fragmentary date in addition to the signature, ‘.BRVEGEL. 15..’ (see Campbell, op. cit., p. 15). We are grateful to Christina Currie of KIK/IRPA for noting that the present version is unusual in that it is signed with the signature form of Bruegel the Elder after 1559, ‘.BRVEGEL.’ without an ‘H’ and without the initial ‘P’. No other versions of the Massacre of the Innocents are securely known to be signed in this way; the implications of this for its primacy in the sequence of versions painted by Brueghel the younger remains to be established.”
What happened to the date on the painting? Having the date on the work in 1979 but not present now is mysterious. Was the painting subject to a botched cleaning? Or, did a cleaning reveal that the date was likely false, and was it removed? Hopefully this mystery will be solved soon. Further, it will be very interesting to learn where this version sits in the multiple versions painted by Brueghel.
“Nord on Art” has a great write up of the upcoming Brueghel works at auction:
There was big news in the Bruegel-verse, with the fall 2011 auction season generating a new record for a price paid for a Brueghel the Younger painting. Brueghel expert Klaus Ertz called the version of “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” which was sold “of masterly quality”, which certainly helped the work achieve a the record price of £6,873,250.
Of this sale, the New York Times’ Souren Melikian said:
“In the days of abundance, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s vast allegory “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” would not have aroused wild enthusiasm. No fewer than five versions of the subject have been recorded, of which three are from the painter’s own hand. These are not even original but are interpretations of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s composition. On Dec. 7, 2006, “The Battle Between Carnival and Lent” cost £3.26 million at Christie’s. On Tuesday it rose to £6.87 million. The easy, large Brueghelian image appeals to a new generation of bidders loath to spend much time parsing the subtleties of great masters, whether in compositional inventiveness or the brilliance of brushwork.”