Ahead of Sotheby’s auction of Rubens’ Portrait of a Bearded Venetian Nobleman on 4 July in London, George Gordon, Co-Chairman, Worldwide Old Master Paintings & Drawings, Board Director, Old Master Paintings speaks to WEALTH Arabia about the asset class’ rise
When Salvator Mundi, considered possibly the last remaining masterpiece by legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci to make it to public auction, broke the record for an ‘Old Master’ painting sold at auction last year, selling for $450.3 million, it broke a 15-year old record held by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents (1611-12), which sold at Sotheby’s London in 2002 for GBP 49.5 million.
In London on 4 July, Sotheby’s will be auctioning off another of Rubens’ most striking works, Portrait of a Bearded Venetian Nobleman. Ahead of that trip, Sotheby’s has taken the painting all around the world—first to Dubai, the first time it has ever taken an Old Master painting to the city. The UAE has, in the past few years, become one of the most talked about destinations in the art world. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has proven to be the premiere destination that the country promised it would be, opening up the region to the type of museum experience that other great cities have enjoyed. To go along with it, the museum acquired the world’s most sought-after piece of art at auction—Salvator Mundi—and is sure to have other key acquisitions in the future.
“We are delighted to see this remarkable painting will be available for public view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi,” said the UAE’s Department of Culture and Tourism in a statement at the time. According to George Gordon, Co- Chairman, Worldwide Old Master Paintings & Drawings, Board Director, Old Master Paintings, the museum will be a true paradigm shift for the region and the world, bringing art to the fore in the country, as well as bringing the UAE and the region to greater visibility in the art world.
“I think the Louvre Abu Dhabi is particularly important because, for one thing, it’s something which the region should be and is I’m sure is very proud of. When I went, it was absolutely packed full of people. It’s doing its own communicating. I think that it will make all art, including Islamic art but also art from other cultures, more appreciated, understood, and, in terms of collecting and sought after, that will increase too,” said Gordon.
Why did Gordon decide to bring another Rubens masterpiece to the UAE? “When I was standing in front of it when it was still in the owner’s house, I just thought that this would be the perfect picture to the UAE because Rubens was one of the greatest communicators as an artist,” said Gordon. “He was a great communicator full stop. He’s a very accessible painter, no matter what he’s painted, and sometimes the subjects are rather arcane. “He’s a very visceral painter. He loves the brush. He communicates with us so strongly and so vigorously.
Being a portrait, in which he’s really putting his own character in the sitter, he communicates particularly strongly to us. I thought, well, it’s an obvious picture to bring in the way,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t that we were looking for a painting to bring, it was the other way around—it’s a painting that will have a very broad and immediate cultural resonance.”
The painting previously was held in a collection from Hans Wetzlar, the famed art collector, who bought it in the mid-1950s, according to Gordon. “It comes to us from his grandson. Before that, it was in the collection of a great Berlin banker and collector who bought it sometime before 1914, and whose son sold it in the early 1950s, and it passed very quickly after that to Wetzlar.
“It is one of two similarly signed paintings in Rubens’ own inventory after his death in 1640. His descriptions are not precise enough for you to be sure, but it’s most likely that he painted this on commission or within the intention of selling it, and he must have kept it because he himself had a print made of it a while after he painted it. He painted it for his own pleasure and enlightenment. But from 1640 to the 20th century, we don’t know where it was—which is often the case,” said Gordon.
ART INVESTMENT ON THE RISE
Art investment has, according to Knight Frank, become increasingly important for investors throughout the world. Investment in art showed a complete rebound in 2017 after several years of lagging behind other luxury investments, according to a new report. While art has always maintained its place as one of the top luxury investments, it has lost some of its colour in recent years, falling behind other asset classes such as classic cars and wine. While investment in luxury assets rose seven per cent in 2017 across the board, according to data from Knight Rank Luxury Investment Index, art outpaced all other asset classes, growing 21 per cent in the year.
Investment in luxury assets is about much more than ROI, according to Knight Frank’s research. Joy of ownership was the number one reason for investment in these classes, according to a survey amongst individual investors, with status among peers also being mentioned as a motivating factor. In the last 10 years, art investment has grown 78 per cent.
“We’re seeing a big increase in the number of people who are bidding in our sales of old master paintings, but they are not buying, because there can only be one buyer for each lot, obviously—but participants in sales are increasing quite rapidly across the whole globe,” said Gordon.
“We think that people are more gregarious in their taste than they used to be, less precise in their collecting categories, and more open to other cultures. I think this is bringing people into the old master market. Artists that communicate the best across the centuries, either because they’re famous artists that people have heard of, or whether the nature of what they’ve created they communicate, are the ones becoming the most sought after and the most widely bid on in our sales,” Gordon continued.
Will the record ever be broken again? “I’m not going to answer that question, because if you’d answered that question at presumably at any stage at five-year intervals throughout my career, presumably any answer I would have given would have been wrong,” Gordon said. “When we sold another Rubens, which until the Salvator Mundi was the world record auction price for an old master, though unlike this one a discovery, we didn’t think that record would be broken for a while. Probably we didn’t realise how soon it would be broken, and people didn’t think that painting would break the record back then. If we knew the answers to these questions our lives would be a lot less interesting—though, for investors, I’m sure that’s less precise of an answer than you’re looking for. People who buy old masters know that there is a surprise factor, and it’s usually a pleasant surprise,” said Gordon.
Gordon first fell in love with the old masters because of museums— something that UAE’s young people now have better access too. “I started my career in old master drawings rather than paintings—the same artists but different media. It was when I was in school I used to go to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Which picture I cannot remember, but that was the window to what subsequently became my world. It’s usually museums that make people excited, motivated, interested, and engaged, which is why the Louvre Abu Dhabi is so important to this region,” said Gordon.
Internationally, cultures are in dialogue more than ever before, causing an increased appreciation in both directions. “There is openness to Islamic art. People of my generation remember Kenneth Clarke’s television series Civilization—the new version is going to make people more aware as well. The Louvre Abu Dhabi tells the story of art and civilization from somethinglike 100,000 years ago,” said Gordon.
When Rubens latest masterpiece goes on auction on 4 July, there’s no telling how high the bidding will go, or whether it may find its way into the Louvre Abu Dhabi as Salvator Mundi did. “I can tell you there’s going to be competition from all over the place. I’m sure we’ll get bidding from four if not five continents,” said Gordon.