Each work consigned to the Old Master Paintings sales is given a thorough examination before it is catalogued in exhaustive detail.


LONDON - At this time of year, with hundreds of pictures arriving from around the world in time for inclusion in our December auction, all the senior specialists and cataloguers in the Old Master department regularly gather deep in the basement beneath New Bond Street to inspect each and every one of them, analysing both attribution and value.

This is the moment when your heart-rate increases exponentially. The picture you agreed for sale the prior month while on a lonesome trip to some far flung corner of Europe makes its way to the easel, to be minutely scrutinized by a dozen colleagues, and can be greeted with either delight or derision. Happily, instances of the latter are rather rarer than those of the former.


Sotheby's specialists gather in the picture storage area to share their research on each of the works in the sale.


This is also the time when experience and expertise really matters. Much business is begun these days on the basis of a jpeg but there is no substitute for actually looking at the painting itself. Only then can you truly appreciate the surface, condition and desirability of the object before you, and often one’s view of the painting’s origin may be completely different from the opinion formed from photographs. We look at the support and ask if it gives any clues to the painting’s origin: does the canvas have a Neapolitan weave? From what species of tree was the panel cut? Sometimes we will conduct pigment tests to determine the age of a painting or dendrochronologically analyse an oak panel to determine the precise felling date of the tree, and thus the likely usage date. Do any markings or labels on the reverse give any clues to the painting’s provenance?

Every Old Master that enters this building requires hours of attention; which is why, at this time of year, a sense of exhaustion-induced delirium pervades the department and why our children often wonder what on earth has happened to their once-so-attentive parents.