Works on sale at Sotheby's, Old Master Copies
Old Master Paintings

10 Questions and Answers About Old Master Copies

By Sotheby's

T he second edition of the online-only Old Master Copies auction, which is open for bidding from 5–13 September, features a vast range of paintings by accomplished followers and students of some of the greatest old master painters. But what exactly is an Old Master copy and why should you invest in one? Here, our specialist Georgina Eliot, who is leading the sale, answers some of the most common questions.

How does Sotheby's define the term ‘copy’, and how does it differ from counterfeits, ‘fakes’, ‘school’, ‘perimeter’, ‘workshop’ etc?
A ‘copied’ work is one that is executed based on an original painting, drawing or print. Some copies may deviate from the original in certain details or colour, for instance, but what defines the work as a copy is that the idea behind the image is not an independent one – the copyist is following a pre-existing design, not thinking up the concept themselves. Unlike honest copies, created as part of an artist’s training or to honour the original, fake artworks are created with the intention of deceiving the viewer as to age or authenticity.

An attribution to the Workshop of an artist means that in our opinion the work is by an unknown hand in the studio of the artist, which may or may not have been executed under the master’s direction. An attribution to the Circle of an artist means that in our opinion the work has been created by an unidentified hand closely associated with the artist, during or in the years immediately following the artist’s own lifetime, but not necessarily a pupil.

How long after the original date of creation of a work of art may a copy have been made to be of interest to collectors/experts/dealers?
In general the older a copy is the better, as it is that much closer to the original. There are very high quality later copies however, which are still of huge interest. Two of the highlights of our sale, for instance, are early 20th century copies after Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Children’s Games (the originals of which are in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna).

What criteria does a copy have to fulfil in order to be considered good or excellent?
It all comes down to the quality of the execution and its fidelity to the original painting.

How does the price of an excellent copy from the time relate to the price of the original work?
Unfortunately there is no convenient formula to determine this. Many copies are made after some of the most famous works of art in the world, which are in museum collections and have never been valued on the open market. An example from our previous sale, however, was a copy after the composition called ‘The White Monk’ by the British artist Richard Wilson. He painted many versions of this composition. Our copy sold for £1,500 (hammer), but autograph versions are generally offered at estimates of £20,000 – 30,000. One autograph composition even sold for $391,000 (including Buyer’s Premium).

Works on sale at Sotheby's, Old Master Copies
Follower of Richard Wilson, The White Monk, sold 2017 for £1,500 hammer.

Which Old Masters and which works in general were copied most often? Why?
Generally very famous artworks were copied most often, but in some cases they have become famous because they were copied so much! Artists have made copies since the Romans, who copied Greek statues. Repetition was considered the best way of learning throughout the medieval period. During the Renaissance, the cult of the artist’s identity grew so that copying a work was as much an education as a means of honouring the master. Copies took on a commercial aspect as the art market gained momentum during the 17th century and this trend exploded during the 18th century, when Grand Tourists created a demand for versions of the paintings they had seen in European galleries. Museums, such as the Louvre or the Uffizi, set aside days from the end of the 18th century up to today, for artists to learn by copying Old Masters in their collections.

The tradition of copying has been key to the development of many artists, including renowned masters such as Degas who is recorded in the late-19th century diligently copying masterpieces by his favourite artists, Ingres and Poussin. Countless other famous artists have also imitated Old Masters, among them John Singer Sargent after Velazquez; Landseer after Rubens and Van Dyck after Tintoretto.

Printmaking has also played a major role in copying Old Masters, as prints of famous paintings were more easily circulated, and many copies have been executed following a print. Prints were made in reverse of the original composition, so you can tell if a painting has been made after a print if it is also in reverse of the original.

Why does anyone knowingly buy a copy of a famous Old Master?
Offered at much lower price points, copies offer an opportunity to acquire Old Master paintings at much more accessible prices. Many of the copies offered in this sale reproduce famous, powerful images, from a whole range of centuries. Owning a copy means one is able to possess an interesting interpretation of one of these iconic paintings. There is a long tradition of collecting copies. King Charles I, for example, owned around 60 copies, including paintings of which the originals were in his possession.

Does provenance matter for the value of a copy?
Interesting provenance is always important. In many cases, however, it is difficult to trace the provenance of a copy.

Is there a copyist whom you consider to be an outstanding artist and whose copies could possibly gain in value?
Many copies remain anonymous, but some artists made a business from copying. One such successful artist was the enamel painter, Henry Bone (1755–1834), who specialised in copying Old Masters and contemporary portraits. The enamels (often on quite a large scale) were extremely popular during their day, as the public could compare Bone’s work to originals in London galleries, or with paintings recently exhibited at the Royal Academy. The technique of enamel painting is also extremely durable (if the enamel itself is not broken) and the colours remain very true, unaffected by atmosphere or the environment, so his paintings were also attractive as long-lasting keepsakes of famous paintings and displays of Bone’s skill in imitating the masters. High quality works by Bone have fetched up to around £40,000 in recent years, from estimates of around £6,000.

How many copies will be auctioned in the September online auction? What is the cheapest lot and which is the most expensive?
The lot offered with the lowest pre-sale estimate is a small 19th-century copy signed by a Canadian artist, Antoine-Sébastien Falardeau, of a painting by the 17th-century Florentine artist Carlo Dolci. Falardeau travelled to Florence and made a business of copying works from all the Florentine galleries. It is estimated at £200–300.

The lot with the highest estimates is a view of the Grand Canal in Venice by a Follower of Canaletto, offered at £15,000–20,000. It is a high-quality, period copy after a painting that is one of a set of twenty-one Venetian vedute painted in circa 1730–35, which was also engraved at the time by Antonio Visentini.

Is the upcoming online auction Old Master Copies a one-time event, or is Sotheby's holding it regularly? Does Sotheby’s only have a sale on Old Master Copies or are there any for other eras, like 19th C Copies as well?
This will be the second time that Sotheby’s has presented an online sale of Old Master Copies – we held our first, extremely successful, edition last October. We do not have any other sales themed around ‘Copies.

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