Master Class: James Macdonald on How Classical Paintings Stand the Test of Time

Master Class: James Macdonald on How Classical Paintings Stand the Test of Time

In his more than two-decade-long career at Sotheby’s, old master paintings specialist James Macdonald has overseen the sale of artworks spanning 500 years of European art history. As head of private sales for the department, he builds collections for individuals and institutions still taken with the beauty and significance of the classical arts.

Can you tell me a little bit just about yourself and your background?
I studied History of Art with Spanish and Italian at the University of Cambridge in England. In 1998 I joined Sotheby’s as a junior cataloger in the Old Master Paintings department in London and was fortunate enough to learn about the subject under a very established and knowledgeable team of senior experts. Because I spoke the language and had a particular interest in the culture, I started travelling to Spain quite early on and in around 2000 became responsible for Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings interests in Spain. After working on the day and evening sales for a few years I was ready for a new challenge. I happened to have done a number of private sales relatively early on in my career, so when this area of our business started to develop and I was invited to become Head of Private Sales in the Old Masters department in 2006, I happily agreed to take it on.

James Macdonald , head of private sales for Sotheby's Old Master Paintings department.

How did your interest in old masters develop?
I was always fascinated by history, above all the medieval and early modern periods, and old masters are effectively a window onto historical times. In 1990 I had something of an epiphany when I went to the Prado as a young university student and saw an exhibition on Velázquez – really the seminal exhibition that has been held on the artist during my lifetime. The vast majority of the great master’s oeuvre was together under one roof, and it was the first time I'd seen paintings by Velázquez in such numbers. I was completely bowled over by the experience, which fired my enthusiasm for Spanish Old Masters and Old Masters in general.

I suppose my background also played a role: I was brought up in the west country in England on a working farm, but my mother was a collector of English porcelain and I used to visit the local auction houses with her from time to time. I loved the whole atmosphere – the experience of seeing what was being offered from one week to the next and the excitement of the hunt for objects that came with it.

Velázquez's Las Meninas crowns the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Photograph by Eric VANDEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

What do you like about the private sales format versus auction?
Private sale is a highly bespoke business. It requires a particular degree of precision, above all in pricing a work and in justifying the price in the absence of underbidders that you have at auction. It is also a very personal business in which one aims to place pictures very specifically with the most suitable collector or museum. As a result, you have to try to get to know the collectors as well as possible, and understand their needs, their tastes and which paintings would fit well within their collection..

So it's not just about knowing the work, it's about knowing the individual and finding a home for the work?

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Yes. In the first instance it is critical to really understand the work you are selling, how it fits into the artist’s oeuvre, how many others like it remain in private hands, what is its position within the overall school or wider artistic movement. Of course at the same time you are thinking who might be the most suitable collector or museum to offer the work to. In that regard I have come to realise over time that one of the aspects of my job that I find most fulfilling is not just selling one work in isolation to a collector, but working with them to assemble a really meaningful collection that fits their taste and works within their budget. A collection is a far more intellectually stimulating proposition and provides the opportunity to unite a group of works that are somehow related, with each piece carefully selected to add to and enrichen the overall narrative. It is rather like doing a giant jigsaw, so that as you place each piece it gradually builds and eventually reveals the final image . In this regard I have been fortunate to work with the inspiring English financier and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, to help build the core of the collection for the new Spanish Gallery at Auckland Castle, an inspiring pro bono project in the North of England, which I highly recommend visiting. I am currently working on assembling other world-class collections for private individuals.

How to Start an Old Masters Collection

Paintings from the Auckland Project were on view in Sotheby's New York galleries in 2018.

How could you help a collector who is looking for a very specific, even rare piece?
With auctions, particularly in the classical arts, where there isn't the same availability that you can find in postwar and contemporary art – what is offered in the auction reflects what is available on the open market at one particular moment. At the same time however our network of colleagues at Sotheby’s know the vast majority of collections around the world, and as such we are aware of what could potentially be available. We can often pinpoint a work that meets a collector’s specific requirements, and this exceptional reach is one of the great advantages of private sale.

You don't just work with clients in the UK and Europe, you're helping clients all over?
Yes we are helping clients throughout the world. For myself, the majority of my clients are in the UK and Europe, as well as in North and Latin America.

Does a collector need to be near a major urban center or near one of our office locations to still be able to work with you?
No, not at all. They just need to be interested in the subject and have access to images, and if they wish to see the paintings, that's obviously ideal, but not essential. The great thing is they can operate and collect from any corner of the world.

“One of the aspects of my job that I find most fulfilling is not just selling one work in isolation to a collector, but working with them to assemble a really meaningful collection that fits their taste and works within their budget.”

How has old master paintings in the market evolved or changed in the time you've been at Sotheby's?
In general, there has been an enormous shift in the taste of our collectors. When I first joined the department, there were a number of quite traditional categories dominating the market, like Dutch Golden Age painting, for example. In recent times, there's been a shift away from some of the more old fashioned style old masters towards paintings with a bit more intensity and visual power. The Italian and Spanish Baroque, for example, offer incredible scenes of human emotion that collectors today appreciate, which in many ways parallel other areas of our culture, be it the films we watch, books we read or images we choose to live with.

What are today's old masters collectors looking for?
The great thing about this category is the enormous variety it offers. It spans more than 500 years of European painting, from the early Gothic of the late 13th century through to the Romantic artists of the mid-19th century. There is so much to offer not only in terms of period but also subject matter, incorporating mythological and Biblical scenes, historical subjects, portraits, landscapes, still lifes and genre scenes. There really is something for everyone.

What if a collector doesn’t know so much about old masters. Can we help educate them?


Absolutely. Everyone has to start somewhere, and old masters have so much to offer that you can engage with them at different levels according to how deep you want to go. Often what we see is that as time goes by, collectors become more and more drawn into the subject as their knowledge increases.

So at the same time as having works that can satisfy even the most intellectual type of collector, there are a number of old master paintings which are just very easy on the eye. We have a very beautiful painting of the Madonna in prayer for private sale on our website by the Roman 17th-century painter Sassoferrato. It is a stunning painting and one doesn't need to get terribly academic about it to enjoy its aesthetic qualities and the pleasure that gives.

How would you say that the old master market is different from the postwar and contemporary art market, for example?
We have a much-reduced supply compared to postwar and contemporary for obvious reasons. Collectors, to a degree, have to react to the material that is available. Take Titian, there's probably only around 20 Titians left in private ownership today and in the case of Velázquez, less than half a dozen that are universally accepted. You can't necessarily just go out there and acquire works by the biggest names that come to mind. You have to look a little deeper and discover that there are an extraordinary number of artists who might not necessarily be regular household names, but who were enormously talented and created some exceptionally beautiful images.

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Does that lead us to the topic of attribution, which can be difficult in a field with such a rich history of masters working with teams of assistants? How do you guide collectors through this?
One of the key elements to our role as old master specialists at Sotheby's is to establish the correct attribution or classification of a painting. We have different levels of classification to determine whether a work was painted by the artist, by their studio, within their immediate circle or by a follower (a hand working within around 50 years of the artist’s death), or indeed by a much later artist working in the style of a master, which we call ‘manner of.’ We also sell copies of the great old masters, many of which were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries as part of young artists’ formal training as recommended by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and we classify these as ‘After’ Titian, Rubens or whoever the original was painted by. Generally speaking, within the range of classifications, the further one gets from the artist, the less expensive the paintings become.

For collectors who are starting to buy old masters and want to begin with a modest budget, you can buy a school piece (i.e. a work not by an actual master) for a modest amount of money, in around the $5,000–15,000 range. You're still getting a work of the period, be it for example Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist or Baroque, and something with real artistic value and integrity. If you want to collect works by the masters themselves, then the budget tends to go up a bit, but our new clients are generally surprised by how incredibly good value old masters are given their quality, history, provenance and above all beauty.

How does Sotheby's as a company stand behind an artwork in terms of authenticity or guarantee?
When we sell a painting, whether at auction or through private sale, we provide a guarantee to the buyer not just that the artwork is not counterfeit, but also that it is by the artist as stated in the description, on the basis of the available expertise at the time of the sale.

What are some of the ways we protect a client’s privacy?
There are various reasons why a consigner may wish to sell a painting privately rather than at auction. In some cases, confidentiality could be one of the key reasons. We take that extremely seriously and we're aware that people prefer these types of transactions to be treated with the utmost discretion. We're only able to discuss acquisitions that have become public, like museum acquisitions, or otherwise with the approval of both the consignor and buyer.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's The Penitent Saint Peter.

What is a favorite or memorable private sale that has gone to a major institution?
A particularly exciting private sale that I was lucky enough to handle was for a monumental painting of The Penitent Saint Peter by the great Sevillian 17th-century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The picture had been commissioned in around 1675 by one of the artist’s greatest patrons Justino de Neve, who bequeathed it on his death a decade later to the Hospital of the Venerable Priests, in Seville, in Southern Spain. It remained there for some 125 years until it was appropriated in 1810 by Marshal Soult, one of Napoleon's generals in Spain at the time of the Peninsular War. He took it back to Paris for his own private collection and on his death in 1852 it was included in the great Soult Collection sale, where it was acquired by an Englishman. It came to the UK but remained untraced until it was rediscovered in around 2012. Following its emergence we oversaw the sale of the painting to enable it to return to the very place that it had been in situ in Seville from 1685 onwards. When the French troops stole the painting, they left behind the grand Baroque frame and when the picture returned to Seville, it was temporarily placed back into the frame and fitted like a glove after all those years.

Another highly important old master painting recently sold by Sotheby’s through private sale is Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. The great baroque canvas illustrating the well-known Old Testament subject was commissioned by Charles I for his wife, and subsequently hung at Castle Howard (think Brideshead Revisited), in the North of England from where it was sold through auction at Sotheby’s in 1995. It was on loan to the National Gallery in London for several years, and just this past year, Sotheby’s brokered the sale of the painting to the National Gallery.

A View of the Reggio di Calabra at Sunset, a Temple on the Shore at right and fishermen gathering their nets in the foreground
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What might be important for a new collector in this category to know?
I would encourage new collectors to have a good look at the wide offering that old masters provide and decide what it is that they respond to and are interested in – a good way to do this is to visit not only the old master auctions but also the great museums. It may be that a new collector decides that they like an eclectic mix, or that there's a particular area they wish to focus on. I also think that when collecting, it's not about acquiring pieces in isolation, but about creating a vision by bringing together an interesting selection of works that somehow fit together to create an overall dialogue and concept, be it intellectual, artistic, historical, aesthetic or otherwise.

Do collectors mix old masters with more modern categories?
Absolutely. I do it myself at home, albeit with very modest pieces, and I think that it is very stimulating for the eye when you create and see those juxtapositions - as in music, dissonance can be beautiful. Collectors coming to the old masters market from other categories are often surprised by how inexpensive they are and in the more eclectic collections old masters tend to really hold their own and add great depth and a sense of history and timelessness to a collection.

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Are collectors coming to you now during this global health crisis with any questions and what advice are you giving them about the market?
Contrary to what people might imagine, we are extremely busy right now and are very active with many of our clients. There are those who are wanting to sell and others keen to buy. It's remarkable to think, but even during the war there was an art market, so that while of course it has to adapt and change according to global financial and geo-political circumstances, it never stops.

One of the remarkable things about old masters is how resilient they've been. Even during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, although the volume in the market decreased, prices held up remarkably well and we didn’t experience a dramatic drop off in prices that were seen in other collecting categories. We're working with many collectors who wish to buy great things that might only become available because of the current situation and we’re also working hard to help our clients who are looking to sell during these challenging times. It’s worth considering however that if one is selling in a market like this that maybe has come off by around 10%, when most other assets have devalued by up to 30%, then actually it makes good economic sense.

How is Sotheby's adapting?
One of the interesting spinoffs of this crisis has been that in some ways we have had our hands forced in a positive direction to embrace the future and be more active in engaging with our clients at home through our online platform. While most of our private selling has traditionally been through bespoke, behind-the-scenes deals, today we are offering more material on our website and it is proving very successful. There are some fantastic pieces in terms of value, ranging from around $50,000 up to around $10 million. In this new reality, online is another highly effective option that enables our clients to buy and sell through private sales at Sotheby’s.

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