New old masters reshape the art market

Six years ago, a bust of Christ by Pietro Bernini blew through its presale estimate of £20,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in London, selling for almost five times that. 

The same sculpture is about to come back up for sale, but this time it is likely to fetch as much as $10m: alongside two independent scholars, renowned academic-turned-dealer Andrew Butterfield has worked to establish that it was crafted with Pietro’s son, Gianlorenzo, one of western art’s greatest sculptors. 

The revaluation of “The Bust of the Saviour” — to be unveiled on October 18 at the Dickinson Roundell gallery on New York’s Upper East Side — shows the heady profits still on offer for nimble dealers. But the work’s reattribution comes just as the global art market is experiencing a bout of self-doubt which has left observers asking whether the dizzying price rises of recent years can be maintained.

Last week a forgery scandal rocked the Old Masters market, forcing Sotheby’s to reimburse £8.4m to the buyers of a fake Dutch painting and sparking questions about whether more fakes were yet to emerge. 

The auction houses are also preparing for their big New York sales next month, with uncertainty expected to curb how much they will try to sell. Sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s have fallen this year amid financial market volatility and slowing economic growth. 

But the highest-ticket lots are still finding strong demand — meaning even bigger rewards for an authentication effort such as Mr Butterfield’s. 

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“I try to make it as absolutely secure as possible,” Mr Butterfield says. “You have to be incredibly careful, which is why I aim for a quorum of major scholars to confirm the attribution, as well as my research.” 

A work’s attribution is “a big issue, because if it’s the master or the student, it’s really going to make a big difference on the price,” says Jeffrey Kravetz, an investment director at US Bank. “It’s a leap of faith. You’re trusting that auction house, the professional you’re dealing with in that transaction, to represent it correctly.” 

This is the fourth Bernini Mr Butterfield has uncovered since 2003, and the others have shot up in value following his re-authentication. He has worked on this sculpture for about three years and has discovered, authenticated, published, and sold more than 50 works by artists including Donatello, Ghiberti and Giambologna. The buyers have been private collectors and museums including the Louvre and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. 

Sculpture of Madonna standing on the crescent moon at the Moretti Gallery in New York © Pascal Perich

“They’ve been accepted by the scholarly community,” Mr Butterfield says.

Mr Butterfield paid $3.2m in 2002 for a work at Sotheby’s that was just “attributed to” Bernini, rather than “by” Bernini. After reauthenticating the sculpture — thought to have spent some of its time as a garden ornament — he was able to sell it to the Kimbell Art Museum for about twice that figure. Another Bernini he discovered, which in 1975 had failed to find a buyer at auction for $200, is now valued at $50m. 

Other works revealed to be by Bernini which were not found by Mr Butterfield have also soared in price. One went from about $25,000 in 2014 to $33m last year, in a sale to the Getty Museum.

The art market, according to a saying cited by US Trust’s national art executive Evan Beard, is “the only sector of the economy where opinions are more important than facts.”

“Whether or not [a work] is by the hand of the master is less important than whether or not the gatekeepers or connoisseurs or academics believe or have an opinion that it is by the hand of the master.” 

In this case, while both Bernini scholars attributed the conception and composition of the sculpture to Gianlorenzo, one said the execution was “largely” by the father.

Re-attributions happen “fairly regularly … enough that every year we hear of a few big ones,” Mr Beard says. Last year Sotheby’s sold a rediscovered John Constable painting for $5.2m, which had sold in 2013 at Christie’s for $5,200. 

“The art world is not unlike the scientific world where it’s constantly subjected to re-evaluations and analysis. The interesting thing about this is there’s no be-all, end-all authority who is the voice of God.” 

The sculpture may find a buyer in a museum which lacks a work by Bernini. More than 700 museums are opening every year, according to Artprice.com, which tracks the art market. Each needs masterpieces to draw crowds. 

That is “creating this huge need at the top of the market,” Mr Kravetz says. Prices have “skyrocketed” for masterpieces by just a handful of artists, he said, which is “a sign you’re really at the top — things have gotten really frothy. Players are bidding for these top marquee pieces at all costs.” 

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