Alexa Armstrong BRINGING A FRESH EYE TO SOTHEBY’S OLD MASTER SALES BY RACHEL VANCELET TE
lexa Armstrong is an Associate Specialist with the Old Masters department at Sotheby ’s Auction House. We sat down with her to get an insider view of this expanding segment in the art market. Armstrong has been overseeing the midseason and online sales, and she provides refreshing viewpoints on the desire to combine old and new in order to appeal to new audiences interested in the Old Master Paintings market. Unfolding the history and associating artworks in a contemporary setting is what fascinates her, and her enthusiasm and professionalism is contagious when discussing the upcoming sales, tips, artists and more. RV: How did you come to the field of Old Masters? While I was in high school, I studied a semester in Florence where my love for Old Masters began. I was captivated by their rich history, enigmatic subject matter, and vast range of styles, techniques, and pallets. I knew right then and there that I wanted to pursue a degree in Art History, and while at university, I focused my coursework on Old Master related classes
and seminars, such as: Early Netherlandish Art, Italian Renaissance, French Rococo, and so forth. Having gone to college in New York City also enabled me to enter the field earlier on, since I started interning with the Old Masters department at another auction house during my junior year. They had a full time position open after I graduated, which made the transition seamless to a full time job, and I remained there for five years before coming to Sotheby’s as a specialist.
Other factors that I always tell clients to consider are the condition and provenance of a painting. Truly invest in a painting that is either in good condition, or can easily be brought to an even better state as this normally increases its value. Meanwhile, the provenance reveals the past owners the painting has had, and how it made its way to us. Generally, the longer a painting has been in private hands, the better, since it confirms that the painting is fresh and has not been seen in the market recently.
RV:What advice would you give new collectors entering the arena of Old Masters? First and foremost, go to museums! While there, see which works move you, and I am sure there will be a trend among the paintings you have chosen. For example, you may find that your favorite works are mostly by Italian artists, or by Baroque artists practicing in the late 17th Century. Once the taste has been defined, it’ll be easy to track down similar pictures to the ones you like in the art market. You may not begin by acquiring the Rembrandt you hoped for, but students who trained under his wing, such as Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, or followers practicing in his style, are a stupendous way to begin.
RV: How do you authenticate and confirm the research that has taken place when presenting Master artworks for auction? I always begin my research with the provenance, or history of owners the painting has had. Sometimes clients have an idea of where they acquired it, while other times we start from scratch. When looking into the provenance, I also like to focus on its sale history, since you can see what attribution it had at the time it was offered. This is a great way to get a sense of possible artists or fields to research, trying to locate either a close match to an artist, or an original painting it could be a derivative of. Once we have a better sense, we then have scholars and experts in the field review (cont’d on page 82)
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