Artworks without names: an insight into the market for anonymous paintings

Abstract

This paper explores the market for indeterminate works of art. Our data set includes 1578 sales of fifteenth and sixteenth-century anonymous Flemish paintings, mainly collected from the Blouin Art Sales Index over the period 1955–2015. After a brief introductory section to the issue of anonymity in early modern art, and the different situations of information failure generated by anonymous paintings, the empirical part examines the supply and demand for paintings by unrecorded artists, using a hedonic pricing model. We find evidence that the degree of specification of the spatio-temporal designations given to the paintings (e.g. Flemish school, sixteenth century) affect prices differently (H1). The more specific the designation is in time and space, the more it tends to make up for the lack of information, and to positively affect the market value of anonymous paintings. When the artist name is missing, we also argue that purchasers pay greater attention to other quality signals. Four other hypotheses, which are expected to influence the buyer’s willingness to pay, are successively tested: H2) the physical condition of the painting; H3) oral or written interventions by an expert; H4) the length of the lot essay; and H5) previous attributions to named artists. The results suggest that most of these variables operate as significant pricing characteristics. We finally compare price indices of named artists, indirect names and spatio-temporal designations.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that with prints, the notion of “state” is preferred when considering later reproductions of original prototypes (Lazzaro 2006).

  2. 2.

    With the exception of Euwe and Oosterlinck (2017). Note that the authors do not provide any new model specification.

  3. 3.

    See for example a painting labelled as “studio of Jacob Grimmer” (Sotheby’s London, 9 December 2010, lot 12), which previously sold at Sotheby’s as “Flemish school, seventeenth century” (17 April 1991, lot 84).

  4. 4.

    This is for example the case of an “Antwerp school, sixteenth century” sold at Sotheby’s London (14 April 2011, lot 3), which was catalogued as “Anónimo Hispano-Flamenco” in 2003.

  5. 5.

    Note that the notion of two-sided uncertainty has been originally developed in the academic literature dedicated to bargaining context with, for instance, Chatterjee and Samuelson (1983) and Cramton (1992).

  6. 6.

    This is for instance the case of a painting labelled as “French school, nineteenth century” valued at USD 250 and sold for 1.1 million dollars at auction in 2016. The work has since been authenticated as a genuine Allegory of the five senses by Rembrandt by the Paris-based gallery Talabardon and Gautier and was resold later in the year at TEFAF Maastricht for about 4 million.

  7. 7.

    This is the case of a small and very altered painting offered for sale by Lempertz on 19 November 2016. The works depicted the face of a bearded elderly, and were labelled “Flämischer Meister des 17. Jahrhunderts” (lot 1058), with presale estimates valued at EUR 5000 and 6000. The painting fetched the unexpected price of EUR 390,000 or more than 80 times the low estimate. An informal discussion with the director of the sale (Cologne, 10 November 2016) has revealed that Lempertz suspected some artistic connections with the Flemish Master Jacob Jordaens, but did prefer to opt for a spatio-temporal designation.

  8. 8.

    If a painting is ascribed to “Follower of Quentin Metsys” from the outset, it is unlikely that the painting to be reattributed to another significant artist. The signal is twofold: the painting was not executed in the lifetime of the artist, but evokes Metsys’s art. Conversely, the designation “Flemish art, second half of the sixteenth century” potentially opens to more diversified attribution possibilities. Note that some attributions are sometimes provided in the lot note, although the salesroom still decides to put the artwork for sale with a spatio-temporal designation.

  9. 9.

    Collections exclusively made up of anonymous paintings are rare. Max J. Friedländer’s inventory in his eleventh volume of Die altniederlandische Malerei however shows that the proportions between anonymous artworks in public and private collections are relatively equivalent (with 52 and 45 observations, respectively). During the exhibition Splendeurs du maniérisme anversois (2013), 67 anonymous artworks of 80 were loaned from private collections (83%). According to auctioneers, experts and art dealers interviewed for this research, there are however several stereotypes that explain why collectors may be reluctant to purchase APs: S1) If the artist name is missing, this would mean that the artist was not considered skillful during his lifetime; S2) without a name, there is no particular stories or anecdotes related to the artist’s life which are however valuable in the art market; S3) anonymity in art is automatically associated with lower quality; S4) as academics do not pay much attention to APs, there is no particular reason to consider APs for purchase purposes; S5) the lower market value of APs reflects their lower artistic value; S6) hedonic and monetary benefits usually expected in the art market are not possible with APs; S7) there is no investment opportunity with APs.

  10. 10.

    This assumption has been addressed during the fourth annual Ards colloquium “Current research in medieval and renaissance sculpture: Collecting Medieval Sculpture”, held in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (FR) on 23–24 November 2017. As APs, medieval sculpture is essentially anonymous. Reyburn (2014b) also suggests that there is a new wave of rich collectors in their 40s and 50s who want originality in their house and therefore buy medieval art to mix it with contemporary art.

  11. 11.

    Note that condition reports are now available on demand in major salesrooms.

  12. 12.

    This is for example the case of a “South Netherlandish School, early sixteenth century”, sold at Christie’s in 2014, which was formerly attributed to German master Albrecht Dürer (“Galeria Duca Brusche, no. 123, as Albrecht Dürer (according to an old label on the reverse”). Cf. Southern Netherlandish School, early sixteenth century, The Deposition, Christie’s Amsterdam, Old Masters, nineteenth Century and Impressionist Art, 13–14 May 2014, lot 70.

  13. 13.

    Inventory number 63.660. The painting was sold to Rosenberg and Stiebel (Palais Galliera Paris, 11 April 1962, lot 14) before being purchased by the museum on 16 May 1963.

  14. 14.

    Inventory number NG2670, acquired through Salting bequest in 1910. Note that the painting is not on display.

  15. 15.

    As demonstrated by Castellani et al. (2018), some painting attributes are also likely to affect seller’s reservation price. But although they are major signals on the auction market (Beggs and Graddy 1997), presale estimates are not included in the analysis because of their strong correlation with the five previously defined assumptions.

  16. 16.

    Note that 325 lots, or 20.8% of the sample, were ranged between lots nos 1 and 25, even if lot order is relative by definition.

  17. 17.

    Complementary tests have been done by including interaction terms between each school and each century but without leading to robust results.

  18. 18.

    This result has been confirmed during private interviews with experts at Lempertz (November 2016), Bernaerts Antwerp (January 2018), Christie’s and Sotheby’s (New York, March 2018).

  19. 19.

    Note that the taxonomy could even be further detailed but the current total number of observations prevents us from doing so.

  20. 20.

    Cf. Bruges school, fifteenth century, Portrait of Jacob Obrecht and a Female Saint, Sotheby’s New York, Important Old Master Paintings, 15 January 1993, lot 139, sold for USD 3,608,568; South Netherlandish School, circa 1500, Portrait of young lady, probably Mary of Burgundy, Sotheby’s London, Old Master Paintings Evening (Sale L07031), 04 July 2007, lot 15, estimated GBP 50,000–70,000 and sold for 1,344,382.

  21. 21.

    Note that consistent results are obtained when the sample is split up by quartile, with higher values that concentrate in the last quartile.

  22. 22.

    Note that we try to avoid talking about “well-known” masters when considering named artists. Indeed, having a name does not necessarily mean that the artist used to be renowned, or is regarded as blue-chip artist nowadays. Such a dissociation is practically impossible to make in the graph as autograph works by big names are rare in this market segment (e.g. Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Pieter I Bruegel, etc.).

  23. 23.

    Recently, a remarkable unfinished panel depicting the Virgin and Child with saints sold at Christie’s as “attributed to Hugo van der Goes”, a major Flemish primitive born in Ghent. The lot went for USD 8,985,000. Interestingly, this high-quality work was formerly labelled as “Unidentified Ghent (?) Master” (Ainsworth 2002, p. 75). It would have been highly instructive to compare prices if the spatio-temporal designation had been maintained by Christie’s.

  24. 24.

    From an art historical point of view, it is extremely difficult to prove that an APs was specifically executed in 1520, 1525 or 1530 or any other date.

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Funding

This study was supported by Fonds De La Recherche Scientifique—FNRS.

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Correspondence to Anne-Sophie V. E. Radermecker.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

See Table 7.

Table 7 Data description—main characteristics

Appendix 2

See Table 8.

Table 8 Examples of presale estimate differences

Appendix 3

See Table 9.

Table 9 Results of the general hedonic regression (APs only)

Appendix 4

See Table 10.

Table 10 Specified taxonomy

Appendix 5

See Tables 11 and 12.

Table 11 Alternative model specifications—part 1
Table 12 Alternative model specifications—part 2

Appendix 6

See Tables 13 and 14.

Table 13 Rates of return by sub-segment (1955 = 100)
Table 14 Price comparisons between spatio-temporal designations and attribution qualifiers

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Radermecker, A.V.E. Artworks without names: an insight into the market for anonymous paintings. J Cult Econ 43, 443–483 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10824-019-09344-5

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Keywords

  • Art market
  • Old masters
  • Hedonic regression
  • Anonymous art
  • Indeterminate goods
  • Information failure
  • Branding strategy