The best results for Old Masters in 2023


Although works from the Old Masters period generate the smallest proportion of the global art market (less than 10% of its global turnover), essentially due to the rarity of masterpieces, this prestigious segment nevertheless attracts passionate bidding. Remember that the most expensive work in auction history is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450 million in 2017. More recently, an Old Master work sold for close to $100 million: Sandro Botticelli’s magnificent Portrait of Young Man fetched 92 million in 2021. This year, the results have not been as spectacular, but several major artists excited the atmospheres of the major Old Masters sales around the globe. Artprice by Artmarket looks back at three of these: Rubens, Rembrandt and, more unexpectedly, Michiel Sweerts.

Peter Paul Rubens, the undisputed Old Master of the year

The immense Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens attracted the segment’s highest bids of the year. His annual auction turnover total of more than 62 million dollars is one of the best in the artist’s auction career (from just nine lots sold). Among them, two exceptional paintings gave a unique boost to the Old Master sales, together generating $53 million and giving Sotheby’s the global leader position on Old Masters this year.

Rubens’ annual auction turnover (copyright

The last time Rubens’ spectacular Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptistwent to auction at Sotheby’s NY on 30 January 1998, it fetched $5.5 million. On 26 January 2023 it fetched $26.9 million, thereby adding 21 million dollars in a quarter of a century.

Rubens painted Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist in 1609 in Antwerp after his return from a long period of study and travel. But the work was not ‘rediscovered’ until much later, having been considered lost or misattributed for two centuries, before the publication of Michael Jaffé’s catalog raisonné in 1989. The other Rubens masterpiece this year at Sotheby’s was his Portrait of a Man as Mars which also generated a strong revaluation, from $6.8 million in 2002 (also at Sotheby’s) to $26.2 million this year.

Peter Paul RUBENS, Salomé presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist, 1609 and Portrait of a Man as Mars, circa 1620


Rembrandt: three works recently rediscovered

This year REMBRANDT VAN RIJN’s auction total has reached $47 million, including $14.3 million for two pendant portraits dated 1635, i.e. at the end of what is called Rembrandt’s “first Amsterdam period”. After remaining in the same family for two hundred years, their reappearance at Christie’s in London last July was such a powerful event that the two works far exceeded the high estimate of $10 million.

Another rare opportunity presented itself on the market more recently after Sotheby’s obtained the consignment of Rembrandt’s The Adoration of the Kings that was offered to the public on 6 December as the highlight of its London sale of Old Masters. The presentation of this Adoration of the Magi was all the more anticipated as this small grisaille painting (24.5 x 18.5 cm) was only considered a work of the “Rembrandt Circle” when it was last sold at auction in 2021 at Christie’s in Amsterdam. On that occasion, Christie’s was only expecting around $11,000 and was surprised to sell it for $992,700! But this year, now that there is no longer any doubt about the attribution to Rembrandt (after numerous examinations), the little masterpiece fetched $13.79 million dollars. The reattribution to Rembrandt and the subsequent major revaluation were indeed among the highlights of the art market in 2023 and they prove that with good intuition and a lot of research, certain works can indeed be “rediscovered”, even today.

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Magi, 24.5 x 18.5 cm, detail

The unexpected appearance of Michiel Sweerts

After two works by Rubens, an exceptional calligraphic work by ZHAO Mengfu and a set of two portraits by Francisco Jose DE GOYA AND LUCIENTS, among the most remarkable auctions of the year we also saw the sale of a work by Michiel SWEERTS, a Flemish artist only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century, whose results proved to be as spectacular as they were unexpected this year.

On 6 July 2023 in London, Christie’s sold his The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress at the record price of $16 million, well above the high estimate provided at $3.8 million. This previously unknown painting was recognized as a landmark masterpiece of the art of Michiel Sweerts, who is considered “one of the most creative, enigmatic and memorable artists of the 17th century” (P. C. Sutton, Michiel Sweerts: 1618-1664, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 2002).

For Christie’s, One of the reasons why the Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress has remained in obscurity for such a long time – and indeed why other discoveries by this artist have been made in recent years – is that Michael Sweerts became a largely forgotten figure soon after his death. Due to the enigmatic nature of his output and the diversity of his style, his artistic identity remained a mystery throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and his works were invariably overlooked or misattributed. It was not until Willem Martin’s seminal article on the artist, published in 1907, that Sweerts began to emerge from the shadows, not unlike Vermeer – another artist who was ‘rediscovered’ in the modern era.

Building on the successful sale of The artist’s workshop with a seamstress in July, Christie’s offered another work by the Flemish artist in its Old Masters sale on 7 December last. This painting from 1656-58 entitled A portrait of the artist (?), presenting the Virgin in Prayer sold for nearly $2.2 million against a high estimate of just $756,000. In fact, the painting can be considered a painting within a painting: a self-portrait of the artist presenting the canvas of a Virgin in prayer. The owner of the work contacted Christie’s because he suspected that the painting could be by Sweerts. After examination, his intuition was confirmed… It is therefore – in the words of Maja Markovic – Christie’s Old Masters specialist, yet another example of the rediscovery of a “striking and completely unique work in the oeuvre of an artist”.

 Michiel Sweerts, The Artist’s Studio with a Seamstress

Michiel SWEERTS’ annual auction turnover (copyright