El Greco’s masterpiece St Dominic in Prayer sets new record

The art world is very much in love with post-war and contemporary art, which is particularly evident at auction. Sales of significant works are breaking historic records at such a rate that it almost feels like normal business these days.
However, it is a much more speculative arena, a slice of the market that is more likely to experience exceptional periods of highs – as it is now – and equally severe moments of relative stagnation.
This makes it an exciting segment to be involved in, but a risky one in so much as you may acquire a modern masterpiece only to find that five years down the line investors have moved on.
You will still have an expensive asset, its value secure at the price you paid for it, but, because a new trend has emerged, it is no longer possible to sell it for a higher price. It’ll still be of interest, to collectors and galleries, but you’re highly unlikely to make a convincing profit.
It’s a different story for works of art by old masters, which in terms of investment stay relevant at auction consistently. This is down to critical acclaim and also because of the fact that paintings and sculptures made by these luminaries rarely go under the hammer.
As such, when an iconic work does become available to buyers, it is readily understood that it will eventually go for a considerable amount of money, as has recently been demonstrated.
El Greco’s St Dominic in Prayer has sold for more than $13 million (approximately £9.1 million) at Sotheby’s London Evening Sale of Old Masters & British Paintings, which is a record price for the Spanish artist.
“The greatest old master paintings have a timeless quality that transcends their era and gives them a relevance to audiences today, as tonight’s global bidding and record result for El Greco attest,” commented Alex Bell, head of Sotheby’s old master paintings.
“The dialogue between old and new is injecting fresh energy into our field. We’re now firmly in a new era, where clients from new markets are collecting old masters in new ways.”
The painting, which was executed sometime in the seventeenth century, depicts the Spanish priest and founder of the Dominican Order kneeling in prayer in front of a crucifixion that is resting on top of some rocks. The backdrop is loaded with meaning, as heavy, grey and almost foreboding clouds gather.
In that sense, this work is a classic example of El Greco’s expressive style, which demands a greater level of engagement in observers. He always wanted more from his audience.
“El Greco rejected naturalism as a vehicle for his art just as he rejected the idea of an art easily accessible to a large public,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History explains.
“What he embraced was the world of a self-consciously, erudite style, or maniera. The paradox is that, at a time when the blatant display of artifice inherent in mannerism was being criticised as an indulgence, and artists in Rome were striving to rid their paintings of anything that might seem mere display, El Greco took just the opposite route.
“He made elongated, twisting forms, radical foreshortening, and unreal colours the very basis of his art. The difference was that he made these effects deeply expressive and not merely emblems of virtuosity.”
It is no surprise then that bidders battled “tenaciously” to secure this work. In general, it was a resounding success for old master works, with total sales for the evening finishing at just over £35 million. Over 40 per cent of the lots realised prices above their presale estimates, seven of which went for over £1 million, while established records were broken for eight artists.
Cadogan Tate can ship works of art from London to most destinations around the world.