After the Masters: Understanding and Collecting Old Master Copies

Lot 23: Frans Wouters, After Sir Peter Paul Rubens, "The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant," oil on oak panel. Sotheby's (October 30)

Copies of famous 16th, 17th and 18th century works are part of the history of influence and inspiration in the arts. In recent years, copies have often been looked down upon when compared to original works; however, copying was an integral and respected part of artistic training for many centuries.

When the Louvre opened in 1793, it set aside time for artists to copy from its collection – a tradition still honored today in Paris and across the world at institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. French artist Paul Cézanne once said, “the Louvre is the book from which we all learn to read.” Through copying, students learned a skilled artist’s methods before they began developing their own styles and processes. It was a practice used by many celebrated artists including John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso.

Every year the Old Master auction market brings hundreds of works to the market; however, the majority of auction houses focus on the higher end of the category. As such, the selection of paintings with estimates below £10,000 is more limited, hence the increasing popularity of Old Master copies at auction. Buying copies can be an affordable option for budding collectors and a great way for seasoned collectors to expand their collections.

This fall, Sotheby’s is presenting excellent examples after some of the most popular images in Western art history in Old Master Copies Online: Imitation & Influence. The lots in this sale have estimates ranging between £500 and £20,000, making them approachable for every type of collector.

Below, our editors select five such copies that represent the importance and beauty of this essential, yet often overlooked, subset of artistic practice.


In order to understand the cultural significance of the artist copy and its place in art history, it is essential to know five key terms that are commonly used to describe these works:  

  • Autograph: sometimes signed by the artist, a known original usually described as “by” the artist.
  • Studio of: created in the studio or workshop of the artist, possibly with his or her supervision or participation; can also be described as “workshop of” the artist.
  • Circle of: a work created by someone associated with the artist, during or in the years immediately following the artist’s own lifetime; can also be described as “follower of” the artist.
  • After: an exact or partial imitation of a known work by a famous artist, done during or after their lifetime; a copy of another work.
  • Style of: an interpretation of the artist’s style done by someone else at a later date, usually described as “in the style of” or “in the manner of” the artist.

Note: a copy is different from a forgery, which is a non-autograph work attempting to be passed off as original and by the hand of the artist.

After Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, “The Lady with a Fan”

Lot 29: After Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, “The Lady with a Fan,” oil on canvas. Sotheby’s (October 30)

As the court painter for King Philip IV of Spain, Diego Velázquez created iconic portraits of the Spanish Royal Family and associated nobles that are cemented into the country’s cultural psyche. The present work is a later copy after “The Lady with a Fan,” circa 1635-38, one of the artist’s most famous portraits. While the nationality of the sitter was long assumed to be Spanish, recent studies have suggested that she may be Frenchwoman Marie de Royan, the Duchess of Cheuvreuse (1600-1679), who lived for a time in exile in Madrid under the protection of the Spanish king.

Circle of Rembrandt van Rijn, “Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother”

Lot 27: Circle of Rembrandt Harmensz, van Rijn, “Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother,” oil on oak panel. Sotheby’s (October 30)

Known for his mastery of light and expression, Rembrandt was often copied by both his contemporaries and later artists. This copy by one of his followers is based on a lost portrait of the artist’s mother. The original was likely completed around 1631, but many versions after the work exist due to the popularity and influence of the subject matter.

After Titian, “Venus of Urbino”

Lot 11: After Titian, “Venus of Urbino,” oil on canvas, 19th century. Sotheby’s (October 30)

Nestled in Sotheby’s Old Masters Online: Venice sale is this astounding 19th century version of Titian’s masterpiece “Venus of Urbino.” Perhaps one of the most referenced paintings in western art history, “Venus of Urbino” inspired artists like Edouard Manet and author Mark Twain, as well as serving as an educational tool for artists and art historians alike for centuries. While very true to the primary subject, who represents the Duke of Urbino’s wife, this version does not contain the two background figures present in the original.

Follower of Il Domenichino, “The Rapture of Saint Paul”

Lot 18: Follower of Domenico Zampieri, called Il Domenichino, “The Rapture of Saint Paul,” oil on copper. Sotheby’s (October 30)

This 19th century copy after Domenichino’s original, which is in the collection at the Louvre, is the same size as the autograph version and was painted on the same unusual material: copper. Domenichino was trained in his home city of Bologna before working in Rome and Naples later in life. He was known for his classical figures, which were inspired by the work of Annibale Carracci and Raphael.

Follower of Hans Holbein the Younger, “Portrait of King Henry VIII”

Lot 9: Follower of Hans Holbein the Younger, “Portrait of King Henry VIII,” oil on canvas, 1545. Sotheby’s (October 30)

Hans Holbein the Younger was a Northern Renaissance painter known to be one of the best portraitists of the 16th century. The artist painted the original version of this portrait of King Henry VIII as part of a mural of the king with Queen Jane Seymour and his parents. The original was lost in a fire that destroyed the building in which it was housed, Whitehall Palace in London, in 1698.

Looking for more? Explore the catalogs for Old Master Copies Online: Imitation & Influence and Old Masters Online: Venice from Sotheby’s.