Old Masters make Hirst look so last year

What's old is new again in the art market. Not long after being put in the shade by record-breaking prices being achieved by works from contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, Old Masters are back.

Auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's are reporting that Old Masters, with their dark and sombre tones, and traditional subject matter such as still life, portraits and religious themes, are outselling contemporary art. The auctioneers have announced that last month they sold £39m worth of paintings dated from between the 14th and the 19th centuries in their summer sales, compared with £38m for contemporary art. It is the first time since 2004 that Old Masters have outsold modern works.

Experts say that while the recession has dealt a blow to the contemporary market – much of which was fuelled by speculative buying – the market in Old Masters has hardly been dented. Alex Bell, head of Sotheby's Old Masters department, said "When an Old Master comes up for sale, the buyer's prime consideration doesn't seem to be investment, but a love of the object because of what it represents."