Paintings and sculptures of what may be the most iconic scene in the history of art—the crucifixion of Jesus—are no longer commanding the auction prices they once did.

While it's common for individual works to occasionally sell for less than they are worth, consider:

  • In January, a late 14th-century Florentine painting of Jesus on the cross estimated between $80,000 and $120,000 sold at Sotheby's for $86,500.
  • An Italian Crucifixion from the same period, estimated between $100,000 and $150,000, sold for $110,500 at the same auction.
  • The previous December, Sotheby's London sold a mid-16th century Netherlandish Crucifixion sculpture estimated at $31,500 to $47,000 for about $27,500.

Even images of Crucifixions by established masters can be purchased on the cheap, said Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and baroque art at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Spicer hasn't purchased Crucifixions for the museum in some time.

In part, she said, Christian art has become the victim of its own success.

"If I want more Crucifixion bronzes, there are some in storage that are quite nice," she said.

But there are other cultural factors that may be contributing to the declining sales prices. One of them may be changing worship styles that rely more on words and music and less on visual images. A bigger one may be an unwillingness to openly and publicly display one's religious commitments.

"The de-emphasis on art as part of the devotional experience within the Catholic Church surely has had some impact on this," said Spicer.

Catholics are also less likely to display religious art in their homes, said Eike Schmidt, curator of decorative arts and sculpture ...

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