These are interesting times for the Modern British market. Recent auctions have seen a greatly increased number of buyers from outside the UK who have been alerted to the perceived under-valuation of modern British artists in comparison to their American and European peers. The relative weakness of Sterling is only going aid this trend. The principal Modern British auctions will take place at Sotheby’s, Christie's and Bonham’s during the week starting 21st November; however a very significant indicator will happen before those sales. The auction of David Bowie’s fascinating collection on the 10th and 11th November will add a considerable sprinkling of A-list glamour to the market. Public viewing opened with a great fanfare on the 1st November and by lunch time on the 2nd I had already walked around the exhibition with 3 different collectors, one of whom had flown in from North Carolina. The venue struggles to handle the sheer volume of works for sale. The lots from the fine art sales mingle with the proliferation of lots from the Part III design sale, and together with the hordes of visitors this creates a rather overwhelming viewing experience. One has to be disciplined enough to imagine each lot individually, which is not always easy.
Bowie’s collection is as eclectic as its creator's musical output, a reflection of his modus operandi whereby he sought to ‘collect ideas’ above any fixed group or theme, although his core interest was clearly mid-century British Art. It is perhaps not strange to see works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Marcel Duchamp in the sale. Although wildly different, both were iconoclastic pioneers. Amid the big name revolutionaries are some rather ‘quieter’ figures. One particular gem that has generated a great deal of trade interest is the beautiful Harold Gilman that should well surpass the auction record for the artist (set at £270,000 in 2002). Gilman’s unassuming interior scene is a masterpiece of structure and colour balance. It’s easily missed in the viewing gallery, but well worth hunting out.
Bowie’s love for Lanyon and Bomberg is well documented and the sale contains a number of examples by both artists. After viewing, I found the selection of Bombergs being offered rather uninspiring, but there was much to admire in the Lanyon paintings on offer, indeed his 1961 painting Witness deservedly adorns the front cover of the evening sale catalogue. The Lanyon market is notoriously difficult to predict. The dearth of top quality market fresh works in recent years has seen some disappointing sale results, but the combination of the immaculate provenance and a work by an artist at the height of his powers should see this painting make a significant sum.
At a lower price point Bowie’s sale contains a majestic Barns-Graham (lot 3) Glacier (bone) at £50-70,000. For many WBG collectors, the glacier works are the Holy Grail within the artist’s oeuvre and they are not easy works to source, so this is something of a rare treat. On close inspection one can see a slight bow to the panel, but this is not something to worry about. Another Barns-Graham from 1949, View of the coast from Zennor, didn’t present so well in the catalogue, but is beautiful in the flesh.
The Part II sale is a rather more prosaic affair generally, yet towards the end of the sale there lurks a very elegant 1964 construction by Victor Pasmore (lot 308) titled Linear Image (the New Vitruvius). With an estimate of £25-35,000 this would represent a good buy because Pasmore’s early works are still surprisingly inexpensive given the artist's importance and renown. There are some very inexpensive works in the sale, not least 3 small oils by Maurice Cockrill (lots 224-226) at just £600-800. Cockrill’s secondary market has been depressed by oversupply and a surfeit of works of lesser quality, but these are wonderful examples from one of the most creative periods of the artist’s career. These works fall within the price bracket of a wide demographic of collectors and I would not be surprised to see them make well over the top estimate, a result of both the quality of the art but also the allure of the provenance.
by Jamie Anderson (email@example.com, +44 20 7734 7800)