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Modern British Art at Auction

Friday, December 13, 2019

The principle three auction houses in London all held their major sales in Modern British Art last week. Although the auctions only represent one aspect of this thriving market it is still useful to analyse their results to take stock of general trends and collecting habits. The major sales are rather risk-adverse affairs where the principal houses tend to try and source works by known quantities, hence the seemingly endless supply of works by Ivon Hitchens, L S Lowry and Henry Moore. However, that is not to say that sourcing these works is especially easy, and the auction houses have privately commented the difficulties in consigning works for sale. The reasons for this difficulty are reasonably obvious. The weakness of Sterling has deterred some international vendors from consigning and the political instability in the UK has certainly affected decision making. Each auction house has appeared to handle this slightly differently.

Sotheby’s were the only house to offer the traditional evening / day sale split. I thought their selection was the strongest for some time although the sale came together reasonably late in the day. In order to tempt consignments, some of the estimates appeared decidedly punchy, particularly in the evening sale. Bonham’s evidently had a harder time and their day only sale consisted of just 69 lots, although they maintained their enviable reputation for sourcing reasonably estimated works by Lowry. Christie’s broke the mold. They dispensed entirely with a November evening sale, moving that and the attendant day sale to a new slot in January to allow more time for consignments. Instead they promoted their traditional November online sale to an interim day sale event and mounted a major single owner sale of the collection of Dr Jeffrey Sherwin. This approach seems to have been the most successful - although it remains to be seen what will be included in the January offerings.

So what fared well? A lack of genuinely big ticket items – restricted to a small handful of lots at Sotheby’s, means there are few highlights to pick up on. A stunning Robert Bevan sold to the trade for a figure in excess of £530,000 (against estimates of £200-300,000) and two works by Leon Kossoff, including a large 1962 oil portrait and an instantly recognisable charcoal of Willesdon Junction did extremely well. Kossoff’s stock has been rising over the last couple of years after a period in the doldrums, eclipsed perhaps by the huge interest in his great friend Frank Auerbach. However, high profile commercial exhibitions of his work coupled with his passing has led to renewed interest in his work. This is fitting for one of Britain’s great figurative artists, although the price of approaching £340,000 (inc. buyers premium) for the charcoal took many by surprise.

In the day sales we witnessed a surge in interest in the work of John Nash – so long in the shadows of his more illustrious brother Paul. This was helped in no small part by the publication of a major new monograph on the artist by Andrew Lambirth and published by Unicorn Press. Christie’s took full advantage, wisely hosting a book launch and mounting a small loan exhibition alongside future offerings from their January sales. The results for John Nash’s works at Bonham’s and at Christies should reassure them about the potential success of lots in January, but it shows how a little extra thought and promotion can go a long way in creating successful sales. Elsewhere, strong results for paintings by Tristram Hillier and Eliot Hodgkin caught the eye – indications that the more traditional end of the market is well suited to weathering the fluctuations in the market.

On the minus side, Sotheby’s had a very public failure with regards to a series of works in their evening sale by Henry Moore where 4 sculptures and a major drawing failed to sell. Again, overly aggressive estimates were largely to blame but it was a shock to see such little interest in the works.
The Hitchens market is also worth investing. All the houses had works by the artist but Hitchens is a uneven performer at auction. Perfectly good but unexceptional works are now selling (or failing to sell) for relatively low sums while the best works – notably Sotheby’s stunning example ‘Orange Lilies and White Daisies’ – continue to make high sums (£275,000 including premium against estimates of £80-120,000). These fluctuations have less to do with the estimates employed and more to do with market saturation. Although demand for the artist work is remarkably consistent, so is the supply, and many collectors prefer to bide their time for the best examples. The recent retrospective exhibition at Pallant House was again a factor in boosting interest in the best works (and perhaps highlighting the deficiencies in the lesser examples).

The afore-mentioned single owner sale of works from the collection of Dr Jeffrey Sherwin was hugely successful. The estimates were reasonable, low in some cases, the provenance was significant and the sale had a genuinely curated feel. Sherwin was a GP and arts philanthropist who did much to further the promotion of the visual arts in his native Yorkshire. Clearly the possessor of a fine eye, bidders were all to ready to buy into his aesthetic. The 90 lots – some with estimates in the hundreds of Pounds, took almost £1,000,000. Its easy to pick highlights, but when I viewed the sale with a collector we both noticed Lot 17, a small sculpture by John Hoskin estimated at £800-£1,200 which went on to make £2,250. Insignificant in the scheme of things, but evidence that occasionally you can acquire really interesting work by lesser known artists at the major auctions, although this area will always be better serviced by dedicated dealers.

So what conclusions might we draw from the sales. Firstly, works sell well when estimated wisely. There is still a strong market for the best market fresh works. The low value of Sterling may deter some consignors but it is helping to globalise the market. And finally, a little extra effort in terms of presentation and subsidiary events goes a long way in terms on engendering buyer confidence.

Jamie Anderson
jamie@fineartbrokers.com