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Art World Competition Sends William Scott Prices Sky-High

A powerful dealer and a wealthy collector have been doing battle at Sotheby’s, raising prices for simple abstract works on paper by modern British artist William Scott to unprecedented levels. London dealer Richard Green and Canadian publishing magnate David Thomson locked horns several times during two sales of 31 works by Scott, from the collection of

LONDON—A powerful dealer and a wealthy collector have been doing battle at Sotheby’s, raising prices for simple abstract works on paper by modern British artist William Scott to unprecedented levels.

London dealer Richard Green and Canadian publishing magnate David Thomson locked horns several times during two sales of 31 works by Scott, from the collection of Jean-Yves Mock, which ended on March 10. Mock had obtained them while working at the Hanover Gallery, London, where Scott exhibited between 1953-71.

At the Sotheby’s sale of 20th-century British art on March 10, Green bought the top lot, Scott’s Four Forms, Blue on White, 1971, for £106,800, or $206,007 (estimate: £25,000/35,000). Bidding against London dealer David Mason of MacConnal Mason, Green also won the artist’s Two Whites, 1963, for £70,800, or $136,566 (estimate: £20,000/30,000).

At Sotheby’s Olympia on Feb. 7, Green beat off competition from Thomson and several other bidders to pay a record £45,600 ($84,800) for a small black-and-white chalk drawing. Sotheby’s estimate had been just £3,000/4,000.

Thomson triumphed over Green on March 10 to buy a slightly larger gouache of black-and-white lines against an orange background, estimated at £6,000/8,000, for a record £51,600 ($99,580). In all, the 31 works, estimated to fetch £240,000, realized more than £1 million, the majority of lots going to Green.

Scott, who died from Alzheimer’s disease in 1989, is one of the hottest artists in the flourishing market for 20th-century British art. Average prices for his pieces have quadrupled in the past four years, according to the Art Sales Index. But the artist’s work is not neatly categorized. Scholars have divided it into at least 10 distinctive phases in which he moves back and forth between figuration and abstraction from the late 1930s on.

Until recently his most popular works were the early figurative paintings such as Bowl and Frying Basket, 1950, once owned by writer Raymond Mortimer, which was sold to Green for a record £190,000 ($323,000) at Christie’s in November 2003.

But since then Sotheby’s has sold a late-1950s abstract painting for £201,000 ($361,800) to a private collector (last November) and, with the Mock sale, has brought Scott’s abstract drawings into line. He was the first British artist of note to travel to America in the 1950s to meet and absorb the ideas of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He also exhibited his works in the U.S., and they were bought by several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Green, who is better known as a dealer in Old Master and Impressionist paintings, moved into more modern British art only a few years ago, transforming the market with his massive spending power. “William Scott is a great painter, a one-off,” Green said last week. “I have bought a number of his paintings and sold them all. I think the prices at Sotheby’s were quite reasonable.”

A key background player has been Scott’s older son, Robert, who, with his brother, James, has been documenting and archiving his father’s work since the early 1980s. To date, 1,900 works have been listed. The Scott brothers manage their father’s estate—organizing exhibitions, weeding out forgeries and tracing lost or stolen works. Last year 15 purported Scotts were denounced as fakes.

The brothers financed a massive study of their father’s work; it was published by Thames & Hudson and has already sold out. All the profits from their consultation fees, publications and reproduction royalties go to the Alzheimer’s Society for stem cell research.

Last week dealers paid tribute to the confidence and added knowledge that the Scott brothers have brought to their father’s market, but Robert, who was at the sale, expressed misgivings. “I regret that [the artist] never received such recognition during his lifetime,” he said.

Auction sales of Scott’s work have risen from £200,000 in 1999 to more than £1 million last year. This year the figure looks set to double.

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