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Private British Watercolor Collection Brings Stellar Prices

In the sale of a collection assembled by fertility doctor Ian Craft of British drawings and watercolors at Sotheby’s on July 14, a number of new record prices were set.

LONDON—In the sale of a collection assembled by fertility doctor Ian Craft of British drawings and watercolors at Sotheby’s on July 14, a number of new record prices were set. The sale, which included 75 miniatures, drawings and watercolors, fetched a total of £5.1million ($7.7million), nearly double the low estimate of £2.9million, and just as easily exceeded the £1.9 million ($2.9 million) entire total for British watercolors at Sotheby’s in London in 2009.

Five years ago, all the main London salerooms held regular sales of British watercolors. Now, because so many of these sales are low-value, there are none. Select works by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable may be included in Old Master sales, but Sotheby’s now combines them with Old Master drawings and Christie’s with Old Masters and 19th-century paintings.

The July 14 sale, “An Exceptional Eye: A Private British Collection,” proved, as Sotheby’s watercolor expert Emmeline Hallmark said, “there is nothing wrong with the market; the demand is still there.”

The string of records was prefaced with a dramatically lit 1766 drawing of a boy reading by Joseph Wright of Derby which sold to London dealer Novella Baroni for £313,250 ($476,000), near the high end of the £200,000/300,000 estimate and the second-highest price for a work on paper by the artist. Five lots later, a key player made his entrance when, bidding through an agent in the room, Canadian billionaire collector David Thomson—son of the late renowned collector Kenneth Thomson—homed in on a rare drawing by the influential landscape painter Richard Wilson. The estimate for the 1754 drawing of the Villa Borghese in Rome was high, at £100,000/200,000, but Thomson rose to the challenge, buying the work for a record £109,250 ($166,000).

Then came the fireworks. The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo, a large panorama of a menacing sky over the darkening hills surrounding Lake Albano outside Rome by John Robert Cozens (1752–97), epitomizes the originality of the artist’s expressive, atmospheric tone, and has long been considered one of Cozens’ masterworks. Craft bought it for a record £198,500 ($336,600) at Sotheby’s London in 1991. It was estimated to fetch £500,000/700,000 in this sale, and several bidders brought the price up to £1million, after which a battle was joined between London dealer Guy Peppiatt, a former Sotheby’s expert, and Thomson, who finally prevailed, buying it for £2.4million ($3.7million), a record not just for the artist, but for any 18th-century British watercolor.

Turner watercolors have sold for more—four at auction, to be precise—but they are from the 19th century. Still, the price put the much rarer works of Cozens on par with those of the younger Turner, who had been inspired by copying Cozens in his formative years.

After this, records fell like dominoes. The Grotto of Egeria, Near Rome, 1777, a display of light and shade by Thomas Jones, sold to Thomson for £229,250 ($348,460) and Lake of Albano, Morning Sun Rising Over Rocca del Papa, 1781, by another Grand Tour artist, Francis Towne, with broad, contrasting washes of color, also sold to Thomson, for £289,250 ($439,660)—both more than doubled their estimates of £80,000/120,000.

Turner’s friend and rival Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) was represented with Durham Cathedral and Castle, a view of the edifices towering majestically over the cascading waters of the River Wear, selected by Tate Britain for its Girtin show in 2002. The work sold for £265,200 ($403,104) on a £200,000/300,000 estimate, the second-highest price for the artist, to Peppiatt, who was bidding on behalf of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Asked if the Getty was therefore the underbidder on the Cozens as well, Peppiatt declined to answer.

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