ARTnewsletter Archive

Demand for 20th-Century British Art Heats Up at Winter Auctions

Auctions of 20th-century British art in London have demonstrated remarkable strength during the winter months.

LONDON—Auctions of 20th-century British art in London have demonstrated remarkable strength during the winter months. This category excludes the most valuable works by Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, which are put in sales of Impressionist and modern art, as well as the higher-valued works of British contemporary artists from Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to Damien Hirst, which are sold in the main contemporary sales.

On Nov. 11, Christie’s raised £9.9million ($16million), comfortably within the £7.4million/11.2million estimate, the fourth-highest total for the department and more than double the total for the equivalent sale last November, which raised £4.1million ($8.1 million).

The biggest moneymaker was L.S. Lowry, the idiosyncratic North Country painter of “matchstick men” in blanched industrial landscapes, who claimed seven of the top ten lots—all part of a 21-lot sale of works from the collection of Manchester bookmaker Selwyn Demmy. Lowry’s The Steps, Irk Place, 1928, was the top lot, selling for £713,250 ($1.2million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and the whole collection, estimated at £3.5million/4.5million, sold for £5.1million ($8.2million) with only one work unsold. Among the buyers were the Richard Green Gallery and the McConnall Mason Gallery bidding over the phone, and the Crane Kalman Gallery and Daniel Katz Ltd. bidding in the room.

Record prices were set for three artists. Medallion, 1936, by Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) sold for £181,250 ($290,000) against an estimate of £70,000/100,000; Man, 1951, a small iron and stone sculpture by Geoffrey Clarke—who has only recently been recognized as a significant artist—sold for £27,500 ($44,000) against an estimate of £8,000/12,000; and British Pop artist Peter Blake’s Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady, 1955, sold for £337,250 ($539,600) against an estimate of £100,000/150,000 to Katz.

Other dealers buying in the room were Roger McIlroy of Nevill Keating McIlroy, who bought Elizabeth Frink’s Desert Quartet III, 1982, for £181,250 ($290,000) on a £150,000/250,000 estimate; James Holland Hibbert, who bought Barbara Hepworth’s Three Forms, 1963, for £217,250 ($347,600) on a £200,000/300,000 estimate, and Alan Wheatley, who bought Allen Jones’s Encore, 1977, for £16,250 ($26,000) against an estimate of £15,000/25,000. The Austin Desmond Gallery bought Prunella Clough’s Crane in a Landscape, ca. early 1950s, for £15,000 ($24,000) against an estimate of £10,000/15,000; and the Crane Kalman Gallery bought Alfred Wallis’s Saltash Bridge, ca. 1930, for £27,500 ($44,000) against an estimate of £25,000/35,000.

Sotheby’s followed with its sale of 20th-century British art on Dec. 15, which realized a total of £8.4million ($13.2million) against an estimate of £6.3million/9.5million, one of the highest on record for the company in this category.

The top lot was Stanley Spencer’s Hilda and I at Pond Street, 1954, from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which sold for a record £1.4million ($2.2million) to London dealer Richard Nagy, bidding on behalf of an Australian client against competition from collectors from Canada and the United States (estimate: £400,000/600,000). Dealers told ARTnewsletter that the underbidder was Canadian billionaire David Thomson.

Two small sculptures by Hepworth far exceeded their estimates, both selling to London’s Pyms Gallery. Coré, 1955–56, one of the artist’s first bronzes, sold for £445,250 ($712,400) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000, and Hieroglyph (Two Figures), 1953, a stone carving, sold for £439,250 ($702,800) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000.

Among the higher-selling lots was The Garden, Port Glasgow, 1944, a landscape by Spencer from the Beaverbrook Foundation, which recently settled its case with the Beaverbrook Gallery in Canada (ANL, 9/21/10). It sold to London dealer Ofer Waterman, bidding on behalf of a private collector, for £289,250 ($462,800) against an estimate of £100,000/150,000. Waterman was also acting for a client when he paid a record £97,250 ($155,600) for Study for the Westminster Series, with Pavement Light, Hardboard and Cobbles, 1988, a four-foot-square painted fiberglass relief sculpture of a section of London pavement by the Boyle Family (estimate: £15,000/25,000).

Also among the top lots was St. Ives, Cornwall, 1928, by the short-lived Christopher Wood, a companion of Nicholson during that exploratory period. A prime example of his work, the oil on board sold to Green for £265,250 ($417,265), the third-highest price for a work by the artist, against an estimate of £120,000/180,000.

Sotheby’s produced a separate catalogue for 15 works from “a private London collection,” which dealers identified as the collection of Vitek Tracz, a scientific-information publisher. Bought over the last decade, the works, by Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, David Bomberg and others, were considered overestimated, and only half were sold. The only one to meet its estimates was Lynn Chadwick’s rotating iron sculpture Barley Fork, 1952, which had been bought at Sotheby’s New York in November 2005 for $284,000 (estimate: $40,000/60,000) and now sold to Katz for £241,250 ($379,310) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000.