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Sales of 20th-Century British Art Surge Past 2010 Levels

London’s 20th-century British art sales, which, like New York’s American art sales, include major works by internationally established modern and contemporary artists—such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst—took a big step forward at the most recent auctions when Christie’s set a record £17.9 million ($29 million) for a sale in that category on

LONDON—London’s 20th-century British art sales, which, like New York’s American art sales, include major works by internationally established modern and contemporary artists—such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst—took a big step forward at the most recent auctions when Christie’s set a record £17.9 million ($29 million) for a sale in that category on May 26. The previous record was £14.6 million ($29 million) in June 2007, and the latest total almost equaled the department’s entire sales last year of £19.1 million ($29.6 million).

The largest component of the sale was a group of thirteen works by L.S. Lowry, which all sold. Lowry accounted for over 45 percent of the sale’s proceeds. One of the buyers was London dealer Richard Green, who added to his stock of Lowrys with Coronation Street, 1947, a depiction of the street in Salford, in the north of England, that inspired—and lent its name to—Britain’s longest-running TV soap opera. Green paid £445,200 ($735,230), compared with an estimate of £300,000/500,000.

Green also underbid Lowry’s Old Houses, 1948, which had been bought by U.S. collector Max Palevsky at Sotheby’s in November 2009 for £881,1250 ($1.5 million), and, following his death, was offered at Christie’s with a £400,000/500,000 estimate, selling to a U.K. collector for £758,050 ($1.2 million). The sale’s top lot was Lowry’s The Football Match, 1949, a panoramic industrial landscape in which the crowds are gathered to watch a game of soccer. It was last sold at auction in 1992 for £132,000 ($244,260).

Lowry paintings have proved one of the most consistent performers at auction, and in the last decade have increased in value by an average of 13 percent a year, according to analysts Art Market Research. Estimated to set a record at £3.5 million/4.5 million, three bidders ran the price up until it sold to an anonymous European private buyer for £5.6 million ($9.2 million). The price, significantly, was greater than any Moore sculpture or Hirst painting at auction.

The other major sale was Stanley Spencer’s The Crucifixion, an imaginative tour de force that places Christ’s death in the fields of 20th-century Berkshire. Last sold in the recession-hit market of 1995 for £463,500 ($720,500), it attracted some stern competition before selling to dealer Daniel Katz for £2 million ($3.4 million) against an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million. Katz also bought Barbara Hepworth’s mahogany carving Bimorphic Theme, 1948–49, for £325,250 ($529,832), on an estimate of £120,000/180,000.

Seen under the microscope, though, the quality of the sale was mixed: aggressive estimates were met with resistance; 55, or 31 percent, of the 175 lots offered were unsold; and Christie’s hammer total of £15.2 million ($24.8 million) was at the lower end of its estimate of £14.6 million/21.2 million.

The sale included a large number of Scottish works, following the house’s abandonment of specialized Scottish sales. But too many, particularly by the colorist painter Samuel John Peploe, had either been on the market too recently or were simply not good enough to warrant estimates of between £100,000/500,000. The best Peploe, however, painted in 1905, while the artist was still under the influence of Edouard Manet and before he became obsessed with bright color, was The Coffee Pot, which sold for a record £937,250 ($1.5 million), against an estimate of £800,000/1 million to art adviser Susannah Pollen. The price was also a record for Scottish art, replacing Jack Vettriano’s Singing Butler, which sold for £745,000 ($1.4 million) in 2004.

Sotheby’s £4.6 million ($7.4 million) sale, (£3.8 million or $6.1 million without premium) on May 25 also settled near the lower end of its £3.8 million/5.8 million estimate, and was helped by the inclusion of contemporary works donated by artists to benefit the Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, fund-raising appeal. Chief among these was Antony Gormley’s life-size iron figure, Stock, 2010, which sold to London’s Pyms Gallery for £349,250 ($563,480), on an estimate of £150,000/250,000. A large, color-saturated painting by the Welsh artist Ceri Richards—whom some observers have described as underrated— Interior with Piano, Woman and Child Painting, 1949, was influenced by Henri Matisse and soared to a record £265,250 ($427,954), on an estimate of £100,000/150,000, selling to Green.

A small abstract painting, Two Figures (Summer), 1955, by Barbara Hepworth, also left estimates in the dust as it sold to Katz for £151,250 ($244,027) compared with an estimate of £30,000/50,000, the third-highest price ever for a Hepworth painting, while another abstract, Painting, 1937, by John Piper, sold for £265,250 ($427,954) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000, the second-highest price for Piper at auction, to U.K. corporate financier Tim Bunting.

Bunting also bought Piper’s more figurative Royal Adelaide: A Simonds House, Windsor, 1940, for £73,250 ($117,932), against an estimate of £60,000/80,000. The Pipers were part of a 20-lot sell-off of works by the artist, described by Sotheby’s as “Property of a Gentleman,” but known to the trade as “the Cohen collection.” Mr. Cohen (whose first name has not been made public) had bought most of the works at auction over a ten-year period. The eleven works sold had cost £167,000 and gave him a return—based on hammer price—of £436,800 ($708,000) less the undisclosed seller’s commission charge.

So far, in the year from September 2010 to August 2011, the main specialized sales of 20th-century British art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams are on their way to doubling the equivalent total in the previous year—£28.5 million. At this point, they have generated £44.6 million—and there is still one major sale to come next week: On June 16–17, Sotheby’s will offer the £18 million–plus Evill/Frost collection, which contains six major Stanley Spencer paintings, each estimated to fetch better than £1 million.

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