ARTnewsletter Archive

Modern British Art Rallies to Record Levels

Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams all held sales of modern and 20th-century British and Irish art (Nov. 15–17).

LONDON—Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams all held sales of modern and 20th-century British and Irish art (Nov. 15–17). While these sales included works by internationally sought-after artists such as Henry Moore, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, at least, reserved their major works, and those by the likes of renowned contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst or Peter Doig, for their Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales.

The previous record-breaking series of modern British sales held in June (ANL, 6/14,11 and ANL, 7/12/11) meant the bar was already set high, especially given the deterioration in the global economy. But the sales rallied to bring just over £40 million ($63.6 million) against a combined presale estimate of £36 million/52 million. Of the 465 lots offered, an average 29 percent were bought in.

The major contributor to the sales was Northern England-based artist Laurence Stephen Lowry—a local favorite, whose distinctive industrial landscapes have fetched up to £5.6 million ($9.2 million) at auction, making him one of the five most expensive British artists of the 20th century, alongside Francis Bacon, Freud, Hirst and Doig. In all, 28 works by Lowry sold for just over £20 million ($31.8 million), just above the combined high estimate including premium.

Solid Prices at Sotheby’s First Evening Sale

Sotheby’s commenced the series with a short evening sale—a first for modern British art—in which 25 out 37 lots were sold. In the day sale, another 93 out of 123 lots were sold to bring a total of £8.5 million ($13.5 million), which was short of the presale estimate of £9.6 million/14.4 million.

Records fell for artists including Scottish colorist Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, whose still life, Scabia and Marigolds, ca. late 1920s, sold to a UK collector for £439,250 ($689,974) against a £200,000/300,000 estimate, and for Postwar abstract painter Sir Terry Frost, whose large Red, Black and White, Leeds, 1955, sold to a European collector for £313,250 ($497,053), against a £150,000/250,000 estimate. A rare alabaster figure by the short-lived, but influential, artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, entitled Boy, ca. 1913, sold for £238,850 ($375,186) against an estimate of £120,000/180,000.

The figure was part of a large consignment of works from Dartington Hall, an educational establishment in the West of England founded in the 1920s by Leonard Elmhirst and his wife Dorothy, a member of the Whitney family. Artist Mark Tobey taught there, and Ben Nicholson and Dame Barbara Hepworth’s children attended school there. Freud was also a student of the school.

The top-selling Dartington lot was a small but classic still life by Nicholson, 1930/1 (Charbon), which sold to an anonymous phone bidder against London dealer Daniel Katz for £349,250 ($548,602), against an estimate of £250,000/350,000. Also from the Dartington collection was an early still life, Ragged Robin, ca. 1930, by Winifred Nicholson, which was snapped up by dealer Duncan Miller for a very reasonable £61,250 ($96,212), compared with an estimate of £50,000/80,000.

One of the highest prices of the evening was the £481,250 ($755,948) paid by the Henry Moore Foundation, against determined bidding from Katz, for a colored drawing by Henry Moore, Four Figures in a Setting, 1948. The drawing had specific architectural and sculptural references that made it “one of the most important drawings of figures in an architectural setting,” Anita Feldman, head of collections and exhibitions at the foundation, told ARTnewsletter.

Other buyers at the sale included Pyms Gallery, which bought Dame Elisabeth Frink’s bronze Horseman, 1984, for £115,250 ($181,035), compared with an estimate of £70,000/100,000, and dealer Jonathan Green of Richard Green Galleries, who bought a small Patrick Heron abstract painting, Blue Vertical: 1956, for £55,250 ($86,787) compared with an estimate of £50,000/80,000.

However, there were several works in the sale by artists who had made record prices at the Evill Frost sale, at Sotheby’s (ANL, 7/17/11), that did not sell this time. These included works by artists Edward Burra and Stanley Spencer that were not of the same quality and were over-estimated, dealers said. Another star of the Evill Frost sale was “Vorticist” artist William Roberts; a small painting, The Boxing Match, 1919–25, which had last sold at Christie’s in June 2000 for £36,424 ($55,800), now returned to the ring with a much higher estimate of £200,000/300,000. Nonetheless it easily found a buyer, selling for £217,250 ($341,256) to a UK collector.

The top lot of the sale was Lowry’s The Railway Platform, 1953, which sold for £1.2 million ($1.8 million), against a £1 million/1.5 million estimate to a private collector. Another Lowry, The Reservoir, 1952, sold to Katz for £379,250 ($595,726), against an estimate of £150,000/250,000, making it the top lot of Sotheby’s day sale.