As they did last year, Christie’s set the pace for the British modern art market this week, and it proved to be as healthy as it has ever been.
Included in the sale of works on paper from the collection of London dealer Thomas Gibson was a rare Henry Moore wartime shelter drawing that sold above estimate for $3.15 million, beating the previous £2.2 million ($3 million) set in London in 2015 for a work on paper by the artist.
Another record for a British modern work on paper tumbled when Head of a Girl (Edie McNeil), by the bohemian society artist Augustus John, sold for a double-estimate $487,500 to a U.S. bidder. Gibson bought the work for £92,000 ($149,000)—two times its estimate—in 1997.
The sale, conducted in New York, led straight into a specialized British modern art sale from London conducted by Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen, who has been leveraging his influence to improve the international profile of this market. In this sale, 33 out of 34 lots were sold for £25.6 million ($29.6 million), against an estimate of $11.8 million–$18.4 million—the second-highest total for a British modern art evening sale in the house’s history. Buyers from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa accounted for the sale of 66 percent of all bought lots, while 16 percent of buyers hailed from the U.S. and 12 percent were from Asia.
“What we saw was a very reassuring message to the art market about the depths of demand for the best quality art,” said Keith Gill, Christie’s co-head of 20th century art evening sales in London, of this week’s sales. Gill noted the British modern art evening sale registered “probably the deepest bidding we’ve seen in a long time on a number of lots.”
The success of the sale came largely from three paintings by Britain’s former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which collectively brought £11.2 million ($16 million)—all going to the same telephone bidder, relaying bids through Christie’s Surrealist supremo Olivier Camu. An underbidder on two of those paintings was from Texas. That buyer paid a triple-estimate, record-breaking £8.3 million ($11.6 million) for a painting of a North African mosque that was being sold by actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie. The painting had reportedly been given to her by her former husband, the actor Brad Pitt. Churchill has been generally considered just a very talented Sunday painter and does not feature in the rankings of excellence.
The standout work in that category was a light bronze maquette for Moore’s classic King and Queen (1952), which sold above estimate for £3 million ($4 million) to a phone bidder using paddle number 832 (more on that later). The price was the highest ever for a Moore maquette just under 17 inches high, sold by the foundation of U.S.-based collectors Mireille and James Levy, who bought it from Pace in 1994.
Also from the Levy Foundation were two works by Moore’s friend and artistic rival, Barbara Hepworth, which exceeded estimates. The upright Square Forms (1963–66) was from an edition of 7 and sold for £922,500 ($1.3 million). Another from this edition sold in 2013 $478,554—an indication that Hepworth’s market is on the upswing. A Hepworth slate carving titled Three Round Forms (1971) doubled estimates to fetch £598,500. The Levys bought it at auction in 1988 for an above-estimate £41,800 ($58,000). Another good call.
The following day, Christie’s lower-value British modern art day sale realized £5.4 million ($7.5 million), against a £3.9 million-£5.9 million ($5.4 million-$8.2 million) estimate. (That estimate accounts for just the 16 percent of lots that went unsold.)
One of the stronger-performing areas in this market has been for the Bloomsbury Group, a crew of 20th-century British intellectuals and artists in Virginia Woolf’s circle. Among those in this sale was Vanessa Bell, whose 1921 floral still life, estimated at £25,000–£35,000 ($35,000–$48,000), attracted strong bidding from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. and others before selling to a phone bidder for a new record of £256,250 ($354,700). The previous record for Bell was for a 1913 portrait that sold in 1997 for £95,000.
London-based dealer Robert Travers, of London’s Piano Nobile gallery, who specializes in Bloomsbury Group artists, was an underbidder on the Bell. “You just can’t get them from this period anymore,” Travers said, “So the competition was predictable.”
Other records were set for Michael Craig-Martin (£325,000, or $450,000), Ian Davenport (£81,250, or $112,000), and for a painting by William Turnbull (£106,250, or $147,000), all of which were bought by the Richard Green Gallery. The overlooked British Pop artist Peter Phillips also hit a new high, at £143,750, or $199,000.
Angelica Villa contributed reporting.