LONDON—Billed as “the greatest collection of 20th-century British art ever to come to the market,” a group of 117 paintings and sculptures that comprised the Evill/Frost Sale sold for over £41 million ($67.6 million) at Sotheby’s on June 15-16. The total more than doubled the previous record for a 20th-century British art sale held at Christie’s two weeks earlier (ANL, 6/14/11), setting more than a dozen individual artists’ records. Nothing was left unsold as collectors from as far afield as Australia and Canada, but mostly Britain-based, competed for the works which had rarely, if ever, been seen in public since a memorial exhibition in Brighton following Wilfred Evill’s death in 1963.
Evill was a lawyer who represented the eccentric genius Stanley Spencer and the young Lucian Freud, and assembled a remarkable collection of mostly figurative contemporary British art. His collection of Spencers, one of the most valued British artists of the 20th Century, was unrivaled. After his death, the collection was left to his ward, Honor Frost. Frost died last year, and the executors of her estate, among whom was retired dealerJames Kirkman, put the collection up for tender. Sotheby’s, which had achieved the highest prices for Spencer in the past, won the consignment with a total estimate of £11.6 million/18.4 million.
The Spencers formed the backbone of the sale as eighteen of his paintings and drawings sold for over £24 million ($39 million), six of them exceeding the previous £2 million record for Spencer. The first to be offered, Workmen in the House, 1935, more than doubled estimates selling for a record £4.7 million ($7.7 million), compared with an estimate of £1.5 million/2.5 million. The buyer, relaying bids through another dealer in the room, was thought to be London’s Pyms Gallery which counts the major British collector Graham Kirkham amongst its top clients. A few lots later, Spencer’s wacky Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, sold for £5.4 million ($8.8 million) on an estimate of £1 million/1.5 million. Dealers at the sale surmised that buyers of this and other top lots by Spencer were the Canadian media baron David Thomson and his sister Taylor Thomson, bidding separately, with London dealer Richard Nagy underbidding on two of the top four lots by Spencer.
Other Spencer buyers were London dealer Daniel Katz, who bought Hilda with Bluebells, 1955, for £361,250 ($588,675) compared with an estimate of £250,000/350,000, and Portrait of Hilda, 1949, for £229,250 ($373,574) compared with an estimate of £150,000/250,000 and the Pyms Gallery, which bought Ming Tombs, Peking, 1954, for £193,250 ($314,911), compared with an estimate of £80,000/120,0000.
Of course, the sale was not just about Spencer. Evill had several paintings by William Roberts from the 1920s and 30s and three surpassed his previous record, quadrupling estimated prices. The highest was £457,250 ($745,112), on an estimate of £120,000/180,000, for Masks, ca. 1932, a group of rotund cockney revellers at play.
Also revalued by the auction was the work of Edward Burra, whose previous record stood at £490,000 set in 2007 for a Spanish Civil War painting. First, The Common Stair, 1929, a rare oil (Burra painted mostly in watercolour), sold to London dealer Offer Waterman bidding for a client for £881,250 ($1.4 million) compared with an estimate of £150,000/250,000.
Evill owned nothing by Francis Bacon but did have several Graham Sutherlands who was arguably better known at the time. Sutherland’s powerful The Crucifixion, 1947, sold for a record £713,250 ($1.2 million) on an estimate of£150,000/250,000. He also had two early Lucian Freud drawings, which are rare, and both fetched auction records. First, Boy on a Sofa, 1944, sold to the same buyer as the Sutherland Crucifixion for £1.5 million ($2.4 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and then Beach Scene with a Boat, 1945, an intense, luminous chalk drawing, soared to £2.6 million ($4.3 million), against an estimate of £400,000/600,000, to sell to Old Master dealer Novella Baroni, bidding for a client against Nagy.