LONDON—On Nov. 3–4, Sotheby’s held a three-part sale of 329 works of modern and contemporary British art from the collection of Robert Devereux, a former partner in Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. Estimated to fetch £2.4 million/3.5 million, the sale surpassed expectations, bringing in a total of £4.7 million ($7.6 million).
Dealer interest in the sale was particularly high because estimates had been set low, sometimes at one-third of the lots’ original cost, according to dealer James Hyman, from whom Devereux had bought a good number of works.
The highest price of the sale was paid for Sean Scully’s medium-size Wall of Light Orange Green, 2005, which sold to a U.K. collector for £565,250 ($906,831) against a £250,000/350,000 estimate. Although larger paintings by Scully have sold for more, this was the highest price on record for a comparably sized canvas by the artist. Close behind was Alice Neel’s portrait Susan Rossen, 1976, one of the few American works in the collection, which sold to another U.K. collector for £457,250 ($733,566) against an estimate of £100,000/150,000—the third-highest price for a work by Neel at auction.
Other top sellers were Patrick Heron’s abstract Big Grey–with Disc: June–Sept 1959, which sold to London dealer Richard Green for £349,250 ($560,302) against a £120,000/180,000 estimate; Alan Davie’s Creation of Eve, 1957, which sold to dealer Alan Wheatly for £111,650 ($179,120) on an estimate of £40,000/60,000 (the second-highest price for a work by Davie at auction); and Peter Lanyon’s Calvary, 1958, which sold to dealer Daniel Katz for £106,850 ($171,419) on an estimate of £80,000/120,000.
Record prices were achieved for several abstract works from the 1950s and ’60s. The Indias 1956, an oil on canvas by Bryan Wynter, sold for £115,250 ($184,896) against an estimate of £60,000/80,000. October 1955, an oil by Roger Hilton, sold to a U.K. collector for £103,250 ($165,644) on an estimate of £40,000/60,000, against competition from several London dealers, including Austin Desmond and Timothy Prus. Sandra Blow’s Sacking and Plaster, 1956, sold for £51,650 ($82,640) against an estimate of £20,000/30,000, and Mary Martin’s Constructivist work Perspex Group on Blue (E), 1969, sold to a phone buyer, against bidding from London dealer Jonathan Clark and Osborne Samuel Gallery, London, for £46,850 ($74,960) against an estimate of £20,000/30,000. Penny Johnson, director of the U.K.’s Government Art Collection, bought Lisa Milroy’s Lights, 1987, for £6,250 ($10,000) against an estimate of £8,000/12,000.
There were a great many dealers among the buyers at the opening evening sale on Nov. 3, including Leslie Waddington, owner of Waddington Galleries, London, who bought Craigie Aitchison’s Portrait of Naaotwa with Colored Headdress, 2006, for £25,000 ($40,000) on an estimate of £10,000/15,000. Austin Desmond bought Tony Bevan’s portrait Black Table, 1987, for £39,650 ($63,440) against an estimate of £15,000/20,000. Prus bought Gwyther Irwin’s torn-paper collage . . . Mainly on the Plains, 1959, for £21,250 ($34,000) against an estimate of £10,000/15,000. Dealer Jonathan Clark bought Robert Adams’s Standing Figure, 1948, for £11,250 ($18,000) on an estimate of £8,000/12,000 and Kenneth Martin’s Chance and Order 22 (Black), 1977–78, for £32,450 ($51,920) on an estimate of £25,000/35,000 against competition from Katz. Peter Osborne, a partner in Osborne Samuel Gallery, bought Alan Reynolds’s Forms on an Ovoid Ground, 1962, for £21,250 ($34,000) against an estimate of £20,000/30,000. Desmond Page bought Lucian Freud’s etching Girl Holding Her Foot, 1985, for £33,650 ($53,840) against an estimate of £15,000/25,000.
Where works had been bought at auction it was possible to relate estimates and prices to original costs. The lots that made the best gains by this measure were a 1983 self-portrait drawing by Elizabeth Frink, which had been bought at Christie’s in 2005 for £2,600 ($5,000) and sold here for £18,750 ($30,000) on an estimate of £1,000/1,500, and a second Tony Bevan portrait, White Room, 1989, bought at Christie’s in 2006 for £19,200 ($36,840) and sold now for £46,880 ($75,000) on an estimate of £20,000/30,000.
The worst performances came in the third and final section of the sale, where everything was offered without reserve. One standout among these was James Rielly’s Undies, 1995, which had been bought at Bonhams in 2005 for £6,000 ($10,977) and sold now for just £175 ($280).
Devereux is married to Branson’s sister, Vanessa Devereux, who ran a gallery in London’s Notting Hill in the ’80s, and has been collecting since then.
Proceeds of the sale are to go to The Africa Trust, which supports the arts in Africa. Devereux says he will continue to collect the work of young artists.