LONDON—Modern British art easily outperformed the new sales mix of Victorian, early 20th-century, sporting, marine, Irish, and Scottish art, at Sotheby’s in London on May 10–11. The latter, a combination of several, previously stand-alone sale categories that have been experiencing dwindling results wrapped into one catalogue, felt like a random mixture, observers said.
Although some individual works by Sir William Orpen, John Atkinson Grimshaw and Alfred Munnings sold well, nearly half of the lots in the auction were unsold, and the total £4.6 million ($7.4 million) was far below the £7 million/10 million estimate. The Modern British sale, in contrast, hit its estimated target, reaching £7.7 million ($12.4 million), with the help of several record prices.
The most remarkable of these included John Craxton’s 2-meter-long painting of a sleeping Greek fisherman. Made in 1948, at a time when the artist was a close friend of Lucian Freud, the piece sold to London’s Pyms Gallery for £277,250 ($447,530), nearly £100,000 more than the artist’s previous record, against a £100,000/150,000 estimate. And Vorticist artist William Roberts’s ca. 1929 painting of chess players—a piece that captures the tension of the game, turning it into a spectator sport—doubled the artist’s previous record, set last year at the Evill/Frost sale, to sell for £1.2 million ($1.9 million), against a £300,000/500,000 estimate, to London dealer Daniel Katz.
Another work to excel was a primitive painting of St Ives Bay by the fisherman turned self-taught artist Alfred Wallis; it sold for a record £145,250 ($234,460) against a £20,000/30,000 estimate. The painting was inscribed on the reverse by the artist Ben Nicholson, who discovered Wallis in the 1920s and was subsequently influenced by him. Because there have been so many fake Wallis paintings and drawings, an inscription such as this gives the piece a watertight provenance and thus, adds significant value to the work.
Included in the sale were several large sculptures that were being sold by the charitable Jerwood Foundation, which had withdrawn the works from a sculpture garden in Ragley Hall, an English stately home, which closed to the public.
While some works had been bought on the secondary market, several were commissions from artists and were site specific. The top price was £385,250 ($621,860) for Elisabeth Frink’s seven-foot-tall bronze, Walking Man, 1986, which was also bought by the Pyms Gallery against a £150,000/250,000 estimate.
Meanwhile, unsold lots included Antony Gormley’s spindly bronze figure, Insider VIII, 1998 (estimate: £150,000/250,000), and a bulkier Standing Figure (estimate: £60,000/80,000) by Kenneth Armitage, who was past his best when he executed the piece in 1961.