LONDON—Sotheby’s and Christie’s held sales of 20th-century British art, one of the faster-growing local sectors of the market in the past five years, on May 20–21. As with the recent auctions of international Impressionist and modern and Postwar and contemporary art, the size of this year’s sales was significantly reduced from that of a year ago, as measured both by lot and by value.
At Sotheby’s sale on May 20, 94 lots were on offer, compared with 220 last summer, and 74, or 79 percent, were sold, the best sell-through rate in two years, said department head James Rawlin. Sale totals fell to £2.2million ($3.4million) from £5.25million ($10.5million) last year, and the average price per lot sold also fell, to £25,000 from £45,000. The total just reached the low estimate of £2million/2.9million.
The top lot was William Scott’s large abstract painting Orange and Pink, 1957, which sold to a private collector for £277,250 ($428,601) on an estimate of £250,000/350,000. Scott’s prices had been among the fastest-rising in recent years, benefitting from competition among dealer Richard Green and such private buyers as the Canadian collector David Thomson, but are now being readjusted, Rawlin said. “A lot of energy for Scott was supplied by the Irish market,” he told ARTnewsletter, “but the Irish economy has been particularly badly hit, so we were pleased with that price.” Another work by Scott, Still Life with 8 Forms, 1970, went unsold, however (estimate: £200,000/300,000).
The strongest results of the sale were for drawings and sculptures by Henry Moore. Nine works were offered, and all sold, including Shelter Scene: Bunks in London Underground, 1942, a drawing made from the artist’s observations of the London subway stations where people took shelter from German bombing raids during World War II. Although not made specifically as preliminary works for sculptures, some of the drawings inspired Moore’s sculptural work. The shelter drawings have fetched as much as £120,000 in the past, but this one, a superb example from the collection of the composer Arthur Bliss and his wife, Lady Bliss, soared over the £40,000/60,000 estimate to fetch £223,250 ($345,122) from a private collector. An 8-inch bronze, Warrior’s Head, 1953, doubled its £20,000/30,000 estimate to sell to another collector for £61,250 ($94,686).
Trade buying was very specific, Rawlin said after the sale. “In some cases estimates were half what they would have been two years ago,” he said, “and private collectors who had been outpriced at that time were back in, feeling they had a chance.”
Lowry Leads Christie’s Sale
Christie’s reduced the number of lots in its sale of 20th-century British art less drastically than did Sotheby’s, offering 94 lots, compared with 182 last June. The sale total declined more sharply than Sotheby’s, however, to £2.8 million ($4.5 million) from £11.6million ($22.6million). As at Sotheby’s, the total just met the estimate of £2.8million/4.2million, and the sell-through rate of 70 percent was exactly the same as last year’s.
The highest price of the sale was for a small-town scene by one of Britain’s best known and most sought-after artists, Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976). A Market Place, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 1935, fetched £541,250 ($854,634), above the £300,000/500,000 estimate. The painting was being sold by the Cambridgeshire Schools’ Art Collection to raise funds for various cultural activities, and had originally been acquired in 1945 for 30 guineas (£33.60). Also among the top lots was a six-inch bronze by Moore, Madonna and Child, 1943, from the estate of Audrey Burton, wife of the retail manufacturer Stanley Burton. One of four works by the artist in the sale, all of which found buyers, the sculpture sold for £205,250 ($324,151) to a U.K. dealer (estimate: £180,000/250,000).
Another artist whose work is holding up in the recession is the lyrical abstractionist Ivon Hitchens. In Sotheby’s auction the night before, all four paintings by the artist had sold—Plantation Drive, 1944, from the Bliss collection, exceeded the £40,000/60,000 estimate to fetch £82,250 ($132,000) from a U.K. dealer. Christie’s sold all three of its offerings by Hitchens, with another horizontal abstracted landscape, Warnford Water, from the Burton estate, selling for £68,450 ($108,083), clearing the £30,000/50,000 estimate.
Last year the Christie’s sale set records for six artists, including Scott—£1.1million ($2.1 million)—and Patrick Heron—£668,500 ($1.3million). This year, no record prices were reported, and several lots, notably works by Lowry and Heron, were bought in. Among the highest-estimated failed lots was Lowry’s small painting Street with Tower, 1956, which last sold in November 2006 for £187,200 ($353,207) against an estimate of £150,000/250,000 at Christie’s in London. Heron’s Small Diagonal with Scarlet, Emerald and Orange Fragments, 1971–January 1975, which had been estimated at £80,000/120,000 ($160,000/238,000), also failed to sell. It is a measure of how far expectations for some Postwar British art have fallen that the same work was offered by Sotheby’s in December 2007, when the market was at its peak, with an estimate of £140,000/180,000—though it did not sell then, either.