The art market can seem as if it is an enormous museum that is easy to get lost in: En route to the blockbuster show, you can find yourself in a strange room full of artists and paintings you don’t know. But those unfamiliar pictures can bear some unexpectedly high prices on the market. Sotheby’s sale of Scottish and sporting paintings on Wednesday at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland offers just that sort of opportunity for discovery.
As befits a sale of sporting paintings, there are pictures of pheasant, grouse, and other fowl waiting to be shot. The term “sporting” doesn’t go much beyond that — maybe to the occasional horse picture — though one can guess how valuable the market for golfing art would be in this setting.
But the focal point of this sale is Scotland’s world-class school of painters known as the Scottish Colorists and a Thomas Kinkade-like illustrator who is the most popular artist in Great Britain, Jack Vettriano. The biggest lots in the Scottish sale belong to a suite of paintings that the British designer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran commissioned from Mr. Vettriano to be placed in the Bluebird Club restaurant, which opened in London’s Chelsea in 1997. The paintings are a rare confluence of subject matter, provenance, and a commission that forms a key moment in the painter’s career.
Mr. Vettriano is self-taught painter whose first success came in 1988 when he submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual show. Both sold immediately and brought him to the attention of galleries, collectors, and, most importantly, printers of postcards and posters: Mr. Vettriano went on to become Britain’s most reproduced artist.
His most successful images harken back to the romantic period between the world wars that led to the “Bright Young Things.” “The Singing Butler,” his blockbuster work, is a picture of an elegantly dressed couple dancing on the hard-packed tidal beach as a maid and butler hold umbrellas.
His art doesn’t exclusively reflect a “Chariots of Fire” ambiance; there are a lot of girls in stockings and garters, too. Think of a Norman Rockwell raised on a steady diet of Helmut Newton. When Sir Terence was planning his Bluebird restaurant — in homage to motor racing pioneer Sir Malcolm Campbell and his Bluebird cars that set nine land speed records in the 1920s and ’30s — he hired Mr. Vettriano to create seven paintings. It was a stroke of decorating brilliance.
It was also perfect timing. “The Singing Butler” went for $1.4 million in 2004. These seven paintings have a total low estimate of $2.4 million though they will sell separately and may bring in much more. The paintings range in price between low estimates of $160,000 and $800,000.
Some compare Mr. Vettriano’s style to that of Edward Hopper. There are also some similarities to John Currin’s style, too. But that gives Mr. Vettriano too much credit. It’s not his draftsmanship that is at issue. It’s his imagery, which owes far too much to magazine art direction and composition of ads. These pictures will sell well to new clients — pop culture enthusiasts or car-racing nuts — rather than art collectors or even Scottish painting enthusiasts.
Those buyers are much more likely to gravitate toward the Scottish Colorists, a group of four painters who studied in France and brought some of Matisse’s influence back to the land of heather. Samuel Popenoe, Francis Cadell, John Fergusson, Leslie Hunter, and a later adherent whose prices are rocketing, Anne Redpath, are all in demand from international collectors. Ms. Redpath sold a picture for more than $400,000 earlier this year and has two works estimated to be worth between $200,000 and $300,000.
Gleneagles has been the site of this Scottish art sale for 40 years. Traditionally, the works are shown in London, then carted to the foot of the Highlands. The sale’s growing popularity is about to change that. Next year, Sotheby’s will move the sale to London because so many of the buyers are from outside Great Britain and Europe. Effectively, the sale will move from a charming back corner of the art market to the front room, which will surely change the character — and maybe more.