Colin Gleadell goes to Christie’s series of three Modern British Art sales, which totaled nearly £15m, and discovers a market still healthy and strong.
This report on the three sales of Modern British Art Christie’s held last week is available to AMMpro subscribers. The sales brought in almost £15m with strong prices for L.S. Lowry, Ben Nicholson and John Piper. A Henry Moore that didn’t look much like a Henry Moore was a big disappointment when it didn’t sell despite (or, perhaps, because of) a £3m low estimate, Colin Gleadell tells us. But the news in these sales wasn’t in the headline works. The day sale saw a 90% sell-through rate, numbers usually only seen in Evening sales managed with guarantees. Allen & Beryl Freer’s collection also sold well-above the high estimate. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
After a slip in sales volume and prices last year the Modern British art market appeared to pick up steam this January with three sales at Christie’s. Voluntary consignments had been difficult to tie down because the sale closed only three days after an election which had caused British art dealers some concern. Daniel Katz, the leading sculpture dealer and collector of Modern British art (he paid a record £531,000 ($697,751) for 1911 painting of a horse and cab by Camden Town Group artist Robert Bevan at Sotheby’s in November), said he would have closed down if the Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn had won because of the proposed tax increases. “We were all very, very nervous in the art trade about a Corbyn victory”, he said. “Thousands of families had registered to leave the country. The English market would have collapsed.”
The sales benefitted from a number of goods consigned by collectors’ estates with attractive estimates, and, against a background of restored confidence in the property market, realized £14.9 million – safely within the £11/17 million pre-sale estimate. (Prices realized include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not).
Moore Slips, Lowry Doubles Estimates
There was something confrontational about the first evening sale, timed head-to-head against the opening of the London Art Fair, where a core of Modern British art dealers was exhibiting. In spite of the distraction, the high-end selection of just 25 lots bettered the Sotheby’s £6.8 million equivalent in November with a £7.8 million ($10.1 million) total.
Without buyer’s premium, that barely scraped the low estimate of £7.1 million. This was largely down to the top lot, an early, 1936 surrealist Henry Moore sculpture, ‘Square Form’, that was not immediately recognizable as a Moore (which most are) and failed to sell with a £3/5 million estimate. Worse news for Christie’s was that they had guaranteed it. Interestingly, all the other five unsold lots (including two Tony Craggs—whose work can appear in either a contemporary or Mod Brit sale as the department seeks to expand its boundaries) – were imposing three-dimensional works, perhaps indicating that buyers were not feeling expansive about top-heavy art – either price-wise or size-wise.
These failures were, however, partially offset by most of the top selling lots which exceeded estimates. That quirky, but most consistent of performers, L.S. Lowry, whose townscape, The Mill, Pendlebury, 1943, was from a New York collection and had not been seen in public since the 1940s, attracted multiple phone bids and doubled estimates to fetch £2.65 million ($3.4 million) making it one of the ten most expensive Lowry’s sold at auction.
Although the Moore didn’t sell, other works from the 1930s when British modernism was flourishing, did. A rare white relief from 1934 by Ben Nicholson—inspired by his absorption of the rigorous abstractions of Mondrian and Malevich—also soared over estimates to fetch £995,250 ($1.3 million)—a record for a Nicholson white relief—while a 1934 abstract by John Piper, last sold in 1991 for £27,500 to the late Dr Jeffrey Sherwin, now sold from his estate at a top estimate £371,250 ($482,254). The buyer was leading London dealer, Richard Green. Piper is probably best known to the public as a conveyor of romantic landscapes and historic architecture, but his output during his politically radical youth in the 30s is of more interest to academics. It can also be highly decorative, being linked to his works as a designer at the time and commands the highest prices in the market—this one being the second highest.
Also from the Sherwin estate was a First World War view of the trenches, The Wiring Party, 1918, by the Vorticist (Britain’s answer to Cubism and Futurism,) William Roberts, which doubled estimates to sell for £395,250 ($513,430)—the second highest price for a work on paper by Roberts.
A mid-century modernist whose prices have soared, from a maximum 50,000 dollars at the turn of the century to 1 million dollars in the last decade, is sculptor William Turnbull. Also coming from an estate—that of West Coast collector Richard Weisman —was a 1958 Turnbull sculpture, Hero 11, which features famously in David Hockney’s 1968 double portrait, American Collectors, a portrait of Weisman’s parents with the Turnbull sculpture centre stage that is in the Art Institute of Chicago. Estimated at £350,000 plus, it attracted bids from London and New York art advisor, Hugo Nathan, before selling to a phone bidder for £671,259 ($872,000)—the second highest price for a Turnbull.
As mentioned earlier, these sales include artists who also feature in contemporary art sales and this had two paintings by the late Howard Hodgkin, a Waddington gallery then Gagosian artist. In the running for his posthumous market is London dealer James Holland-Hibbert who was quick out of the starting blocks to buy ‘In the Middle of the Night’, a hot red and black 1996 painting by Hodgkin from the estate of British collector Jeremy Lancaster—the fourth major estate that Christie’s built its sale around. Bought above estimate for £250,000 ($324,750) it won’t appear in Holland-Hibbert’s forthcoming Hodgkin exhibition in April, though another Hodgkin he bought from an earlier Lancaster sale will.
Another, earlier Hodgkin from the Lancaster estate, Room with Chair, from 1968, also attracted competition before selling above estimate to Alan Hobart of the Pyms gallery for £395,250 ($513,430)
Day Sale Sees 90% Sell-Through
During the day sale, Hobart hovered in the door-way with the collector he has often been associated with, Lord Graham Kirkham, occasionally signaling bids to an employee. Kirkham, looking trim and healthy, had recently received the good news that the government export stop put on his Gainsborough landscape which had been sold for £8 million last July had been lifted. The news, however, did not lift Hobart’s bidding, and having been outbid on works by Patrick Caulfield, Barbara Hepworth (an unusual early figurative work) and Elisabeth Frink, the team headed for the exit.
The session nevertheless witnessed a greater uptake than the evening before with 90% of the 102 lots selling. Certain trends persisted. Leon Kossoff had achieved a record for a work on paper back in November and here a gouache of Dalston Junction hit a top estimate £100,000 selling to art advisor Melanie Clore.
Holland-Hibbert was back in action driving the price for another artist whose estate he has recently taken on—the pop-turned-abstract artist Richard Smith. In 2016, Smith’s auction record stood at £27,600 ($56,000). A year later his record had risen to £131,250. In January, Christie’s had still not adjusted to the change in temperature and a 7-ft cumulous type abstract, Place 1, 1960, that had belonged to the influential collector, EJ Power, was chased over the £40,000 estimate by the Austin Desmond Gallery before selling to Holland-Hibbert for £125,000 ($164,000).