Bonhams staged its first behind-closed-doors sale with the Modern British and Irish Art auction in London in mid-May. Highlighted by a group of drawings by British fashion photographer Cecil Beaton—who gained renown during his tenure at Vogue in the 1930s and ’40s—the live sale saw an 84 percent sell-through rate for the 187 lots, achieving a total of £622,419.
A group of twenty-two works on paper that Beaton produced for his first title,The Book of Beauty, published in 1930, all sold, with the majority reaching their estimate. The set of works last came to auction in 1988 at Christie’s London, where the consignor acquired the works. A sketched portrait of Daisy Fellowes, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and fashion muse in the 1920s and 1930s, went for £2,167 ($2,745). A rendering of Lady D’Abernon, inspired by American painter, John Singer Sargent’s depiction of the sitter from a painting made in Venice in 1904, sold for £1,657 ($2,099), on an estimate of $1,475–$2,213.
With the saleroom closed to live bidders, the potential scale of out-of-room bidding is becoming increasingly apparent. “Both sale formats have their distinct advantages: ‘behind-closed-doors’ is, from the point of view of a customer experience—and for the consignors—the closest thing to a regular auction, with direct, live human interaction, except it takes place without bidding in the room,” said Patrick Masson, Bonhams managing director of UK and Europe, adding, “we find that bidding behaviors are the same online as in the room—albeit with more volume of bidding.”
Bonhams also reports that the Knightsbridge salesroom features works at lower price points. “One of the reasons that Bonhams created the live ‘behind-closed-doors’ format was because it was clear that collectors still had an appetite to acquire—despite the challenges of lockdown,” Masson said. Even at the lower-value end of the market, the sale shows the formatting shake-up has not interrupted bidding. For online transacting, “this crisis has fast-tracked developments,” Masson added.
The lower end of the market was still seeing a high volume of traffic in May. Bonhams reported that its Knightsbridge salesroom saw a record number of bidders for this auction—50 percent more than last season’s comparable sale in November 2019. The higher average for online transacting at the lower end of the market indicates that demand for minor works is being maintained. “One of the reasons that Bonhams created the live ‘behind-closed-doors’ format was because it was clear that collectors still had an appetite to acquire,” says Masson.
Among the leading lots in the sale was Mallard and Teal in Flight by Sir Peter Scott, which sold at its low estimate, £25,063 ($31,814), and Orange, Green and Violet by Michael Kidner R.A., which took in £13,813 ($17,534), exceeding its high estimate of £10,000 ($12,693). A Christopher Wood piece titled Woman in Black from 1924 sold for £11,938 ($15,153) and Beryl Cook’s Jaguar, painted in 1987, sold for £10,688 (13,567)—both meeting their expectations.