As they did last year, Christie’s set the pace for the Modern British art market in 2021 this week and it proved to be as healthy as it has ever been.
Included in the sale of works on paper from the collection of London dealer Thomas Gibson, was a rare Henry Moore wartime shelter drawing that sold above estimate for $3.15 million, beating the previous £2.2 million ($3 million) set in London in 2015 for a similar subject.
Another Modern British work on paper record tumbled when a sensuous, old masterly Head of a Girl (Edie McNeil) by the bohemian society artist, Augustus John, sold for a double estimate $487,500 to a U.S. bidder. Gibson bought the work for a double estimate record £92,000 ($149,000) in 1997.
The sale, conducted in New York, led straight into a specialized Modern British sale from London conducted by Christie’s Global President, Jussi Pylkkanen, who has been leveraging his influence to improve the international profile of this market. In this sale, 33 out of 34 lots were sold for £25.6 million ($29.6 million) against an estimate of $11.8 million–18.4 million— the second highest total for a Modern British evening sale in the house’s history. Buyers from the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) accounted for the sale of 66% of lots, while 16% went to U.S. and 12% to Asia.
“What we saw was a very reassuring message to the art market about the depths of demand for the best quality art,” said Keith Gill, Christie’s co-head of the 20th century art evening sale in London, of this week’s sales. Gill noted the Modern British Art evening sale registered, “probably the deepest bidding we’ve seen in a long time on a number of lots.”
The success was largely down to three paintings by Britain’s former Prime Minister and war-time hero, Winston Churchill, which brought £11.2 million ($16 million)– all going to the same telephone bidder, relaying bids through Christie’s surrealist supremo, Olivier Camu– a surreal decoy tactic in itself. An underbidder on two of those paintings was from Texas. The buyer may well have been an Impressionist client, but was, above all, a Churchill enthusiast. They paid a triple estimate record £8.3 million ($11.6 million) for a painting of a North African mosque that was being sold by Angelina Jolie. The painting had reportedly been given to her by Brad Pitt. As a modern artist, though, Churchill was just a very talented Sunday painter and does not feature in the rankings of excellence.
The standout work in that category was a light bronze maquette for Henry Moore’s classic King and Queen (1952), that sold above estimate for £3 million ($4 million) to a phone bidder using paddle number 832 (more on that later). The price was the highest ever for a Moore maquette just under 17 inches high, sold by the foundation of U.S.-based collectors Mireille and James Levy, who bought it from Pace in 1994.
Also from the Levy Foundation were two works by Moore’s friend and rival, Barbara Hepworth, which exceeded estimates. The upright Square Forms (1963-1966), was from an edition of 7 and sold for £922,500 ($1.3 million). Another from this edition sold in 2013 $478,554– an indication of Hepworth’s upward price movement. A later 1971 Hepworth slate carving titled Three Round Forms (1971) doubled estimates to fetch £598,500. The Levy’s bought it at auction in 1988 over-estimate for £41,800 ($58,000). Another good call.
It may have been an ex-pat, but a bidder from the United Arab Emirates was active in the market for the eccentric English artist, L.S. Lowry whose work was being offered in quantity. They underbid one street scene that had been bought in 2013 for a double estimate £421,875 and sold for £622,500 ($862,000), and another which sold above estimate for £325,000 ($445,000). They were more successful buying a 1939 Ben Nicholson abstract that had come through the family of the wife of Dutch constructivist, Theo van Doesburg, which sold above estimate for £475,000 ($654,000).
The following day, Christie’s lower value Modern British day sale realized £5.4 million ($7.5 million) against a £3.9 million-£5.9 million ($5.4 million-$8.2 million). (The estimate with just 16% of lots unsold.)
One of the stronger performing areas in this market has been for Bloomsbury Group artists. Centered around the literary figure of Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century, the group harbored left wing intellectuals, collectors and some quite radical artistic talents, such as Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, whose textile designs of 1910 have been ranked amongst the earliest abstract paintings of the century. The previous record for Bell was for a 1913 portrait which sold in 1997 for £95,000 but this week, a still life, Autumn Bouquet (1912), estimated at £25,000-£35,000 ($35,000-$48,000), attracted strong bidding from Washington (the National Museum of Women in the Arts) and elsewhere before selling to a phone bidder for a new record of £256,250 ($354,701). The bidder had the same paddle number (832) as the buyer of Moore’s King & Queen sold the evening before and went on to pay a double estimate £35,000 for a less exciting winter landscape by Bell’s bisexual lover, Duncan Grant.
London dealer, Robert Travers of London’s Piano Nobile gallery, who specializes in Bloomsbury Group artists, amongst others, was an underbidder on the Bell. Travers claims he has sold a Bell from the coveted period privately for more than the new auction record. “You just can’t get them from this period anymore,” Travers said, “So the competition was predictable.”
He was more successful this week when he bid a triple estimate £162,500 to buy a 1914-15 still life by the short-lived Camden Town artist, Harold Gilman, for a client. But even he was taken back by the top lots of the sale, at 10 times the estimate of £375,000 ($52,000) for a 1930 view from a window by the previously overlooked painter John Nash— unrecognized because his more radical brother, Paul Nash, with his links to European abstraction and Surrealism, has somewhat obscured his brother’s simpler talent. The current record for Paul Nash is £937,500 ($130,000) while before this week, his brother’s was just £56,250 ($78,000). Now the gap has narrowed significantly.
Other records were set for contemporary artists, Michael Craig-Martin (£325,000 or $450,000), Ian Davenport (£81,250 or $112,000), and for a painting by the sculptor, William Turnbull (£106,250 or $147,000) all of which were bought by the Richard Green Gallery. The overlooked British pop artist Peter Philips also hit a new high (£143,750 or $199,000).
But the least recognized artist to make their mark was the British Caribbean sculptor, Ronald Moody, who died in 1984. Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s had ever sold a work by Moody before, though his reputation amongst curators is strong. Tate has a large example in its online display, “Walk Through Britain 1930” and will include his work in its upcoming British Caribbean exhibition in December. The five works by Moody (four wood carvings and one bronze dating from the 1930s to the 1950s) had come from the collection of Wallace Campbell, a Jamaican supermarket owner who died last year.
Several of Campbell’s Latin American works were sold in New York last year including a Wifredo Lam at Sotheby’s for $2.4 million. The Moodys were sent to London and were unfortunately in less than perfect condition— some splits in the wood and surface abrasions testified to less than assiduous stewardship in the past. Nonetheless, the five sculptures carrying a low estimate of £16,000 ($22,000-$48,000) combined sold for £100,000 ($138,000). One online bidder in the U.K. picked up three examples including the most expensive, which set the benchmark record £37,500 ($52,000) for the artist, six times the estimate.