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Boosted by the presence of the Shell Mex and BP collection of advertising designs, which proved to be a virtual sell-out, and by the bidding of Richard Green, who will be making his inaugural appearance at the 20/21 fair, this 340-lot sale totalled £701,664 against an estimate of £432,000-640,000, with 82 per cent of the material finding buyers.

Even allowing for the fact that the first 114 lots of the sale were given over to a single-owner collection, this was a pretty remarkable result for a mid-range auction that wasn’t exactly bristling with memorable images, a result that reflected both the current vogue for Modern British as a collecting area and the finite nature of its sources of supply.

Last July Sotheby’s Olympia had a highly successful sale of the post-war paintings Shell commissioned from British artists for their county guides and calenders.

This time round it was the turn of Shell Mex to sell the original advertising artwork commissioned during the period 1932-1976 when Shell Mex and BP were a joint marketing company. The majority of this material dated from the 1930s and featured original designs for some of the most iconic Shell advertisements of the Art Deco period. The original artwork for advertisements tends to attract a rather different crowd from that for original art and it was bidding from specialist collectors that generated most of the collection’s £249,000 premium-inclusive proceeds. For example, it was competition between a motor racing and an advertising enthusiast that resulted in the £6000 (estimate £800-1200) paid for a pastel design of a 1930s racing driver for the poster Motorists Prefer Shell by the little-known Richard Guyatt (b.1914). The trade pitched in with a further £6500 (estimate £400-600) for the original design for a celebrated 1935 Motorists Prefer Shell poster by John Stewart Anderson (20th century), sold with a design for Magicians Prefer Shell poster by Edward McKnight Kauffer (1891-1954). Over a dozen large-scale poster designs by McKnight Kauffer – arguably the most talented of all Shell’s Art Deco poster designers – were included in the sale, the most expensive being a 1933 Merchants Prefer Shell design at £2800 (estimate £400-600). Overall just seven of the Shell Mex and BP advertising collection’s 114 lots failed to sell.

The positive mood was maintained in the mixed-owner section of Modern British Art where the main talking point was the £32,000 – a record for an oil painting by the artist – paid by Richard Green for the signed, titled and dated 1961 Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) canvas, Morvah, estimated at £10,000-15,000.

With its impressive scale – the canvas measured 3ft by 3ft 4in (91cm x 1.01m) – and easily accessible combination of figurative and abstract elements, this evocation of a Cornish village situated between St Just and St Ives was a quintessentially commercial post-war Modern British image. It was also fresh to the market from a long-established English private collection and boasted a distinguished exhibition history, having been included in two British Council shows during the 1960s.

Green also weighed in with further double-estimate bids of £7500 and £9000 for two typically vibrant Patrick Heron (1920-1999) gouache abstracts dating from 1966.

Elsewhere, when trade bidding was more circumspect, private collectors were prepared to pay the sort of money that dealers regarded as wincingly retail. Buoyed by the recent resurgence in John Bratby (1928-1992) prices, a private collector was prepared to pay £10,500 (estimate £3000-4000) for a large 4ft 11/2in by 2ft 6in (1.26m x 76cm) Bratby oil of sunflower blooms in a conservatory which had failed to sell at Sotheby’s Bond Street in 1995 against an estimate of £2000-3000, and another private gave £18,000 (estimate £10,000-15,000) for a signed and dated 1935 Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) canvas of an Italian house identified by the Bloomsbury Group scholar Richard Shone as being in the grounds of the Villa Borghese, Rome.

From a trade perspective, the recent so-called ‘strength’ of the Modern British market can be a problematic issue, given that many dealers are still waiting for the intense levels of demand generated in the salerooms to be replicated in the calmer environment of a commercial gallery.

But for the moment at least the trade remain hopeful that the interest generated by the success of recent Modern British auctions will eventually translate into strengthening client bases in the galleries. The new dealing season, starting with the 20/21 British Art Fair, will tell.