WITH MacArthurmania gripping a nation already gearing itself up for the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, this should, in theory, be an auspicious year for the UK marine pictures market.
By holding their January 26 Marine Paintings sale at Bond Street, rather than at their usual venue of Olympia, Sotheby's (20/12% buyer's premium) were certainly trying to give some fresh impetus to one of the auction world's longest-running specialist theme sales.
According to specialist Angus Haldane, the move to Sotheby's central London headquarters significantly improved attendance levels at the view. However, a final premium-inclusive total of £733,560 against a £770,000-£1m estimate and a selling rate of 62 per cent of the 92 lots were clear demonstrations that this remains a selective market, particularly for 19th century pictures.
Montague Dawson (1895-1973) is traditionally the key to success at a marine sale, but, as the years have passed and all the major auction houses have relentlessly trawled the world's private collections for consignments, good-quality, market-fresh examples have become in increasngly short supply.
On this occasion at Sotheby's, the pick of the Montague Dawson oils on offer was an attractive, but hardly trophy-quality, modern yacht racing scene, The Mark Boat. Measuring 19 1/4in x 2ft 5in (49 x 74cm), it sold to a UK private buyer at £55,000, just below the upper estimate.
When it comes to yacht racing scenes, a far more commercial commodity in the current market are Stephen Dews' (b.1949) contemporary oils of the legendary contests between the great J-Class yachts of the 1930s. These are highly popular with ultimillionaires who hang them in the state rooms of their 100ft motor yachts.
Dews' signed 3ft 4in x 4ft 11in (1.50 x 1.02m) canvas, Endeavour jumps the gun - Race IV 1937, showing Tommy Sopwith's desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt avoid a 4-0 whitewash from Harry Vanderbilt's Ranger in the 1934 America's Cup, was thought to have been painted within the last five or six years.
Yet again, it confirmed Dews' status as the most highly rated contemporary yacht painters by leading the sale with an upper-estimate £70,000, again from a UK private buyer.
"Demand for 19th century pictures was visibly more selective," says Angus Haldane, but 18th century marines made their moments, particularly when the London trade bid £27,000 for a nicely preserved Peter Monamy (1681-1749) canvas of British men of war of the Red Squadron in a light breeze.
Estimated at £15,000-20,000, this signed 3ft x 4ft (91 x 1.22m) canvas was fresh to the market from private US vendors.