Christie’s set an auction record for any work when a unique wooden sculpture from 1963 sold at £4.8m (£5.79m with premium) at its ‘20th/21st century’ evening sale in London on June 28. The auction house would not release any details about the buyer but ATG understands that is now heading to a UK private collection.
Carved from a piece of guarea wood, a tropical hardwood, Hepworth had hollowed-out the interior and then applied white paint to the textured interior, creating a striking contrast with the polished brown exterior. Evocative photos of her carving the work in her Palais de Danse studio in St Ives (a former cinema and dance hall) can be found on the Hepworth Estate’s website (barbarahepworth.org.uk).
Wooden sculptures by Hepworth are an important part of her oeuvre but appear less often on the market. They tend to be rarer than her bronzes which were typically cast in multiples.
Today a number can be found in the Tate collection including a 1965 hollow form made from elm which has stylistic similarities to the work at Christie’s.
The mid-1960s is often regarded as the peak of Hepworth’s career – her famous and monumental sculpture Single Form was unveiled at the United Nations Secretariat in New York in 1964 and the following year she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire and also appointed a trustee of the Tate Gallery.
Measuring 3ft 3in (98 cm) high, excluding the base, it came to auction from a vendor who bought it from London dealer Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in 2012. James Holland-Hibbert, who had in fact sold the work twice before but did not bid this time round, told ATG that he regarded the price as “healthy but not surprising for such an exceptional sculpture”.
He added: “It is certainly one of Hepworth’s greatest works on the market in recent times and for a work with such presence and in excellent condition [a few cracks are normal in hollowed-out wooden sculptures] I thought it could have made even more.”
Christie's estimated the lot at £4m-£6m and arranged a third party guarantee meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.
After a decent competition, it sold to a bidder in the room with the final price surpassing the $5.9m (£4.2m) for Parent II, a bronze which was part of an edition of four from 1970-71, that sold at Christie's New York in May last year and held the previous high for Hepworth at auction.
Sotheby’s sale of British art the following day (branded ‘The Jubilee Auction’) included a smaller and earlier Hepworth wooden sculpture. Titled Elegy, the 15.25in (39cm) high painted beechwood piece dated from 1945 and was also a unique work.
Having been purchased by an American Charitable Foundation in the same rooms in June 2008, when it was knocked down at £520,000, this time around it was pitched at £1.7m-2.5m. Selling at £2.1m, it made a significant return with the result standing in the top 10 auction prices for Hepworth.
These latest results at Sotheby's and Christie’s followed a record for any picture by the artist at Bonhams’ Modern and British and Irish Art sale in London the week before.
Stringed Figure, a 2ft 6in x 2ft (76 x 61cm) oil and pencil on board was executed only a few years after Christie’s sculpture. Signed and dated 1966, it was acquired by the vendor from dealer Gimpel Fils where it had been exhibited not long after Hepworth had painted it.
Bonhams head of Modern British and Irish Art Penny Day said: “Stringed Figure has its roots firmly in Cornwall. Like many of Hepworth’s paintings and drawings from 1960 onwards it was executed in her Barnaloft studio flat, which had a view of Porthmeor Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The work has a palette which directly references the landscape by which she was surrounded.”
Estimated at £120,000-180,000, it was knocked down at £410,000, raising the bar for her pictures by tipping over the £380,000 for Figure and Mirror that sold at Lyon & Turnbull in October – a work that retains the record for a Hepworth drawing.
East Sussex saleroom Gorringe’s (23% buyer’s premium) also witnessed some good action for a Hepworth picture on June 28.
A 2ft 3in x 8.75in (68 x 22cm) oil and pencil on board which was signed and dated October 1949 came to auction from a deceased estate with earlier provenance to the Lefevre Gallery. In untouched condition, the Lewes saleroom pitched it at £50,000-80,000 but after a decent competition emerged on the day it was knocked down at £98,000 to a UK buyer bidding online.