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Cloud study catalogued as ‘circle of John Constable – £16,000 at Reeman Dansie.

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Auctioneer Jonathan Benson was expecting the 330 picture lots at a recent Reeman Dansie (20% buyer’s premium) sale to take around three hours to sell. In the end, it was more than four and a half.

This was in part because of the practical issues of staging an auction in Colchester with nobody in the room – phone and internet bidding does slow things down. But it was also due to some prolonged competition that emerged on a number of lots.

In all, the East Anglian, Fine Art & Antiques auction held from June 30-July 1 attracted 1956 bidders (1400 on the web and 466 on the phone), some of them champing at the bit after waiting for a sale rescheduled from a date in April.

Buoyant demand

Benson said: “The pictures were especially buoyant, and the demand far exceeded our expectations. At times it was hard for our staff to manage the sheer number of phone bidders who wished to participate on certain lots.”

From the auctioneer’s perspective on the rostrum, Benson said he was aware of the numbers watching online and tried to rise to the challenge of keeping over 1000 people engaged. “It was a little harder without a live saleroom audience to interact with but I still tried to keep them entertained – I certainly didn’t want to bore them.”

The fine art section, which came on the second day, raised a hammer total of £130,865.

A decent chunk came from a group of works on paper catalogued as either by John Constable (1776- 1837), his circle or his son Lionel. Three of the four sold for a combined £29,000.

Authenticating works by Constable is notoriously tricky. When it comes to his drawings, watercolours and cloud studies, which were frequently copied and misattributed in the past, it is often difficult to tell which ones are ‘right’.

The question has sizeable commercial implications. Two previously unpublished ink sketches that sold for £60,000 and £32,000 apiece at Chiswick Auctions in March last year demonstrated how even very small and simple Constable sketches can be very valuable indeed.

While researchers can sometimes rely on documentary evidence, inscriptions or related drawings in known collections, many works appearing at auction are assessed on stylistic grounds. It’s not always an exact science.

In terms of working out which were painted by the master and which were done by a student or other family member, scholars will point to the small differences in structural elements. Composition, foliage, sky and details are usually handled more subtly in a genuine Constable, and certain individual tendencies in terms of technique and tones are also used to point to the artist's hand.

Indeed research by art historians including Graham Reynolds and Anne Lyles has led to a significant number of works undergoing reassessment over recent decades.

‘Circle of’ Constable

At Reeman Dansie, two of the four pictures were ascribed to Constable – one of them sold, the other was passed. However, the strongest competition came for a small cloud study offered as ‘Circle of John Constable’.

The 4¼ x 6¼in (11 x 16cm) oil on board was previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1969 where it was described as being by Constable himself, but it had lost its full attribution in the years since.

The vendor acquired it about five years ago as a ‘circle of’ picture.

The painting, in an ornate gilt frame, was in untouched condition and had some painterly touches that encouraged some bidders to speculate it might be something more than a copy.

Benson admitted that the £400-600 pitch was a ‘come-and-buy-me’ estimate and it drew significant competition. It was knocked down to the trade at £16,000. A full attribution would doubtless mean a significant financial reward.

From the same source came a larger pencil drawing, Shipping Off the Kent Coast, with a full attribution to Constable. It is thought to date to 1803 and sketched while on board the East Indiaman Coutts.

It had appeared at a London auction in 2013 when it went unsold and had since been through the London trade and undergone some restoration. Estimated at £15,000- 20,000, it failed to sell.

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Church on an Estuary, a drawing by John Constable – £11,000 at Reeman Dansie.

Separately consigned, a 3¾ x 6½in (10 x 17cm) pencil drawing of a church on an estuary was also offered as a fully ascribed Constable. Estimated at £10,000-15,000, it took £11,000 from the same buyer as the ‘circle of’ picture mentioned above.

This example, which also came in a glazed gilt frame, had a provenance that could be traced back to Richard Constable whose collection was sold at Christie’s in 1989.

It had been established that the drawing came from a sketchbook that was used by Constable in 1808 and 1809 (it had a watermark to the laid paper) and had also featured in Reynolds’ catalogue raisonné of his early paintings and drawings – all of which added assurance to the attribution.

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Cottage Among Trees, a drawing catalogued as ‘Attributed to Lionel Bicknell Constable – £2000 at Reeman Dansie.

The fourth drawing at Colchester was a depiction of a cottage among trees which was catalogued as ‘attributed to Lionel Bicknell Constable (1828-1887)’ and estimated at £400-600.

The 3¾ x 5¼in (9 x 13cm) sketch came to auction from an Ipswich family who had amassed a good collection. This small picture had been bought as a John Constable in the early 20th century from dealership P&D Colnaghi (it retained a gallery label on the back).

Although Reynolds had thought the work came from John Constable’s 1811 sketchbook, more recently Anne Lyles cast doubt on this attribution and pointed to his son Lionel as the likely candidate. It sold to a phone bidder at £2000 – a good sum for a drawing by Lionel.

Munnings landscape

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River in a Valley by Sir Alfred James Munnings – £6900 at Reeman Dansie.

Elsewhere in the sale, a 14¼ x 18in (36 x 46cm) oil on canvas landscape by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878- 1959) brought interest against a £4000-6000 estimate. River in a Valley was signed and dated 1911 and came to auction from the family of the Major Ivor Buxton of Shelley Hall, Ipswich, who had purchased it from Munnings in the early 1940s.

Although the value may have been limited by its muted palette, unknown location and an absence of horses, it drew the attention of a number of parties and sold at £6900 to a phone buyer in Germany.

Minotaur sculpture

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Minotaur by Richard Bedford – £7000 at Reeman Dansie.

Among the 20th century works that drew strong bidding was a small carved alabaster sculpture by Richard Bedford (1883-1967). Minotaur, which measured 10¼in (26cm) high, had previously been in the collection of fellow artist Anthony Atkinson (1929-2004) and was consigned by his widow.

Bedford was keeper of the department of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1924-38 and curator of pictures at the Ministry of Works from 1947-48.

Connected with some of the most artists of his day including Henry Moore, John Nash, Cedric Morris and Lucien Freud, he was also a well-regarded sculptor in his own right albeit with seemingly no track record at auction.

Various drawings for Minotaur are known and this intriguingly conceived work drew a plethora of bids against an estimate of £300- 500. It came down to a three-way battle on the phone and was knocked down at £7000 to a UK bidder – a sum that establishes a market benchmark for the artist.