The 37-lot sale, titled In the Field: An Important Private Collection of Sporting Art, took place at Christie’s (25/20/13.5% buyer’s premium) – totalling £2.10m with just six unsold lots and two new artist records.
Described as “encyclopaedic” by Christie’s director of British and Irish art, Brandon Lindberg, the collection covered over 300 years of British sporting art and encompassed the areas of racing, hunting and shooting.
The anonymous vendor bought from leading London-based dealers and at Sotheby’s and Christie’s throughout much of the 1990s when the secondary market for sporting art was more competitive than today.
No paintings by Ben Marshall or George Stubbs (the ‘Liverpudlian Leonardo’ who holds the record for the most expensive sporting painting ever sold at £20m) were on offer, but works by other key artists associated with the genre featured, including John Frederick Herring Senior, James Seymour and the 20th century painter Alfred Munnings.
“The high quality of the collection and the x-factor of it being a single-owner sale were key to its success,” said Lindberg.
Interest at the December 12 sale was mainly private, with buyers coming from the US and China as well as mainland Europe and the UK, some of them new to the auction house. “There were buyers from the UK and further afield that we hadn’t engaged with before, as well as some good British collectors coming out of the woodwork,” added Lindberg.
Sporting art dealer Jamie Rountree of Rountree Tryon Galleries hopes the sale’s success will help bring in new blood. “The market has been a little flat for some years now, especially the 18th and 19th century artists, with no serious new collectors entering the market.
“This should change as buyers start to appreciate the excellence of British sporting artists and this genre in general compared to the relatively low price points. The sale at Christie’s will help to renew that enthusiasm.”
Rountree says there is a precedent for this and points to the £2.61m sale of the Astor collection of ornithological art from Tillypronie at Christie’s in 2017. The auction resulted in a marked increase in demand and interest in such art.
“I very much hope that Christie’s single-owner sporting sale in December 2019 will create further collectors in the sporting art market, specifically for artists such as James Seymour, JF Herring, John Ferneley Senior and of course current favourites such as Sir Alfred Munnings,” Rountree said.
Surprisingly, though, Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) was the only artist that struggled at Christie’s. Several of his canvases failed to improve much on the prices they had made in the 1990s and there was a major casualty for the canvas Huntsmen with hounds, Zennor Hill, Cornwall, which had carried hopes of £600,000-800,000.
Instead, the most expensive at £340,000 was a 17 x 21in (45 x 54cm) oil on panel capturing the start of a horse race. With Christie’s alone offering over 20 works by Munnings in 2019, the tepid response here could simply have been a case of oversupply.
‘Grand and classic’
Fierce competition did emerge for an 18th century double portrait by John Frederick Herring Senior (1795-1865), estimated at £250,000-350,000. Lindberg described the 3ft 4in x 4ft 9in (1.02 x 1.46m) oil on canvas as “a very grand and classic piece of sporting art”.
Depicting John Barker of Leighton Hall in Yorkshire and John Batsby, together with pointers on a grouse moor, it topped the sale with a winning £500,000 bid from a private US buyer. This was considerably more than the $310,500 (around £195,000) paid by the vendor in 1999 at Christie’s in New York.
A near-identical portrait, probably given to Barker’s friend in the picture, resides in a French collection.
Another large-scale Herring in the sale, a group portrait of three generations of the Sorby Family of Button Hall, Sheffield, took £110,000.
A portrait by James Seymour (c.1702-52) of a handsome chestnut colt in an elaborate blue rug being led by a groom was pursued to £120,000 against a £50,000-80,000 guide.
The horse is traditionally identified as Sedbury, a famous racehorse in the mid-18th century with a distinctive white blaze. Seymour is known to have painted Sedbury several times.
It was fought for by a private collector and an art agent who was the underbidder.
The sale set an auction record for animal painter Heywood Hardy (1842-1933).
Drawing Covert, a large 3 x 4ft (93cm x 1.23m) oil on canvas of a huntsman in a red coat astride his horse, sending the hounds into a copse to flush out a fox, had been acquired from Richard Green in 1996. An exceptional example of the artist’s work, it tipped over top estimate to sell for £95,000.