Exactly what long-term effects the coronavirus pandemic will have on the market for Post-war & Contemporary art remains something of an open question.
For the moment at least, the supply of the most expensive material at Sotheby’s and Christie’s has become thinner with vendors seemingly somewhat reluctant to consign in the midst of a health and economic crisis (see our report of the latest series of sales in News, ATG No 2466).
However, many of the works that did emerge performed relatively well.
And further down the scale there is some evidence to suggest that the middle market in this category is also holding up. It may even be receiving extra interest as more collectors look for objects to enjoy at home and buyers generally are less inclined to keep money in the bank with interest rates at an all-time low.
The supply of works at this level has also been relatively steady, with a number of private collections as well as corporate collections coming to the market over recent months.
Some of these sales offered works by both established artists in the market and more up-and-coming names in the sector, providing a good number of lots that delivered results across a range of price points.
Made for the market
The very existence of the Modern Made auctions staged by Lyon & Turnbull (25% buyer’s premium) is indicative of a wider shift that has taken place in the market over the last decade.
While traditional works still tend to appear in mixed sales across the country, growing numbers of specialist auctions have sprung up to cater for buyers of Modern and Post-war art, sculpture and design as this sector has witnessed burgeoning demand.
The latest Modern Made sale at the Mall Galleries in London was the third edition of this sale, with each event gaining momentum since March 2019 when L&T staged the inaugural auction. The October 23 sale posted a hammer total of £630,120 from 446 lots with a selling rate of 76%.
A total of 1381 bidders registered – around 1200 bidding online including from the US, continental Europe and Australia as well as the UK.
The auction house’s head of Modern and Post-war art and design Philip Smith told ATG: “Overall the Modern British and Post-war market is performing strongly, especially at the mid-market £1000 to £50,000 level. It continues to hold up well in spite of the current situation in the wider economy.
“It fits well with the trend of collectors seeking out works by both new and established artists, either proven or under-valued. As well as looking for something decorative, buyers are seeking positive and stable assets and this market appears less risky than other fields at present.”
Smith noted that, despite some indication that private collectors have upped their bidding activity since the lockdown, the longer term effects of the Covid-19 crisis in this sector are yet to become apparent.
“The situation is very complex, I think, and it is going to take time to extrapolate what this means for the wider market, both at auction and retail,” Smith said.
“Broadly speaking, in the short term it does appear to be benefiting auctioneers over dealers. However, I think that a lot more is going on underneath the parapet at the moment that is not fully understood.
“Good and well-provenanced items are still selling well to dealers, although the public’s confidence in bidding directly at auction is growing ever stronger and this has been expedited over the last six months.”
Among the works bringing interest at the latest sale and selling to a UK private buyer was a Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) abstract work on paper from 1981.
It came with appealing provenance, having been acquired by the sculptor Jean Gibson (1927-91) from the artist in the year it was executed and then descended to the vendor.
Untitled (After Lunch), a 22¼x 2ft 6in (57 x 76cm) soft ground etching overpainted with oil and gouache, was signed with the artist’s initials and was very much a known work – it will feature in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being edited by Dr Marla Price and Guy Robertson.
A colourful work admired for its combination of fluid brushwork and structured ground that gave it a sense of depth, it was good example of the type of middle-market picture that Smith was referring to. With bidders deeming it an attractive prospect estimate against a £5000-8000 estimate, it brought competition and sold at £15,000.
Another British abstract work selling to a UK private buyer was Black Sea & Demilune by John Wells (1907-2000).
The artist, who was also a practising GP, was associated with the Newlyn school when young and became influenced by other painters in the area, especially Ben and Winifred Nicholson from the 1930s onward.
Although he was a co-founder of the Crypt Group and the Penwith Society of Arts, commercially he has lagged behind fellow members of the ‘new generation’ of St Ives artists such as Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon. Indeed, Wells was always something of an outsider, resisting joining a gallery until the Waddington Galleries offered to stage a solo exhibition of his work in 1960.
The work at L&T was a small picture that he produced in his Newlyn studio in 1973. The 3¾ x 13½in (9.5 x 34cm) oil and pencil on board was signed and dated and had familiar circular forms that featured prominently in his work during this period.
Estimated at £8000-12,000, it was knocked down on low estimate, still a decent sum for a work of this size. For comparison, a slightly larger and earlier work titled Soaring Form fetched £6500 at Dreweatts in October 2019.
An abstract work by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), an artist born in Scotland but based in and around St Ives, also caught the eye of a number of bidders. The untitled work from 1960 dated from a period when her compositions became more purely abstract and geometric, in part influenced by the movement in the US towards Abstract Expressionism.
The 22½ x 19¾in (58 x 50cm) signed gouache on paper came to auction from a private UK vendor and the appealingly expressive colours meant the £4000-6000 estimate was not considered unreasonable for an artist whose prices have been steadily rising since she died 16 years ago.
It was eventually knocked down at £6000, a solid sum for work on paper of this size and once again showing the continued appetite from buyers in this sector.