Works on paper remain abundant at auction. Even in the current restricted times thousands appear at auctions every week. But examples that bring high levels of demand remain relatively few and far between.
Some might say it was ever thus, and to an extent this is true. But almost all long-term observers believe the market has become much more selective since what now seem like the golden days of the 1980s and early 90s.
Although this has meant that many watercolours, gouaches and drawings can now be acquired more affordably, and a decent collection put together on a smaller budget, the sector still has moments where works draw dramatic competition.
Old Master spotted
As with other sectors, the works on paper market loves a rediscovery and it has a coterie of buyers always on the look-out for sleepers and works that can turn into exciting research projects.
Such an example came up at the latest two-day sale at Charterhouse (25% buyer’s premium) in Sherborne on January 7-8 when an Old Master drawing attracted keen interest, both from UK bidders and overseas, and topped the 950-lot auction.
The 9 x 13in (23 x 34cm) pen and ink drawing of a figure fishing near a bridge outside a town had been found in a Somerset bungalow. It was badly foxed throughout but carried two labels on the back, one from London dealership Thomas Agnew & Sons and the other attributing the work to Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino (1591-1666).
The second label also mentioned it had been in two well-known historic collections: that of William Easdaile (1758-1837), an English banker and print collector, and the French painter and art collector Jean Francois Gigoux (1806-94).
Guercino produced numerous landscape drawings using brown ink which were seemingly made for pleasure rather than formal commissions or studies for larger paintings.
Indeed, he is believed to have executed a greater number of such drawings than any other Italian artist of the period.
Given their prevalence and value, imitations emerged later in the 18th century (some were created as deliberate forgeries of known works).
Here in Dorset, the label, listed provenance and technical qualities of this example appear to have been among the factors that helped generate confidence among bidders.
It was catalogued as ‘attributed to Guercino’ and estimated at a cautious £400-600 but interest began to emerge almost as soon as the catalogue went live.
Director of Charterhouse Richard Bromell said: “We initially thought the small Old Master drawing could sell for a thousand or two but there was plenty of pre-sale interest with both online and phone bidders. Towards the end of the bidding, it was a two-way battle between two French buyers.”
It eventually sold for £16,000 to a bidder in Paris on thesaleroom.com.
While Guercino figurative drawings can make up to six-figure sums, this was a decent sum for a landscape and an even better one considering it was in compromised (although by no means irreparable) condition.
The performance of this work on paper helped lift the hammer total of the two-day sale to £175,000 – the highest total at Charterhouse for a January auction for 21 years.
Among other works at the sale demonstrating that both collectors and dealers were keen to make acquisitions in the middle of the lockdown, a country landscape also drew strong demand against a £200-400 estimate.
Catalogued as ‘English school, late 18th/early 19th century’, it depicted farmers and animals as well as a group of figures outside a tavern in the background.
The 19in x 2ft 1in (48 x 64cm) oil on canvas came from a local farmhouse that provided a number of works to the sale and required a clean. Whether bidders believed it to be an earlier Flemish scene or were simply attracted to the appealing rustic subject, it drew significant interest and sold for £4800 to a dealer from Belgium.
Pose in pastel
Overseas bidding also came for a pastel study of a women in classical pose also from the same source.
Catalogued as ‘English school’ and estimated at £80-120, the fact that it was dated 1778 helped it draw attention and it was knocked down to a local buyer who saw off underbidding from the US.