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'Snakes & Ladders (film sequence with Liz Lochhead)' by Alasdair Gray – £13,000 at Lyon & Turnbull.

The Post-war and Contemporary art market might have its critics who say that it remains obscure and over-valued, but few would argue that the sector lacks energy or opportunity.

The latter factor – the chance to cash in from an area that is not beset with the regular supply issues that affect other sectors of the art market – has attracted more dealers and collectors into the field, and an increasing number of auction houses are now staging specialist sales.

Demand at auction often tends to follow or lag behind what is going on in the primary market, where ‘new’ names are emerging all the time and some more established artists gain extra recognition because of a particular exhibition or sale of a notable collection or even an individual work.

If, as some believe, the market has been over-inflated for many years now, so far it does not seem that the current global pandemic is going to be the event that finally bursts the bubble.

Indeed, in terms of auctions during the last year, the market appears to have adapted as well as any other to the realities of online buying and selling.

Although a slow-down in consignments of top-end material has been evident, at the mid-market level a few auctions that have taken place so far in 2021 have indicated that even larger numbers of online bidders are registering to take part in events.

With many buyers – as well as potentially new participants – likely to have built up savings during the various lockdowns, more investment money seems likely to pour into this sector as the world recovers.

In this feature on a few sales that demonstrated the current levels of appetite in the sector and look ahead to a selection of upcoming events.

'Market buoyancy'

Among the auction houses that stage regular dedicated sales of Post-war and Contemporary art is Lyon & Turnbull (25% buyer’s premium). The firm started stand-alone sales back in 2006 and they now take place three times a year.

Its latest sale in this category included works by some well-known auction favourites such as Terry Frost (1915-2003) and John Bellany (1942-2013). But arguably the best competition and most notable prices came for artists whose names may be less prominent on the market, but who could prove to be canny investments.

The sale was held live online from the firm’s Edinburgh rooms on January 27 with bidding on the phone, via the internet or by commission. In all, 86% of the 209 lots sold for a premium-inclusive total of £630,000. Some 1167 bidders registered for the sale, of which 1076 were online – a huge number for any sale but especially so for an auction of this size dedicated to a single category.

Charlotte Riordan, head of the sale at L&T, said: “In these uncertain times, with a new long-term lockdown announced in the build-up to the sale, we’re delighted to see that the current trend for buoyancy within the art market seems to be continuing. There was a strong performance within the sale all around.”

The top lot was an £80,000 Jack Vettriano (b.1951) painting which made a strong sum in the current climate, though by no means the artist’s highest price.

Gray on Brown

A scattering of works by other artists sold a bit further down the price scale did manage to set individual auction records.

Among them was a mixed-media work by Alasdair Gray (1934-2019), an artist who has a large body of fans thanks to his fame and importance as an author as well as a visual artist (his celebrated novel Lanark was published in 1981).

While over the years some followers of Gray’s written work have become collectors of his art, he has gained some extra attention since he died two years ago. Supporters place him as a key figure in a ‘renaissance’ of Scottish literature and art in the late 20th century, centred around his native Glasgow.

Snakes & Ladders dated from 1972 and featured various media on brown paper, including tiddlywinks.

It was one of a series of nine creations made by Gray relating to poems by his friend Liz Lochhead. They were originally devised for a project by Malcolm Hossick, a BBC producer, titled Film sequence with Liz Lochhead. Gray’s artworks and Lochhead’s poetry would be used to tell the story of a doomed love affair with the images acting as flashbacks or memories.

Despite the filming part of the project falling through in the end, the works created by Gray were regarded as significant pieces in his oeuvre. The nine works seemingly left his possession but were later reunited for the first time in an exhibition held at the Sorcha Dallas Gallery in Glasgow in 2008. None have appeared at auction before, making the L&T offering a rare opportunity for collectors.

Lochhead’s poem to which this work pertained reads: “We played this childish game. You need sheer freakish luck to win. Snakes and ladders is the name. Home and dry is everybody’s aim.”

Measuring 4ft 2in x 3ft 11in (1.27 x 1.2m), Riordan said it was “the largest and most important work by Gray to appear on the secondary market to date”.

It came to auction having been owned for many years by “a private individual in Gray’s social circle” and was pitched at £6000-8000. After good competition, it was knocked down at £13,000 to a private collector based in Scotland, setting an auction record for the artist.

The previous high was the £7500 for Homage to Bill Skinner which sold at Bonhams Edinburgh in November 2018.

Ian Fleming – artist not author

Another work that drew admirers and set an auction record for a Glasgow artist was Sea Wall, Arbroath by Ian Fleming (1906-90).

Dating from 1950, the 2ft 2in x 2ft 5in (67 x 74cm) signed oil on canvas was at the more realistic and representational end of the spectrum for a painter whose work was sometimes more experimental. It was painted while he was warden of the Patrick Allan-Fraser College of Art at Hospitalfield, Angus, with nearby Arbroath providing artistic inspiration.

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'Sea Wall, Arbroath' by Ian Fleming – £7500 at Lyon & Turnbull.

Riordan said: “We’ve always considered him an underrated artist in that he doesn’t fetch as much as you’d expect someone of his calibre. This piece really represents his work at its best – it is a particularly successful and well-executed example.”

Bidders agreed. Estimated at £800-1200, it was keenly contested by both private buyers and members of the trade before it was knocked down at £7500 to an international client. The price was double the previous auction high for the artist (source: Artprice by ArtMarket).

Also commanding attention was a striking painting by John Byrne (b.1940) – a self-portrait titled Ceci n’est pas un auto-portrait. The name is a clear allusion to the famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe by the Surrealist René Magritte, to whom this work was a homage.

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John Byrne self-portrait 'Ceci n’est pas un auto-portrait' – £16,000 at Lyon & Turnbull.

In 1967, when Byrne was a struggling artist in his late 20s working as a carpet designer in a factory, he penned a letter to his hero, addressing it simply ‘Margritte, Brussels’ and dispatching it, probably with little hope, in the post. Extraordinarily, the letter found its way to Magritte, who touchingly took the time to write a supportive response and message of solidarity.

Regarded as a key work from the artist’s oeuvre, the 2ft 7in x 2ft 4in (78 x 72cm) oil and mixed-media work from 2003 featured on the front cover of the artist’s monograph John Byrne: Art and Life by Robert Hewson (2011) and was included in the Byrne retrospective at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Self-portraits are a common subject for the artist and they tend to focus on themes including passage of time and the artist’s inner mental state.

“He’s been well-loved and sought after for a long time in certain pockets of the market,” said Riordan. “The quality of Byrne’s work really speaks for itself and more and more people are becoming aware of him. Stronger and stronger examples are also finding their way on to the market.”

This one came to auction from a private collection where it had been for some time. Estimated at £10,000-15,000, it sold for £16,000 – the joint second-highest sum at auction for Byrne and behind only a depiction of The Beatles that made £17,000 at Great Western Auctions of Glasgow in December 2012.

As well as curatorial attention thanks to the solo show at the SNPG, the artist has been exhibiting with the Fine Art Society for a number of years now (the most recent one-man show was last year). “Byrne’s market continues to go from strength to strength,” said Riordan.

Conroy bought at last

Elsewhere at L&T, a figure study by Stephen Conroy (b.1964) was among the other works drawing interest. As with many pictures by the Helensburgh-born artist, it depicted a male figure silhouetted against a colourful (typically pink) ground with a photographic quality about it.

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'Figure study' by Stephen Conroy – £15,000 at Lyon & Turnbull.

Signed and dated 2000 on the back, the 2ft 9in x 23in (84 x 59cm) oil on board came from a private source and was estimated at £5000-7000.

Conroy has commanded attention from some big players in the Contemporary art market – two large works made £70,000 and £72,000 at Christie’s back in 2007. This smaller example at L&T drew a decent competition before it was knocked down at £15,000.

The buyer was a private collector from the US who has admired the artist’s work for many years, since first viewing exhibitions at the Marlborough Gallery over a decade ago. “They are delighted to finally own one,” said Riordan.