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Sarah Bernhardt sur la Scene, a watercolour by François Clement Sommier (called ‘Henry Somm’) – £20,000 at Parker Fine Art Auctions.

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Collections that auctioneers crave – high-quality and market-fresh consignments that come with low reserves – remain a boon to any saleroom even, or perhaps especially, during the pandemic.

The fact that more buyers are sitting at home, trawling the internet for interesting material, has increased the premium paid for the most desirable works, particularly where items are pitched in a way that makes bidders think they can secure a bargain. And this is something being felt not just in this country.

‘Exceptional taste’

The effect of such a consignment was witnessed at Parker Fine Art Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on March 19 when a 300-lot group of works from a deceased estate helped the firm to its highest total for a sale since it was founded last year.

The collection had been amassed mainly from leading dealers and one of the collectors bidding at the sale described the previous owner as having “exceptional taste”.

The lots were sold as a separate stand-alone offering, held as a live webcast auction from the saleroom in Farnham, Surrey, the day after Parker’s separate mixed-owner Fine Paintings and Frames sale.

With the estimates pitched at levels indicating the works were ‘there to be sold’, the auction was a white-glove event with all 300 lots selling for a £406,000 hammer total.

The collection included an impressive selection of works on paper, especially a much sought-after group of 19th century French drawings.

Parker reported a record number of online bidders on the UK platforms (and many more tuning in just to watch the sale), as well as significant interest from French platform Drouot Online which the saleroom had decided to use for the first time due to the nature of the lots on offer.

Although the auction house reported “substantial interest” from France, the majority of top lots sold on the phone, with dealers from “several different countries” securing most of them.

“While we try not to over-inflate our estimates, we were taken aback by the extraordinary level of interest in it and the resultant high prices,” said a spokesperson for the saleroom.

Two chalk drawings by the French Realist François Bonvin (1817-87) led the day, selling at £32,000 and £28,000 against estimates of £3000- 5000 and £2000-3000 respectively (reported in News, ATG no 2486).

Also bringing dramatic competition was a watercolour study by François Clement Sommier (1844-1907), the French artist also known as ‘Henry Somm’. The 12½ x 8in (32 x 20cm) signed picture depicted the French actress Sarah Bernhardt in costume – making it a highly appealing subject.

The artist, who had formal academic training both in his native Rouen as well as Paris, worked as an illustrator and graphic designer (creating images for menus and theatre programmes) as well as an artist and later became a well-known exponent of Japonisme from the 1870s onward.

Sommier knew Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and, as time went on, he began to incorporate elements of Impressionism and Symbolism into his work.

In terms of subject matter, depictions of elegant Parisian women were something of a speciality and all top 10 auction prices for the artist have come for such works.

The highest before this sale was the larger watercolour Jeune parisienne de profil gauche that made $15,000 (£7880) at Sotheby’s New York in November 2006.

This watercolour was apparently one of a small number of known images Sommier made of the great actress (arguably the most famous celebrity of her day). Another is in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The fact that this example showed her seemingly in her pomp in a deliberate pose on stage made it even more significant commercially, as did the fact that it exuded the kind of delicate touch and vivid colours associated with Sommier’s best watercolours.

Its previous owner had bought it from London dealer Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox and it came with an inscribed label on the reverse.

With all this its favour, it drew hefty bidding against an estimate of just £100-200. It was eventually knocked down at £20,000 – a record for the artist – to a dealer on the phone who deemed it among the best works by Sommier he had ever seen.

Kitchen corner

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Un Coin de Cuisine, a watercolour by Théodule-Augustin Ribot – £17,000 at Parker Fine Art Auctions.

An equally fervent contest came for another French watercolour with provenance to the same dealer.

Un Coin de Cuisine by Théodule- Augustin Ribot (1823-91) was a typical subject for the realist painter who favoured everyday settings for his interior scenes and figurative works. In fact, the 10¼ x 6¼in (26 x 16cm) watercolour was a study for the background of his larger painting Les Cuisiniers that is now part of the Burrell Collection at Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries.

Kitchen scenes showing cooks at work were part of the artist’s stock-in-trade. He exhibited four kitchen scenes when he first showed his work at the Paris Salon in 1861 and this sketch probably dated from the following year.

One of his 1861 works, La fête du chef, sold for $45,000 (£27,917) at Christie’s New York in April 2012 but while other oil paintings by Ribot have fetched over £50,000 on a handful of occasions, this watercolour was again a highly attractive proposition – especially against an estimate of £80-120.

Although it had no figures, it was an intriguing composition demonstrating the artist’s skill at handling light and dark and found a number of admirers from different countries. After prolonged bidding, it sold on thesaleroom.com to a trade buyer at £17,000, a record for a work on paper by the artist.

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A View of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s from the Piazza della Zecca by Achille Etna Michallon – £9500 at Parker Fine Art Auctions.

A drawing that the previous owner had bought from London dealer and French drawings specialist Stefanie Maison was another of the lots spiralling over estimate. A View of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s from the Piazza della Zecca by Achille Etna Michallon (1796-1822) was a vintage architectural study by the supremely talented young artist who died aged of 25 of pneumonia.

The 8¼ x 10½in (21 x 27cm) signed watercolour and wash from 1819 had provenance to the English antiquary and book collector Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872).

With the artist’s works being relatively scarce on account of his life being cut short, the lot quickly surpassed a £800-1200 estimate and sold for £9500 to a trade buyer bidding online. The price was high, albeit not the highest, for a sketch by Michallon, although it appears to be the most ever fetched by any example sold at an auction outside France.

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Head Studies of Two Men, a watercolour by Gerhardt Wilhem von Reutern – £17,000 at Parker Fine Art Auctions.

Among the non-French works on paper in demand was a double-head study by Latvian/German artist Gerhardt Wilhem von Reutern (1794-1865). Yet another work bought from Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, the 7¼ x 7½in (19 x 19cm) watercolour and ink was inscribed with the sitters’ names (Wilhelm Vadorcer and Ludwig Dorr). It attracted keen interest against a £1000-2000 estimate and sold at £17,000 to a trade buyer.

With strong interest at this sale from the UK and European trade, it seems that dealers are keenly looking out for quality works as they get set to reopen after a long time working behind closed doors.