Acting in over 130 films alongside stars such as Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant, he was a confirmed Anglophile who first moved to Britain in the 1930s after Warner Bros asked its stars to take a 50% Depression-era pay cut. He would later spend much of his time in the UK from the 1950s onward.
The lots offered on March 2 at Stansted Mountfitchet saleroom Sworders (25% buyer’s premium) included photographs, cinema posters, personal jewellery, objects of vertu, furniture and clothing.
While certain lots related closely to his career and had obvious celebrity appeal, some strong action came in the fine art section for more general works.
A watercolour of tulips by Scottish artist and musician Rory McEwen (1932-82) in particular caught the eye of bidders.
Measuring 17 x 11in (44 x 28cm), it was signed and dated ’54. Such a work is relatively rare at auction and, with McEwen’s reputation and following as a botanical painter increasing over time, it was now a valuable proposition.
Often painted on vellum, his depictions of tulips are particularly admired – fellow musician Jools Holland picked one as his favourite painting in a 2009 Country Life article.
Estimated at £2000-3000, this example drew a prolonged contest which came down to a UK trade buyer online battling against one of the phones. It sold to the former at £18,900, a sum which was the second highest for McEwen at auction, only behind the £47,000 for a pair of watercolours of anemones sold at Christie’s in June 2019.
The other lot heavily exceeding expected levels was a portrait of Mary Lee Fairbanks (née Epling), the second wife of Douglas Fairbanks, by the US artist Louis Betts (1873-1961). The portrait depicted the sitter in June 1935, four years before the couple would marry.
At the time, Betts was an established painter of both landscapes and figurative pictures working primarily in New York and Chicago.
The 3ft 4in x 2ft 6in (1.02m x 77cm) signed oil on canvas was one of his more striking works with its flourishing painterly style aiming to capture the glamour of the sitter.
A number of bidders were captured too, and seemed undeterred by a few condition issues – including some areas of paint loss. Estimated at just £300-500, it drew pre-sale interest particularly from America and ended up the subject of a battle between a phone bidder and a London-based private buyer online.
It was knocked down to the latter at £6200, among the highest sums for a painting by Betts sold at auction in the UK.