A notable feature of the Modern and Contemporary art market over the past few years has been the number of surprising prices fetched by so-called lesser names at auction.
Part of this could be down to bidders having more time during the various Covid restrictions to seek out new or overlooked artists including some whose secondary markets may have yet to become fully established.
Many buyers also seem to have had more money and inclination to spend on works they wish to display in their homes, which has also led to some unexpected but welcome results in the saleroom. And then there is the fact that people are becoming more attuned to the investment potential of this sector in general that has also bolstered demand.
In the early part of 2022, as Covid restrictions around the UK eased, a few signs indicated that these developments may be sustained.
The latest Contemporary & Post-War Art sale held by Edinburgh saleroom Lyon & Turnbull (25% buyer’s premium) generated some fierce competition on a few notable works, including a good number by artists who could be described as either ‘emerging’ or receiving some extra attention after a period out of the limelight. With 317 lots on offer on January 19, including a lively section of prints and multiples, the premium-inclusive total was £596,950 with 86% of the lots selling.
Associate director and head of Contemporary art at L&T Charlotte Riordan said that the extra interest this market received during the pandemic appeared to be continuing, pointing to the high selling rate in particular as well as the performance of some individual lots.
When asked about works by the less-recognised names, she said: “I do occasionally trial someone new to auction if I believe I have an audience for it.
“I think perhaps people are moving from being gallery buyers to dabbling at auction in greater volumes so it matters less in some cases whether a known primary market name has a secondary market yet.
“People are perhaps simply really falling in love with specific images and going for it – prepared to pay retail prices for the right artwork for the space they have in mind. So in some ways it appears it’s not necessarily that strategic.”
One of the artists appearing at the sale with little track record at auction was Nina Murdoch (b.1970). Only two pictures had appeared before this sale according to Artprice.
In this case, the fact that her technique involves a meticulous process with up to a hundred layers of paint for each work also helps explains the dearth of supply – she produces fewer than 10 paintings a year.
However, her name has been on the radar of the art world’s cognoscenti for some time. After graduating from the Slade and Royal Academy Schools, she later became first recipient of the Threadneedle Prize in 2008 and has now had three solo shows at London’s Marlborough Gallery.
The picture here, King’s Cross, was one of a number of works depicting different scenes in the north London neighbourhood that she first exhibited at the RA in 1996. A larger example, more detailed and over double the size of the current picture, sold for £5500 at Bonhams Oxford in 2012 and represents the artist’s highest price at auction.
The 23½in (60cm) square oil and egg tempera on gesso on board at L&T was estimated at £1500-2500 and sold at £3400 after a decent competition. “There’s relatively few auction records behind her hence the lowish estimate,” said Riordan, “but she’s a known name if you follow the art world. I think this was a case of a few canny people spotting it.”
Arguably the most eye-catching result of the sale came for a painting called Watchers by Willie Rodger (1930-2018). Primarily a printmaker, although also a talented artist, commercially his works have never really had huge amounts of exposure and remain relatively rare at auction. Before this sale his auction record was £1200 for a 1967 linocut titled Reverie.
Last year the Royal Scottish Academicians held the first posthumous exhibition in Scotland devoted to his work and a few signs have since indicated that the market may be beginning to react.
Appearing here, the 2ft 6in x 3ft 4in (75cm x 1m) signed oil on canvas from 1998 depicted figures in a variety of poses at a sculpture park – a subject which apparently captured the imagination of a number of interested parties. Estimated at £600-800, Watchers was bid to £7000, a major record that Riordan described as “extraordinary”.
She added: “This was a case of two people knowing little about the artist but loving the image and being prepared to fight for it.” In so doing, they set a new benchmark for Rodger on the secondary market.
More established names
In terms of more established names at the sale, strong bidding emerged on a 1971 oil on canvas by James Downie Robertson (1931-2010).
The Cowdenbeath-born painter always known as ‘Jimmy’, who became a senior lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art, has been an influential presence on the Scottish art scene for over five decades. But although a good number of works have sold at auction over the years, it has been a while since much notable action has occurred with seemingly only two works making over £2000 in the last five years.
On offer at the L&T sale was Sand Dunes, a 2ft 6in x 3ft 4in (75cm x 1m) signed oil on canvas. It was a vintage example of his large oils which are rarer at auction than his works on paper and, as with many of his pictures, it was an attempt to evoke the mood of a particular setting rather than directly portray it.
Estimated at £1000-1500, it sold at £7000 – a record for Robertson at auction, breaking the 15-year-old previous high of £6500 for a winter landscape sold at Christie’s in London. Riordan said it will be interesting to see whether it proves to be a one-off or represents an upward trend for the artist.
Could the same be said of Glaswegian painter James Morrison (1932-2020)? Again, it has been a while since a really big price has come for the artist, although here the auction record stands at a much higher level: £65,000 for Inchbroach Angus at Sotheby’s in 2014.
On offer in Edinburgh was Winter Dark Sea, a 2ft 8in x 4ft 10in (81cm x 1.47m) oil on board which, although it was not as commercial as his sunlit views of the farmland around his home in Angus, certainly had its merits for both its wall power and tonal qualities.
“I’ve long felt Morrison doesn’t make what he ought to at auction,” said Riordan. “He was really skilful and his style is so elegant and distinctive.”
The recent death of the artist and an accompanying BBC documentary may well have engendered some extra attention and here, against a £3000-5000 pitch, Winter Dark Sea sold at £6500 – the highest price for Morrison for over two years.
Sir Robin Philipson (1916-92) is another artist who has been a bit out of the limelight in recent years. However, a good-sized figurative pictured titled Women Observed drew competition here, selling at £14,000 against a £8000-12,000 estimate.
The artist was born in Cumbria but moved to Scotland with his family at the age of 14, going on to study at Edinburgh College of Art where he later became a teacher for many years.
His works are quite diverse, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter, and this 3ft x 2ft 4in (92 x 72cm) signed oil on canvas came from an acclaimed series of “edgy” and “sensually charged” depictions of nude women according to the catalogue. Related works with similar subjects and use of rich colouring are held in public collections, including those of the National Galleries of Scotland, Fitzwilliam Museum and Courtauld Institute of Art.
Riordan said: “I’d say this was one of the best Philipsons to be seen on the market for a while. His market has been a little staid in recent years but it’s good to see two private collectors recognising its quality and being prepared to dig deep and pay an appropriate price for a work of this quality.”
While Philipson’s works have made stronger five-figure sums on occasion (and indeed a six-figure sum once), only two have fetched more than the current picture in the last five years (source: Artprice). Interestingly, the same work had fetched more at L&T in 2008 (£21,000) but less when it reappeared at Sotheby’s in 2017 (£13,000).
While the result was matched by Jack Vettriano’s (b.1951)Lone Operator which also sold at £14,000 (the two works were the joint top lot of the L&T sale), another picture bringing demand further down the price scale was Lunga (Puffin Island) from Iona by Frances MacDonald (b.1945).
The 12in (31cm) square oil on canvas had been exhibited at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 2009 and appeared here with a £600-800 estimate, selling at £2400. While her works can fetch much bigger sums, this picture was in a smaller format but had an interesting range of colours heavily applied with a palette knife as well as a popular subject.
“Iona is a special place and there are people out there who specifically collect work related to the island,” said Riordan.