Frequently housed in the artist’s studio ever since their creation, they normally come fresh to the market and sometimes such consignments include material that has never been seen before.
Some works may have remained in the artist’s possession or their family’s collection for personal reasons and therefore have an intimate connection which holds a greater fascination for collectors.
There is a flipside, too, of course. Occasionally works might have been exhibited but were unsold during the artist’s lifetime and are now being dispersed – meaning they might not be as fresh and desirable as would normally be the case.
While most consignments from artists’ estates tend to be offered separately, west London saleroom Olympia Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) undertook an interesting exercise on October 11 by staging a sale focusing exclusively on such works.
The brainchild of head of the picture department Adrian Biddell, who joined Olympia earlier this year, the sale offered 147 lots and was branded From the Studio: Works from 11 Artists’ Estates. All the lots were consigned by the descendants of the artists or the historic ‘keepers’ of such material.
“The idea has been evolving in my mind for a while” he said. “I quite regularly come across descendants of artists keen to find a mechanism for bringing to auction the works that they have inherited in order to develop both an appreciation for their forebear’s work and their market.
“It may be that the artist was well known during their lifetime but their reputation is now languishing… Other times an artist had few if any gallery exhibitions during their lifetime, thus they had very limited public exposure, but their work is good and they fully deserve reappraisal.
“Meanwhile the descendants of these artists have all that they can house hanging on their walls, and yet they are still sitting on quite a stash of further material in the attic, in the garage, or in store, and they turned to me to help sell it.”
A format to repeat
The sale – a broad sweep of British art from the life drawings of Sir Wiliam Rothenstein in Paris to the post-Second World War abstraction of James Hull and Leo Davey – offered plenty of good value pictures and overall met a decent reaction with over 80% of the lots selling for a total of £54,045.
“It is a pleasing format that seems to work, and one that I will be repeating in 2024,” said Biddell.
One of the highlights came among nine lots from the estate of Hedwig Pillitz (1896-1987). Little is known about the Hampstead-born portraitist and her auction history is sparse to say the least (Artprice.com lists only seven works at auction prior to this sale).
The eldest daughter of Hungarian emigres, Pillitz seems to have exhibited at least a couple of works at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and the Paris Salon in the 1920s.
She painted portraits of actors, musicians and other artists, including the Russian-born concert pianist Shulamith Shafir and the actress Dorothy Black as Emily Brontë in the play The Brontes, a work now in the V&A collection.
The group here provided an insight into her wider oeuvre. The picture that drew the most attention was a portrait of the model Marguerite Kelsey. The sitter, famed for her fine features, gracefulness and ability to hold poses for a long time was painted by the likes of Meredith Frampton, Augustus John, Dame Ethel Walker and Sir John Lavery.
Shown here with cropped-back hair, lime-green necklace, plunging neckline and viridian dress, it probably dated from the late 1920s or early 30s.
Kept at the artist’s studio in Hampstead, the picture showed how accomplished Pillitz’s best works could be. The 2ft 1in x 20in (62 x 50cm) oil on canvas was offered unframed and estimated at £350-550. But with the attraction of a recognisable sitter, it brought a good competition before it was knocked down at £2800 to a UK private buyer.
Other than a portrait of an artist holding a palette that made £3200 at Christie’s Jasper Conran sale in 2021, it was the highest price recorded for the artist at auction.
The buyer told ATG: “I would say it was the standout lot by the artist due to the striking sitter, attractive palette and beautiful background. As it was fresh to the market, from a desirable period (around 1930) and by a female artist I actually thought the price could have gone higher.”
Overall, the nine works by Pillitz all found admirers, selling to eight different UK buyers for a combined £7100.
Another north London figure whose work featured in the sale was the German emigré painter Hans Feibusch (1898-1998). In all, 24 of the 26 works sold for a £10,630 total.
Born in Frankfurt am Main to Jewish parents, Feibusch came to England in 1933 when the Nazis took power and he became a noted painter of murals for churches and public buildings.
An early patron was George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, and a quantity of his paintings, sculptures, drawings and studio effects are now in the collection of Pallant House Gallery. But a considerable number remained with his descendants, who consigned the group here.
Leading the selection was a colourful gouache on card depicting the baptism of Christ. Measuring 19 x 17in (48 x 43cm), it was signed with the artist’s initials and dated 60 to the lower left. It was a preparatory study for the mural over the altar at Old Saint George’s Baptist Church in Plymouth.
Estimated at £800-1200, it sold at £2000, an above-average sum for the artist albeit slightly behind results for his larger and more commercial subjects. A still-life with two sculptural busts sold for a record €12,000 (£10,125) at an auction in Berlin in 2021.
The top lot of the auction overall was a war painting by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) which surpassed a £2000-3000 estimate and sold at £3800 to another UK private buyer. The 2ft 6in x 3ft 4in (77cm x 1.01m) oil on canvas showed bomb damage to the square and cathedral in Péronne, a site not far from where the battles of the Somme took place during the First World War.
Appointed an official war artist, Rothenstein spent six months at the front from November 1917 and was greatly moved by what he encountered in the Somme valley. An exhibition of his paintings and drawings from Péronne was held at the Mappin Gallery in Sheffield in 1918 and this example may well have featured at the show.
A painting of haystacks on the back of the canvas was also reproduced as a plate in the set of 12 drypoints Rothenstein published in 1922 under the title Landscapes of the War.
Works by Rothenstein have fetched over £10,000 on at least a dozen occasions (all bar one of them a figurative picture).
Overall, the 21 works by Rothenstein raised a combined £10,830 with 17 of the works finding buyers.