This was particularly the case with a recent picture that featured in Sotheby’s online sale of Old Master & 19th Century paintings that closed on September 20.
The portrait of a young lady by Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1793-1872) had plenty of recent auction history, selling first at Woolley & Wallis in 2017 for £5000 and then again for £3000 at Duke’s in 2022. It then appeared for a third time at a Sotheby’s online sale in April this year where it was unsold against a £4000-6000 estimate.
While normally the market is averse to works lacking in market freshness, the latest performance showed that even three auction appearances in six years is not necessarily the kiss of death. Pitched at a lower level of £2000-3000, this fourth time it was bid to a staggering £28,000 (or £35,560 with fees), a record for the artist. It sold to a UK private collector.
The picture itself, a 22¼ x 18¼in (56 x 46cm) oil on canvas which was signed and dated 1834, had long been thought to depict the artist’s daughter Henrietta. This was well established and it was mentioned in the catalogue for each of its auction appearances.
So how to explain such a divergent result within such a short space of time?
Although impossible to know for sure, it seems likely that two or more bidders were simply aware of the picture this time around whereas previously they weren’t.
Perhaps they viewed it as an opportunity to buy into the potential of an underrated female artist (even though the re-evaluation of female painters has been well under way for a number of years now and they presumably had the chance to buy it at a lesser price back in April)?
One leading London dealer wondered if two international museums had become aware of the work in the intervening five months since it was last offered.
ATG asked Sotheby’s as to why it did so well and a spokesman replied: “There really isn’t a clear answer. It caught the eye of at least two bidders who simply decided they must own it.”
Carpenter, a self-taught artist from Salisbury, was introduced to Sir Thomas Lawrence during her late teens and established herself as a professional artist in London by 1813.
Exhibiting no fewer than 243 pictures during her lifetime (including 156 pictures at the Royal Academy) and believed to have produced around 1000 works in total, the Sotheby’s catalogue for the most recent sale stated: ‘This remarkable output ranks Carpenter among some of the most successful female artists of her generation.’
It also pointed out how she showed her work alongside John Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington at the Paris Salon of 1827 and that William Powell Frith (1819-1909) wrote in his memoir that she ‘far surpassed in merit most of her contemporary portrait-painters’.
Although at least 60 of her works are now in public collections, she was described as ‘a forgotten talent’ in an article last year on the Art UK website.
In the end, perhaps the price at the latest Sotheby’s sale is best explained as “one of those age-old vagaries of the auction market”, as one auction-watcher told ATG. “In our increasingly digital world, believing everything can be quantified precisely, the value of art remains wonderfully, stubbornly mercurial,” he added.