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British and Irish art sale a subdued affair

Some big collectors have stopped buying and bidders held back

London

Twentieth-century British art might be gaining new admirers but there is less interest in paintings of an earlier period. Christie’s Important British art auction on the evening of 9 June was a subdued affair, mainly notable for the rapid return to the market of 15 paintings acquired in recent years by the Australian businessman John Schaeffer (see below).

The sale totalled £5,834,650, with 30 of the 45 lots offered finding buyers. In theory a portrait of the boy king, Edward VI, painted anonymously around 1548, and hung for centuries in Loseley Park (with a brief visit to that great marketing exhibition “The Treasure Houses of Great Britain” in Washington, DC in 1985) should have roused the room, but there was muted interest in this rare work which eventually sold for £621,250, near the top of its estimate. The buyer was a London agent who was expected to seek an export licence.

The main excitement was reserved for a depiction of the Goose Fair in Nottingham painted in 1926 by the local artist Arthur Spooner, who never left the city. Spirited bidding pushed the price to £218,050, three times the estimate and a record for the artist. It was bought by a Nottingham collector and there is a good chance it will be loaned to the local art gallery.

John William Godward’s scenes set in classical idylls are currently very popular and there was little surprise when one of his finest efforts, “A Pompeian garden” sold for £509,250, almost double the modest estimate and a record for the artist. This painting was under glass, in perfect condition, in a fine frame and new to the market. It went to an American collector living in the UK.

There was also considerable interest in a Morris & Co tapestry, “The failure of Sir Gawain and Sir Ewain to achieve the Holy Grail”, designed by Burne-Jones, which sold for £386,050, comfortably above its high estimate. This was the first weaving in a celebrated set of six, designed for Stanmore Hall in 1894. Last year Christie’s offered it in New York with a much higher estimate and it was bought in at $700,000. Set against these successes there were the surprising failures of a Romney portrait of a playful Lady Hamilton; a busy Highlands scene by Landseer and Callcott; and a decorative society portrait by Luke Fildes, all of which had been cautiously estimated, like most of the works on offer.

The Victorian market at the top level depends on a handful of collectors, some of whom, such as John Schaeffer, Fred Koch and Graham Kirkham, have withdrawn from the market for the time being. Jerry Davis had also sold works at Christie’s after failing to pay back a loan from the auction house (The Art Newspaper, No. 138, July/August 2003, p. 40). Others, such as Lord Lloyd Webber, have well-stocked collections and buy only occasionally. Most of the bidding was on the telephone, with bidders showing a marked reluctance to pay above the high estimate.

Important British and Irish Art, Christie’s London, 9 June 2004

Sold by lot 67%

Sold by value 80%

Sale total £5,834,650