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November auctions of Important British Pictures failed to stir collectors leaving slew of unsold lots

Collectors shunned many 18th- and 19th-century works

London. Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s should regard their November auctions of pre-20th-century “Important British pictures” as their finest hour. Christie’s evening sale on 23 November had 28 carefully selected but not outstanding lots which brought in £1,967,800, but only 12 works found buyers. The next day, Sotheby’s took a scattergun approach with 162 lots, almost half of which were watercolours or miniatures. The sale totalled £2,161,100, 58% sold by lot and 61.9% by value.

New collectors today prefer more fashionable and accessible 20th-century and contemporary British art. Earlier in the month, Christie’s sale of 20th-century British art made more than £7.5 million ($12.9 million), its highest ever total in the field, with new price highs set for a slew of artists from Caulfield to Sutherland. Sotheby’s had also had a good sale, making over £4.7 million ($8.4 million).

So the contrast was stark. Christie’s main failure was a work by Munnings, Where did you jump the brook? It had a hefty upper estimate of £1.2 million despite the fact it failed to sell on its last appearance at auction in 2001: familiarity obviously bred contempt. But Christie’s found a US private buyer for a supremely sentimental late work by Millais, Little Miss Muffet, which sold for its lower estimate of £456,000. The same sum secured the star of the show, one of Sir John Lavery’s many views of the golf course at North Berwick. It was better than most, and was acquired by Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the owner of the Valderrama golf club in Spain for almost double its estimate.

The other success was an auction record for the Welsh 18th-century artist Thomas Jones, best known for his watercolours. His Neapolitan view in oil, 1783, made £237,600. But a good Lawrence portrait failed to sell and a Burne-Jones portrait was an unexpected disappointment, although Christie’s hopes to secure a later deal for the work.

Christie’s British picture specialist Jonathan Horwich put the lacklustre performance down to fate rather than the market and drew satisfaction from the week of sales of British art which totalled £11.5 million, equalling the result achieved in June.

David Moore-Gwyn at Sotheby’s also saw the indifferent auction as a minor blip, pointing to the success of British art from the Wills collection and Easton Neston, the Hesketh family home, in the summer. The main failure, a Gainsborough portrait of the Bathurst children, had been touted around the market before the auction and the leading Reynolds, a portrait of Theophila Palmer, was not in the best condition.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Important British pictures fail to sell'