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British Art Auction report: The Bacon and Freud effect

Recent record prices for the two artists boosted results for 20th-century British works, while Victorian art struggled

Christie’s British Art Week (4-6 June) demonstrated the increasingly divided nature of this market, with 20th-century British works significantly outperforming Vic­torian and traditional works (though the top individual price came from the latter category).

The strength of 20th-century British works reflects the record prices set by Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, and Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, in New York in May. Both of these were bought at auction by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who also visited Art Basel. There too, classic modern works performed best, with Girl in Attic Doorway, mid 1990s, by Lucian Freud selling for $12m at Acquavella (p53).

The total (including premium) for Christie’s four sales was £20.3m ($39.6m), well below the £21m-£31.6m pre-sale estimate. Over half of this was made up by the £11.6m ($22.7m) from the 20th Century British Art sale on 6 June, which was the only one that reached—and in this case exceeded—its pre-sale estimate.

The Peter Meyer Collection, assembled during the 1940s and 1950s, was a boon: fresh to the market from a man who began collecting contemporary British art in the 1940s, it comprised less than a quarter of the sale’s 41 lots, but accounted for 36% of the total at £4.1m ($8m). The top lot came from this collection: Bowl, Eggs and Lemons, 1950, by William Scott (1913-89). This went to the Pyms Gallery, London, for £1.1m ($2.1m), doubling its top estimate and setting a new record for the artist. By contrast, another Scott painting, Blue Frying Pan, 1956, which was last on the market 30 years ago, failed to sell at £200,000-£300,000 ($391,000-$586,500). “Its dark palette may have contributed to this,” said Christie’s head of British and Irish art, Jonathan Horwich, but it demonstrated the unpredictability of the market.

The St Ives School also featured strongly: a new record for a carving by Barbara Hepworth was set when Sculpture with Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red, 1943, also went to the Pyms Gallery for £892,450 ($1.7m). The same dealer also bought Horizontal Form in Grasses by Graham Sutherland, 1951, for a new high of £325,250 ($635,864), while an anonymous buyer paid £668,450 ($1.3m) for an early work from Patrick Heron’s “Garden Series”, Camellia Garden: March 1956. The only living artist from the group, Paul Feiler, now aged 90, achieved a new auction record when Porthcadjack, Blue & Black, 1961, went for a mid-estimate £157,250 ($307,423).

Despite disappointing results this year, the repositioning of British Art Week in 2004 to coincide with the Grosvenor House Fair (see right) has boosted overall sales and aided the ailing Victorian and traditionalist pictures market by encouraging core Asian buyers to travel. The most expensive purchase of the week was made when an Asian collector paid £1.8m ($3.5m) for Albert Joseph Moore’s undated Jasmine, setting a record for the artist.