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Sotheby’s London – European & British Art

December 16, 2021

This week was a busy one for the more traditional market, with both main auction rooms offering up a mixed bag of European & British art. I will also add that both saleroom’s online bidding platforms experienced errors, and lots were closing while bidders could not submit new bids. Anyone who is even considering offering something at auction needs to address those kind of potential issues with them.

On the 15th, Sotheby’s presented a sale of 99 works with estimates as low as £1-1.5K and as high as £300-500K. I warmly remember the good old days when they had a cutoff of about 18K/$25K for works in these sales, while lower-priced works were for their ‘general’ sales. It shows you how difficult it is to source enough high-quality paintings to fill a sale.


Coming in first was Anders Zorn’s Madonna. The painting, which came from a collection in the US, measures 29 x 23 inches, dates from 1899, and features a young woman holding a baby. To me, it did not look like a Madonna image, but what do I know? They expected the work to sell in the £150-250K range, and it finally hammered at £650K/$861K (£801.5K/$1.06M – w/p). I am sure the sellers were thrilled. Coming in a distant second was Alfred Munnings’ The New Standard, Presentation of Standards 1927. The painting was similar in size to the Zorn, featured a group of horse guards, and was estimated to bring in the £180-220K range; the work hammered at £240K/$318K (£302.4K/$401K – w/p). The seller, Sir Michael Smurfitbought it at Christie’s in 2007 for £333.6K/$660K — so I am sure he was not too happy, but he was expecting a loss before the bidding started. In a close third was an unsigned collaborative work between Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray titled Venus Epithalamia. This small (14.5 x 10.75 inch) work on paper also came from a collector in the US, carried a £200-300K estimate, and sold at the low end – £200K/$265K (£252K/334K – w/p). Rounding out the top five were Atkinson Grimshaw’s Fifty Years Ago at £190K/$252K (£239K/$317K) – this one was last on the auction block back in 1999 and sold for £128K/$207K, and a large work by Peder Monsted titled Winter Sun in the Engadin made £120K/$159K (£151K/$200K) on a £120-180K estimate. The seller bought this in 2019 for €92.5/$104K – so I guess they toasted to that result.

Burne-Jones & Murray

Two other lots performed well – Paul Fischer’s Bathers on Hornbæk Beach – £95K/$126K (£119.7K/$159K – est. £26-32K), and Marie Stillman’s Gelsomina (Jasmine) – £85/$113K (£107/$142K – est. £30-50K). As I anticipated, many lots did not sell; among them were – Sir William Blake Richmond’s large Behold the Bridegroom Cometh – est. £300-500K; Eugène Jansson’s Vårkväll (Spring Eve) – est. £150-250K; Montage Dawson’s Clearing Skies, The ‘Glory of the Seas” – est. £100-150K; and Vlaho Bukovac’s The Ringstrasse, Vienna – est. £50-70K.

Of the 98 works offered in the European & British Art sale (one was withdrawn during the sale), 51 were sold, and 47 were returned to their owners, leaving them with a sell-through rate of 53%, not good. The presale estimate range was £2.8- 4.35M, and the sale totaled £2.34M – when we added in the buyer’s premium, they hit £3M and beat the low end of their range. It was interesting to note that even though almost half the sale did not sell, they still came close (at the hammer) to their expected range. It just goes to show you how a good painting or two, with a low estimate, can impact the bottom line numbers.

The top lot in the sale accounted for 27% of the sale’s total, while the top 3 were 46%, and the top 5 was 58.5%! Of the 51 sold works, 4 were below, 31 within, and 16 above their estimate range, leaving them with an accuracy rate of 31.6% … better than most, so I guess that’s a win.