Last Wednesday’s 19th Century sale at Bonhams London certainly left one feeling astounded for various reasons. The one-hundred sixteen available lots came up a few hundred thousand pounds short, despite some works greatly exceeding their estimates, in some cases undeservedly so. Bonhams specialists seemed to have placed a good deal of their hope in Friedrich Nerly’s Venetian cityscape Bacino di San Marco, estimated at £200K to £300K. Unfortunately, that painting didn’t receive enough attention and was bought in. It seems like physical size was what attracted bidders to many works. The top spot was taken by Après le bal by Jan van Beers. The oil on canvas work measures 55.5 inches by 98.75 inches, making it nearly 4½ feet tall by more than 8 feet wide. Translating to After the Ball, it shows a sleeping young woman lying on what appears to be a sofa draped in furs. The woman is completely nude, with the remnants of the previous night’s events unceremoniously discarded on the floor next to her: her dress, her stockings, her shoes, a bouquet of flowers, a cigarette case, and other assorted things that presumably she threw on the floor in an exhausted stupor after returning home. The only things that remain on her person are some thin bracelets and a choker necklace. The Van Beers work, while only expected to bring in £60K to £80K, sold for £255K / $335K (or £319K / $419.1K w/p). Not only was it the painting’s size that caused it to bring in over three times its estimate, but I think it’s the work’s relatability. Because who among us hasn’t at one point felt the same way as the painting’s subject? Throwing all your stuff on the floor, not even putting stuff away, diving right into bed, or just the nearest comfortable flat surface.
For the second-place work, physical size may have again been a factor. La Opere, Campiña Romana by Ramón Tusquets y Maignon is a massive painting, measuring 4 feet tall by 8½ feet wide. And it’s an incredible work, showing clear inspiration from French Realist works by Courbet and Millet. But what Bonhams specialists highlight is that the work, showing Roman peasants working the fields, would have been impossible to create if Tusquets had not been intimately familiar with the countryside of Lazio, just outside Rome. The color of the sunlight, the texture of the soil, and the dress of the figures were all executed with painstakingly detailed accuracy. So it’s not surprising that it hit its £150K to £200K estimate, selling for £170K / $223.3K (or £212.75K / $279.5K w/p).
The third place was a smaller painting, but one that caught my attention when I first browsed the lots before the sale. While John Atkinson Grimshaw may be best known for his moonlit nightscapes, In the Autumn’s Waning Glow is a beautiful twilight scene showing a red and gold, leaf-covered, Northern English village road. Estimated at £120K to £180K by Bonhams experts, the Grimshaw hit £150K / $197.1K (or £187.75K / $246.6K w/p).
While the Van Beers work taking the top spot came as a surprise to many, it was by no means the biggest surprise of the sale. That role was taken up by a rather unimpressive oil on canvas work by the relatively obscure Russian-Jewish artist Isaak Lwowitsh Asknasij. The Rabbi and his daughter may be one of the most damaged works I have ever seen across the auction block. The canvas is completely covered with a spider web of cracks, so much so that I had to get a second opinion as to whether or not they were intentionally part of the original painting. The £5K to £7K estimate given by Bonhams experts is incredibly generous, to say the least. This is why I sat in disbelief as bid after bid came in, bringing up the hammer price to £42K / $55.1K (or £52.75K / $69.3K w/p). My faith in humanity was later restored when the sale’s other surprise came up. John Emms’s Foxhounds and a hunt terrier was estimated to go for anywhere between £10K and £15K. But of course, similar to the Internet, if something has a couple of cute dogs, it’s bound to get more attention than expected. After a few minutes, the bidding had already soared past the estimate, landing at £63K / $82.8K (or £79K / $103.8K w/p).
While about 40% of the one-hundred sixteen lots hit or exceeded their estimates, nearly an equal amount went unsold. This caused the auction to fail to meet the presale estimates. Though Bonhams specialists were hoping for anywhere between £1.9M and £2.9M, the sale was a couple hundred thousand pounds short, reaching only £1.7M (or $2.3M).