I was initially excited for the Bonhams marine sale on Wednesday, April 27th, mainly because it was truly a mixed bag of different pieces of maritime art. While most of the lots were paintings, the first thirteen were not. Some were pieces of Barbadian folk art made from shells, while others were examples of scrimshaw, some ship models, and a gold ring commemorating the British victory at Trafalgar with a strand of Horatio Nelson’s hair inserted into the enamel. There were some great examples of marine art, but unfortunately, that day’s buyers didn’t seem to think so. While the experts predicted that the entire sale would bring in anywhere between £510.5K and £732.2K, frustratingly, the sale fell short of the minimum estimate by a mere £220. Only forty-six of the one hundred sixty-two available lots (28%) fell within their estimates. Thirty-one lots (19%) surpassed their estimates, while fifty-six lots (35%) went unsold. The biggest victims were those artists with many works featured. If you watch art auctions long enough, you begin to realize something. There’s an inverse correlation between the number of pieces by one artist and the interest that artist garners. This was seen on Wednesday with the nineteenth-century British painter Nicholas Matthew Condy. There were ten paintings by Condy featured in the sale, but only five sold (just too much material for the market to absorb at one time). But at least of the five that sold, three sold within estimate and two slightly above. Condy’s contemporary, the Dutch painter Abraham Hulk, also had ten works featured, but he did far worse. Out of ten, only one sold within estimate, three others sold below, and the other six were unsold. Regardless, the auction wasn’t complete doom and gloom. There were still some highly-valued lots that sold, along with a few surprises.
The Battle of the Saintes was painted by British naval lieutenant William Elliott, showing a 1782 British victory over the French in the American Revolutionary War. The canvas is massive, measuring close to five feet tall by eight-and-a-half feet wide, enabling a viewer to observe some of the details of the French and British warships. If it weren’t for the billowing smoke from the cannons, the work would seem oddly peaceful, with scores of ships lined up against one another in the rippling Caribbean waters. Though estimated to sell for between £25K and £35K, the hammer came down at £48K / $60.2K (or £60.8K / $76.2 w/p). Not far behind was a work by the nineteenth-century British marine painter David James which sold for slightly above its estimate. While about half the size of the Elliott work, Plunging Seas is a very typical work by James, as he tended to focus less on coastlines and ships at sea and preferred to study the ocean itself. The canvas of tumbling waves sold for £46K / $57.7K (or £58.3K / $73.1K w/p), exceeding its original £35K high estimate. Finally, two works tied for third place: the maritime painting entitled Margate by George Chambers shows the eponymous British port town located at the eastern end of Kent in southern England. The other work was Norman Wilkinson’s The Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Canada lying in Hong Kong harbour. The title doesn’t exactly leave much explaining for me to do. Both paintings sold for £28K / $35.1K (or £35.6K / $44.6K w/p), though predicted to go for £10K and £12K maximum, respectively.
Towards the end of the sale, a pair of works by a contemporary marine artist spiced things up a bit. Martyn Richardson Mackrill’s works, entitled Light airs and a flowing tide and Two yachts in full sail, possibly off Cumbrae, were only valued at £1K and £800, respectively. For a pair of contemporary works, it’s not terrible. But demand for Mackrill’s work may be picking up since both paintings sold for £7K / $8.8K (or £8.9K / $11.2 w/p). While not exponentially exceeding its estimate, a third Mackrill work, 30 linear raters racing on the Solent, reached £2K / $2.5K (or £2.8K / $3.5K w/p). Though Bonhams specialists ever so slightly missed the mark, at least they came close. Despite all the unsold works, the sale highlighted some more modern and contemporary artists like Mackrill and Wilkinson.