On Friday, July 15th, Christie’s London held their British & European art sale. The auction came at the end of a week where several other London auction houses, like Sotheby’s and Bonhams, held similar sales. While the former fared rather poorly, the latter did particularly well. So the outcome of the Christie’s sale seemed rather up in the air going into it (all prices given are hammer prices unless the added buyer’s premium is indicated with “w/p”). The house specialists gave great attention to the Sir Alfred James Munnings scene entitled The Shortcut. They expected it to be the sale’s star, using its image for promotional material. The painting, created around 1911, shows a rider in a red fox-hunting jacket leading his horse over a footbridge. Until Friday’s sale, it was in the continuous possession of the Colman family, a prominent eastern English business and political family (known for their brand of mustard, among some other things). Christie’s experts estimated the Munnings to go for as much as £250K. While the Munnings was among the sale’s top lots, it failed to reach its pre-sale estimate and reached only second place at £140K / $165.6K (£176.4K / $208.7K w/p). Meanwhile, a wooded, pastoral landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot took the sale’s top spot instead. The Corot painting, showing peasants on a country lane outside Paris, was already highly valued by the specialists since it last sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in 2016 for £125K w/p. But it reached more than double its £120K high estimate, with the hammer coming down at £280K / $331.3 (£352.8K / $417.4K w/p).
Coming up in third was John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Autumn Morning, which was last up at auction at Sotheby’s New York in 1992, where it sold for $52,250 w/p. It’s a typical Grimshaw scene, with the top of an old manor house visible in the background. The viewer’s focus is drawn to the old stone gate crawling with ivies, which stand out against the golden leaves scattered about on the paving stones leading up to the house. This time, Autumn Morning did significantly better, falling within its estimate and selling for £110K / $130.1K (or £138.6K / $164K w/p).
While some of the available lots did very well, most lots did not bring in as much as expected, while many others did not even sell. Fifty-eight of the one hundred sixty-five lots, or around 35%, went unsold. Christie’s specialists predicted almost twenty of these unsold works to make as high as £50K or £70K, including other works by Grimshaw and Munnings. Autumn Morning was the only one of the four works by Grimshaw that sold on Friday. There were also many unsold Venetian cityscapes by nineteenth and early twentieth-century painters like Félix Ziem, Martín Rico, Rubens Santoro, and Federico del Campo. But it wasn’t complete doom-and-gloom, as there were some nice little surprises throughout the sale. Franz Richard Unterberger’s Venetian scene Rio San Girolamo was only due to make £12K, but it ended up bringing in almost four times that. The hammer ended up coming down at £70K / $82.8K (or £88.2K / $104.4K w/p). When it comes to sales that do relatively poorly overall, the unexpected surprises become all the more special. On top of the unsold lots, an additional sixty-two works, or 38%, sold below their pre-sale estimates. All in all, only twenty-eight works sold within their estimates, or about 17% of the total number of available lots. This resulted in the sale only making £1.8M (or $2.13M), falling short of the £2.68M minimum estimate put forth by Christie’s experts.