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Christie’s London British & European Art

July 18, 2023
A desert landscape at dawn, with the first light hitting the top of the Pyramids of Giza in the distance. Meanwhile, a group of tents near some palm trees lies asleep.

The First Kiss of the Sun by Jean-Léon Gérôme

On Thursday, July 13th, Christie’s London hosted its British and European Art sale, featuring over a hundred works, including those by Edward Seago, Terrence Cuneo, and Dame Laura Knight. However, the Orientalist and sporting scenes grabbed the most attention (w/p = with buyer’s premium). The sale’s top lot was The First Kiss of Sun by the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Created in 1886, the landscape shows the Pyramids of Giza at dawn. The viewer is turned away from the rising sun and instead looks westward, where the day’s first light is streaming over and hitting the very tops of the pyramids. Meanwhile, a camp of tents lies asleep, accompanied by their resting camels under a small group of palms. Gérôme created this landscape later in his career when recovering from a bout of influenza. It last sold at Christie’s London in 2003 for £260K. It last sold at Christie’s London in 2003 for £260K. It seems Christie’s specialists believed that the market for Orientalist landscapes, or Gérôme’s work in particular, is in a similar place since they gave the work an estimate range of £250K to £350K. The First Kiss of the Sun eventually sold at its low estimate of £250K / $327K (or £315K / $412K w/p).

A young boy and a young girl ride on their horses across an English country estate accompanied by dogs.

Honor and Hugh Vivian Smith by Sir Alfred James Munnings

Right behind the Gérôme were two equestrian scenes, both by the British painter Sir Alfred James Munnings. The first shows a pair of children on their horses accompanied by dogs. According to the inscription on the back, they are the siblings Honor Smith and Hugh Smith, riding their horses at Weald Hall in Essex. The siblings were the youngest of Vivian Smith’s seven children. In 1919, at the time of the painting’s creation, Vivian Smith was the governor of the Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation, which at one point served as the British government’s exclusive marine insurance provider. Honor would later study medicine, becoming a professional neurologist specializing in treating tuberculosis meningitis. Meanwhile, Hugh joined the British Army and saw combat in Italy during the Second World War. He became a captain in the Irish Guards and was even temporarily promoted to major. Christie’s gave the equestrian double portrait the same estimate as the Gérôme, which it just barely missed, with the hammer coming down at £240K / $313.9K (or £302.4K / $395.5K w/p). The third-place lot was a more typical Munnings work. Who’s the Lady? is an oil on canvas painting measuring about 44 by 70 inches showing the moments before an aristocratic English foxhunt. All the men are upon horses and dressed in bright red jackets while a pack of hunting dogs scurries about. Several men are doffing their hats and bowing to the painting’s subject, a lady in black sitting side-saddle upon a gray horse. Like some of the men in the scene, the viewer is left wondering the title question: who is she? Munnings reveals her identity in the inscription on the back of the canvas. She is Princess Mary, who at the time was Princess Royal, the sister to kings Edward VIII and George VI, and the aunt of Queen Elizabeth II. Christie’s also offered Who’s the Lady? along with two studies, one on board and the other on panel. The painting itself has not been up at auction since 1979, while the studies both last sold in 1981. Against a £150K to £250K estimate, Who’s the Lady? and its two studies sold for £180K / $235.4K (or £226.8K / $296.6K w/p).

The moments just before a traditional English foxhunt. Men on horseback are congregating wearing red jackets and black top hats. Some are removing their hats and bowing to the central figure, a lady in black atop a gray horse.

Who’s the Lady? by Sir Alfred James Munnings

Along with these successes, there were also several surprises throughout the sale. The Caravan by Josef von Brandt shows a group of mustachioed horsemen armed with rifles and whips guarding several camels loaded with merchandise. It is unknown where or when this scene is set, but the horsemen’s clothing and the inclusion of camels might narrow it down to West Asia, the Caucasus, or Russia. This is a bit of a departure from Von Brandt’s more recognizable work, which often featured either battle scenes or depictions of Polish peasant life. The last time The Caravan sold at auction was at Christie’s London in 1998 for £32K, far above its £12K high estimate. Again Christie’s underestimated The Caravan, expecting it to sell for no more than £50K, yet it ended up making £170K — more than three times that number. Two lots later, there was Eugene Alexis Girardet’s Flight into Egypt. Similarly to The Caravan, Girardet’s Flight into Egypt exceeded expectations the last time it came across the block. It last sold in 2014 at the Cologne auction house Lempertz for €46,360 against a €12K high estimate. This time, Christie’s gave the Girardet a £15K high estimate, which it quickly exceeded, reaching exactly three times that number at £45K / $58.8K (or £56.7K / $74.1K w/p).

Of the one hundred twelve lots available, thirty-two sold within their estimates, giving Christie’s specialists a 29% accuracy rate. Another thirty-eight lots (34%) sold below, while nineteen (17%) sold above. The sale as a whole did not do as well as it could have, likely because of the twenty-three lots (21%) that went unsold. Among the works bought in were several highly-valued lots like Sir George Clausen’s Portrait of the Girl, estimated to sell for between £150K and £250K. There was also Frank Cadogan Cowper’s Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, to which specialists assigned a £200K to £300K estimate range. Had these works received a bit more attention or had their reserves been slightly lower, the sale would have surpassed its £2,794,700 total minimum presale estimate. Instead, it fell just short at £2,699,500.