Juan Manuel Blanes painting

Juan Manuel Blanes’ Gaucho on horseback in a Uruguayan prairie landscape, sold for £1.15m at Toovey’s.

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1. Juan Manuel Blanes’ Gaucho – £1.15m

The highest price for a painting sold at an auction outside London in 2023 came early on in the year when a rediscovered work by ‘Uruguay’s most important painter’ Juan Manuel Blanes (1830- 1901) fetched a record £1.15m at Toovey’s in West Sussex on February 15.

The painting of a gaucho on horseback, identified by Toovey’s fine art consultant Tim Williams, had carried a pre-sale estimate of £80,000-120,000.

In the country of his birth, Blanes is renowned for painting the scenes and events that shaped the national identity during the years of conflict that resulted in independence from Spain.

The national gallery in Montevideo is named Museo del Bellas Artes Juan Manuel Blanes and houses the largest collection of the artist’s work.

Williams told ATG: “This is probably Juan Manuel Blanes’ best work, larger and more animated than a sister painting (titled Auroa or Entre dos Iuces) that made $905,000 [including premium, at Christie’s New York in November 2014].

“It must be one of the most important Latin American paintings to have ever emerged from the woodwork.”

On sale day in Washington, West Sussex, a bank of phones and a number of bidders in the room prepared to contest the picture. However, from early on, the bidding was between a single phone bidder and a Uruguayan private collector in the room who eventually won at a price that was just under £1.5m with 24.5% buyer’s premium added.

2. Turner watercolour – £75,000

Chepstow Castle By JMW Turner

Chepstow Castle on the river Wye, Monmouthshire, Wales, a watercolour by JMW Turner, £75,000 at Cheffins.

An early watercolour of Chepstow Castle by JMW Turner (1775-1851) drew significant interest at Cheffins on March 22.

The 12¼ x 16½in (31 x 42cm) picture, signed and dated 1794, was painted by Turner when he was just 19 years old, on his first tour of south Wales. It shows the castle overlooking a wooden bridge across the River Wye.

Authenticated by art historian and Turner expert Andrew Wilton, its provenance was traced back to Dr Thomas Monro, one of the artist’s most important patrons. It came from a London-based vendor descended from George Cock Gibson (1896-1989) in whose family it had been since at least 1956.

Against an estimate of £30,000-50,000, it sold for a hammer price of £75,000 (plus 29.4% buyer’s premium inc VAT) and has returned to Chepstow after fundraising by local museums (it was bought by MonLife Heritage, the operator of six heritage sites in the area).

3. Shepherd painting – £25,000

Joseph Digby-Curtis painting

Shepherd and his flock by Joseph Digby-Curtis, £25,000 at Tennants.

An early 19th century naïve agricultural scene by the elusive Joseph Digby-Curtis (c.1755-1837) posted one of the highest prices for this genre of painting in the last 20 years when it sold at Tennants (24% buyer’s premium) in Leyburn, North Yorkshire on July 15.

It was deemed an extraordinary work on a number of counts.

The 2ft 1in x 4ft 9in (62.5cm x 1.44m) signed oil on canvas was an unusually large example of its type. Its composition also differed significantly from the standard format of livestock portraits which tend to feature a single animal in profile. Here five sheep of different ages and states of shearing are given varying placements across the canvas and are shown at different angles.

A farmhouse can be seen to the background on the left while a landscape and town appear to the right. A proud farmer in striking shepherd’s garb - for whom the work may well have been painted - stands at the centre before a wooden barn. By showing one sheep coated and the other in the flesh, the picture was probably commissioned to show off the owner’s proficiency at producing both wool and meat.

Despite some significant condition problems, including some extensive restoration and retouching to old tears and damages, a number of bidders were prepared to look beyond these issues given the appeal and rarity of the work. Estimated at £3000-5000, it was knocked down at £25,000 to a UK private buyer who saw off interest from the trade.

The underbidder told ATG the picture was “about as good as it gets” when it comes to this type of painting. “It was bizarre and wonderful… and big,” they added.

4. Portrait of a man with pickaxe – £400,000

English School portrait of a man

English School portrait of a man with pickaxe and spade, dated 1601, sold for £400,000 at Dreweatts’ Robert Kime auction.

Arguably the sale of year outside the capital in the UK this year was Dreweatts’ auction of the collection of dealer and ‘titan of design’ Robert Kime.

Dispersed over three days from October 4-6 in Newbury, Berkshire, the collection raised a £7.6m hammer total and included numerous pictures that flew over estimate. One of them was a striking portrait of a man holding a pickaxe and a spade.

While the artist and sitter were both unidentified, the latter - who was shown dressed in aristocratic attire (a white linen under shirt, silver and gold belt, and black breeches with silver thread) but carrying the tools of an agricultural worker - was believed to be a member of the gentry.

The inscription QVIA PATER CREDIDIT MVLIERI (Why should the father have believed his wife) suggests that the sitter, who may well have commissioned the work, was born illegitimate after ‘the father’ was made a cuckold by his wife.

Replete with symbolism, the portrait was therefore considered a morality painting, perhaps relating to the sitter’s exclusion from inheriting his ‘paternal’ social status and property.

The quality of painting with the face vividly portrayed meant it was anything but a typical naïve picture. Combining decorative appeal, historical and social significance, not to mention rarity with no comparable portrait having seemingly sold at auction, bidders were happy to overlook the condition issues which included repaired splits and fracture lines within the panel and numerous old retouchings.

Catalogued as ‘English school (early 17th century)’, the 3ft 5in x 2ft 8in (1.05m x 82cm) oil on panel was estimated at £10,000-15,000. On the day, it drew at least four bidders but came down to a battle between two determined parties on the phone. It was eventually knocked down at £400,000 to a US collector.

5. David Hockney ceramic cat – £89,500

Ceramic cat sculpture by David Hockney

Black and White Cat, a ceramic sculpture by David Hockney, £89,500 at Stacey’s.

A rare ceramic cat given by David Hockney (b.1937) to strangers who helped him as a student fetched a record price for one of the artist’s sculptural felines when it sold at Stacey’s in Chelmsford on October 23.

The story begins on a stormy Sunday afternoon in 1955 when Peter Richards and his wife Wendy welcomed two sodden hitchhikers into their home alongside the A1 in Bedfordshire. The youngsters were on their way to London to view an exhibition; one of them was Hockney, the other was Norman Stevens, a fellow student at Bradford College of Art.

Finding the two friends sheltering under the eaves of their cottage, the Richardses offered them refuge, making them cups of tea and drying their clothes. After heading on their way, Hockney decided to keep in touch and maintained a friendship with the couple for many years.

Not long later he gave them a ceramic cat, made in the same black and white colours as their family pet at the time, to thank them for their kindness on that rainy Sunday. Measuring 14in (35cm) high, it was one of six cat sculptures produced by the artist while still studying in Bradford.

The example given to the Richardses is considered to be the first cat Hockney made.

Ceramic cat sculpture by David Hockney

Black and White Cat, a ceramic sculpture by David Hockney, £89,500 at Stacey’s, sold with letters from Hockney.

Estimated at £30,000- 40,000, the ceramic cat was offered with accompanying documentation from Hockney, including sketches for the cat’s design as well as letters and cards sent by Hockney to the couple over the years. It drew a flurry of interest as multiple online and phone bidders competed.

With over 10 parties from the UK and two from the US, it was eventually knocked down at £89,500 (£111,875 with fees) to a UK buyer on the phone.