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Art market

Woolley & Wallis (22% buyer’s premium) joined the growing list of auction houses whose picture departments are enjoying an optimistic start to the year.

W&W’s 530-lot auction on March 15, the first of two Old Masters, British & European Paintings sales scheduled for this year at the Salisbury saleroom, offered a traditional assemblage.

Though containing some potentially ‘tricky’ material, such as watercolours and portrait miniatures, the sluggishness for which these areas are prone was largely kept at bay.

In the end, the results made good reading: 80% of lots sold and a total of £460,000.

The sale also surpassed last September’s smaller 330-lot offering, where 10% fewer lots got away to post a total just below the sale’s bottom estimate.

“Generally the market is going in the right direction. This sale felt very buoyant and optimistic, though that’s not to say there weren’t some patchy areas,” said Victor Fauvelle, W&W head of pictures.

Of the bidders who took part, 50% chose to do so online, a trend which seems to be on an ever-upward trajectory.

The financial highlights came from a trio of paintings by German-born Russian painter Richard Karlovich Zommer (1866-1939). Popular with Russian and eastern European collectors, Zommer is noted for his highly detailed scenes of daily life, particularly of Georgia and the Caucasus, which he executed with deep strong colours.

Thought to have been painted on Zommer’s trips to the Caucasus, the group at W&W had been transported from Tbilisi in Georgia in army map containers by the vendor’s grandfather, Captain Douglas- Withers. He had been part of a small British force sent to stablise Tbilisi during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and had acquired the works from Zommer who was teaching in the city at the time.

The saleroom had already sold a large Zommer work, At Prayer, from the same source back in 2015 for £42,000. This trio, all smaller, sold for a combined total of £82,000.

Doorway to the East

The most eagerly contested was At the door to the mosque, a wellbalanced composition of figures assembled around a peeling archway to a mosque. Estimated at £15,000- 20,000, the 23 x 2ft 10in (58 x 86cm) oil on canvas was hammered down at £37,000 to an eastern European buyer.

The same buyer also paid £25,000 for Figures by a mosque, a slightly smaller work of a similar subject. It bettered its guide of £18,000-22,000.

Given the highest estimate of £20,000-30,000 but attracting the least interest on the day was The Ferry, Lake Van. The absence of architecture, which collectors like in Zommer’s work, probably accounted for the lack of bids, as did the arrangement of the figures, who have their backs to the viewer.

The pick of the portraits was Allan Ramsay’s (1713-84) confident 18th century swagger painting of James Bateman in a striking blue waistcoat.

Bateman was the second son of Sir James Bateman, one of the founding directors of the Bank of England and sub-governor of the South Sea Company, and who left a fortune reputedly worth £400,000 (some £56m today).

Painted when both painter and sitter were in Rome in 1756, the large 4ft 2in x 3ft 4in (1.27 x 1.01m) oil on canvas had last appeared at auction in 1980. In ‘ready to hang condition’, it attracted keen interest and tipped over top estimate to sell to a private buyer at £21,000.

Elsewhere, a pair of privately consigned 18th century Italian School landscapes in fine rococo frames were eagerly contested. Depicting views of a fortified town by a lake, the pair surpassed expectations, selling to the trade for £15,500 against a £4000-6000 estimate.