The event ran from June 29-July 6 around Mayfair and St James’s, incorporating around 40 dealers and galleries as well as the auction houses Christie’s, Bonhams and Sotheby’s.
It was the last of these salerooms that grabbed headlines when pop star-turned-fashion designer Victoria Beckham selected 16 portraits from its Old Masters sale and hung them around her store on Dover Street.
The interest in portraiture persisted during LAW. And in dubbing it “the Victorian Beckham effect”, Alexandra Toscano of Trinity Fine Art describes it as only a single moment in a wider trend.
“People have started to look at portraits differently,” she told ATG. “Portraits can be viewed from many different angles and people are appreciating both the sitters and the richness of the costume and stories behind them. Long may it last.”
One of the Trinity sales was a portrait with a suitably complex backstory. Painted by French artist Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), the label on the frame described the sitter as Dr Jean Louis Alibert.
However, the gallery established that it is in fact Alibert’s mentor Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis (1757-1808), a renowned medical philosopher. Cabanis had given up an early passion for poetry to pursue medicine and developed a mechanistic understanding of life that removed the need for any divine reality.
Blondel, a former employee of the porcelain manufacturer Dihl et Guerhard, painted the portrait the year he won the Prix de Rome. Cabanis is depicted with a bust of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing.
A self-portrait of Arthur Segal (1875- 1944), which sold from Galleria del Laocoonte, a pastel depiction by Eva Gonzalès (1849-83), which a European private collector bought from Stephen Ongpin for around £350,000, and four pictures from Galleria Carlo Virgilio’s exhibition Faces – Chapter 2 were among the portraits that sold around other galleries during the event.
“ People are appreciating the sitters, the richness of the costumes and the stories behind them
Figural images, incorporating the human form whether fictional or allegorical, also found buyers.
Among the most fascinating of these was a recently discovered oil sketch by the French painter Édouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan (1847-1913). In oil on rough board, the sketch was created for one of the artist’s best-known Orientalist works, Le Massage – Scène de Hammam (1883), which has hung in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France, since 1885.
It was spotted at a small auction house, under-catalogued, by dealers from Bagshawe Fine Art. They were able to precisely identify it and recognise its cultural significance. It differs from the finished version in several significant ways. The central figure’s body, for example, is shown twisted towards the viewer in the preparatory work, rather than face down and angled away.
The gallery suggested that the state of the composition means the new-found study was produced before any of the other known preliminary pieces for the picture. It was ultimately purchased by the Musée des Augustins, where it joins the finished work.
Though such visiting museums are greeted enthusiastically by dealers, the event seeks to appeal to buyers of many backgrounds. Open to newcomers and seasoned collectors alike, prices at the event generally ranged from the low four figures to well over £1m this year.
Easier way to meet dealers
At LAW’s core is the aim to introduce galleries to new buyers who will become returning clients.
It has the advantage of keeping the dealer in a single gallery space, surrounded by his or her own stock – arguably a more relaxed way to meet and talk to buyers than at a hectic day during a fair.
The event champions the idea that these meetings may lay the groundwork for long, productive relationships, with the dealer both selling to and in some cases buying from the client.
“So many of our exhibitions this summer exemplified the tenacity and patience of dealers with deep knowledge and an experienced eye,” said Crispian Riley-Smith, founding director of LAW. The relationships they form “enable them to offer discoveries and works fresh to the market”.