Among the attributes needed for staging a successful auction is the art of pitching works at the right levels.
The ‘right’ estimates, at least as far as auctioneers are concerned, are those that are substantial enough to indicate the value placed on the picture but also low enough to attract keen interest from bidders.
This is not always easy, especially in sales offering many lots across a wide range of genres, mediums and price levels.
The mixed-category auction at Lawrences (25% buyer’s premium) of Crewkerne, Somerset, on July 5 was a sale that offered works with something to suit all tastes and budgets.
The subject matter of the works varied from a floodlit New York boxing ring to a sunlight Cornish cove but also crossed Europe via Venice and Valetta.
Lawrences’ director and picture specialist Richard Kay has long experience in handling works across many categories and felt that, for the most part, an encouraging response came for the lots that were judiciously estimated at the latest sale.
With a hammer total of £235,000 from 271 picture lots and a selling rate of 86%, the results were gratifying for an end-of-season event.
Evidence of bidders responding to well-pitched estimates included the competition that came for a Maltese picture depicting a Dutch two-decker entering Valletta harbour.
Such scenes have emerged at Lawrences before, partly on account of the West Country’s association with the British fleet (naval officers stationed in Malta had a long history of bringing home topographical works as souvenirs).
The artist was felt to be closely connected to the German-born Anton Schranz (1769-1839), who lived in Minorca and Malta and received the patronage of many British officers, although this picture was not thought to be actually in his hand.
Catalogued as ‘Circle of Anton Schranz’, it was consigned by a Scottish vendor and was clearly a fine composition with good details to the harbour walls and ship’s rigging. It was also relatively large and, with the market for Maltese scene still strong, it would have been easy to push the estimate to five figures.
However, the condition was not perfect. The 2ft 1in x 3ft 3in (64cm x 1m) oil on canvas had been relined and restored some time ago with some retouching. It also suffered from a few signs of wear, craquelure and surface dirt, although Kay thought that it promised to come up well under modern conservation techniques.
These condition issues, along with fact that the work could not be attributed to a named artist, led to a fairly conservative £6000-8000 estimate that, on the day, proved appealing enough to draw a number of bidders.
It came down to a contest between two interested parties from Malta and a £17,000 hammer price on thesaleroom.com.
The buyer was a Maltese dealer and the sum fetched, although not as high as the most desirable and fully attributed works by Anton Schranz (whose auction record stands at £40,000), nevertheless underlined that demand from Malta continues to emerge consistently for works that are sensibly pitched.
Bellows boxes clever
Further down the price scale and also drawing overseas interest to Somerset was a George Bellows (1882-1925) boxing print that surpassed a £1500- 2000 estimate and was sold online to a US collector for £3200.
Between Rounds No.1 (Large) was a lithograph from 1916 depicting the recuperating boxer Jimmy Nolan during the minute rest against Tornado Black as he tried to regain his title at Madison Square Garden in New York. This was the earlier and larger version of the print – another smaller lithograph of the same subject dates from 1923.
As with other copies which have sold at auction before, this 20¼ x 16½in (52 x 42cm) print from an edition of 58 was inscribed with the initials JBB, for Jean Bellows Beeth, the artist’s daughter. It came from the collection of Niall Hobhouse, a vendor from Somerset who was selling 12 pictures at Lawrences, of which this was the most valuable.
While a copy of the same print made $5500 (£3880) at Skinner in Boston in January 2018, again the temptation to set the estimate at a higher level was resisted. Although this was a good impression in decent condition, it did have some creasing in margins and together with the fact that, ultimately, Bellows has less of a following in the UK compared to the US, this was no doubt the correct decision.
The sale featured works by Harold and Laura Knight. First up was a signed nude study, The Maiden by Harold Knight (1874-1961), which was thought to date from c.1916.
Measuring 2ft 6in x 2ft (76.5 x 62cm), the oil on canvas depicts one of Laura’s Italian models from London with a view of Dozmary Pool, a small lake on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, in the background.
The realism of the fleshtones and anatomy were said to demonstrate the qualities that established Harold’s reputation as a leading portrait painter after the First Wold War.
However, there was also some feeling that the overall composition looked slightly contrived as if the figure had been painted in the artist’s studio and the landscape added separately. Kay admitted it was a picture that some people loved but others didn’t take to.
Consigned from a deceased estate, the estimate was set at £6000-8000, which was not excessive for a work by the artist, and it sold for £10,000 to the UK trade – a decent return on the £3600 it fetched when it last appeared at auction at Phillips in London in 2001.
Laura Knight’s (1877-1970) watercolour and gouache Lamorna Cove came to auction with good provenance: it had been purchased from a Royal Academy show in 1965 by a Mrs P Murray and was consigned by her grandson. It was also offered with a letter from the artist to the buyer thanking her for her cheque of £78.15s.
Measuring 14¾ x 16¾in (38 x 43cm), it depicted the well-known view from Tregurnow cliff overlooking the cove – the major painting of the same scene dating from c.1915-16 made £180,000 at Sotheby’s in 2005.
Although the watercolour was felt to have a lot going for it and was pictured on the front of the catalogue, it sold on thesaleroom.com under estimate at £9000. The £10,000-15,000 guide reflected the higher reserve which meant that the auctioneers were more restricted – again showing the sensitivity in terms of saleroom reaction to pricing levels, even for major names.