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'RMS Olympic off New York' by Charles Edward Dixon – £18,000 at Bonhams.

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The major auction houses have scaled back their traditional specialist sales in recent years, either incorporating them into general sales or taking them online. But a few still survive.

The Marine Sale at Bonhams (27.5/25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium), for instance, was first held over 30 years ago and has become a stalwart of the auction calendar.

It has been held in a variety of locations, including New York, but today takes place biannually in London’s Knightsbridge and is the only sale of its type still held by an international auction house. Small and select, it contains around 130- 140 lots of mostly 18th-20th century British and Continental pictures ranging from £1000-80,000 with the occasional higher-valued work.

Strong appetite

Leo Webster, marine picture specialist at Bonhams, says the format still works well: “Looking at the last two sales this year, the sell-through rate has been in the region of 80% with works achieving good prices. So clearly there is still an appetite for these specialist sales.”

By and large, Webster’s clients are British and American, who fit into two camps: traditional buyers with an interest in naval history and “younger, high net-worth individuals” who enjoy sailing and collect more modern works.

In the latest sale on October 29, 104 lots from a total of 130 sold to bring in just over £365,000, an overall sum down slightly on previous sales. This was largely because fewer higher-valued lots were consigned to this sale as a result of concerns over the “socio-political climate”, said Webster.

“Looking at the results, however, I think people should be feeling a bit more confident about the fact that a lot of pictures were making really good prices,” he added.

Engaging subject matter

Strong bidding emerged for several 18th century works with engaging subject matter, bucking the trend for early marine art which has been a little sluggish. “Our estimates were slightly on the conservative side to encourage bidding, so it was really good to see a resurgence of interest in these earlier works,” said Webster.

Filling top spot was a pair of 18th century oils by Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1828) depicting a little-known naval engagement that more than doubled hopes to sell to a UK buyer for £25,000.

The pair shows the British privateer Caesar, one of many Bristol-owned vessels pressed into service during the American War of Independence, sighted and attacked by a 32-gun French frigate in the Bristol Channel while escorting a valuable homeward bound convoy from Jamaica in 1782. After a spirited fight, the French frigate was forced to surrender in what contemporaries described as “a hard-won victory”. Few depictions of this event are known in oils, which added to the appeal of these works at Bonhams.

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'A Squadron of the Red just come to anchor' at Spithead by Dominic Serres – £22,000 at Bonhams.

In second place was a 22in x 2ft 3in (56 x 68cm) oil painting by Dominic Serres (1722-93), the influential marine painter and founder-member of the Royal Academy. Consigned from a UK private collection, it showed a British Naval Squadron of the Red at anchor in Spithead with the commanding admiral heading ashore in his barge. Signed and indistinctly dated D.Serres 179-, it sold in excess of the £10,000-15,000 guide to an international buyer for £22,000.

Condition check

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The Hull whaler Konigsberg in two positions, attributed to Robert Willoughby – £4200 at Bonhams.

For buyers of older pictures, condition and subject can be as important as the artist. Lot 56 in the sale was attributed to the relatively minor marine painter Robert Willoughby (1768-1843) but was offered in largely untouched original state with some holes in the dirty canvas. Depicting the Hull whaler Konigsberg in two positions, it made £4200, over three times the top guide.

“This was an amazing price for an unsigned work attributed to not a particularly well-known artist. Its original condition and subject matter drove the sale,” said Webster.

The auction’s catalogue cover lot and a strong seller among the 20th century pictures was a view of Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic, by Charles Edward Dixon (1872- 1934). One of 13 works in the sale by the British painter, it was consigned from the US and was secured by an American buyer for more than double its bottom guide at £18,000.

The painting pre-dates the ocean liner’s maiden voyage to New York in 1912 and is therefore thought to have been commissioned to promote or celebrate her launch, although no reproductions of the image have been found.

Another well-contested lot was a scene by leading contemporary artist John Steven Dews (b.1949) depicting the legendary tea clippers Taeping and Ariel during the Great Tea Race of 1866 – a 99-day dash across the world that almost ended in a dead heat. Described as “large, bright and fresh”, it tipped over top estimate to sell for £19,500.

Dews has made significant sums on the secondary market. A large-scale depiction of The Battle of Trafalgar achieved an auction record price for the artist when it sold at Bonhams in 2012 for £169,250 (with fees).