It was kept behind glass which was covered in very old masking tape that had dried out and would not peel off the surface.
After having to carefully scrape the remnants of the tape away, an inscription to the base of the crucifixion emerged revealing the artist’s name, Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954), and the date of the work, 1929. “You can imagine my delight when this became visible,” said director at the auction house Nathan Winter.
Measuring 2ft 8 x 3ft 5in (82cm x 1.03m) overall, it came from a private collection in the Cotswolds where it had been the last 40 years or more.
It was soon discovered that the triptych was a later and smaller version of one of the mural painter and stained glass artist’s most important works: the crucifixion triptych he painted in 1906 for the chapel at Holloway Prison, London.
Depicting a prisoner in chains at the feet of Christ, as well as a self-portrait of the artist as a shepherd, it was commissioned by the writer and reformer Edith Lyttelton. Having since been removed from Holloway, the larger work can now be found in the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Utah which acquired it in 2005.
This version, in a striking Arts & Crafts patinated copper frame with connecting hinges, was around half the size of the Holloway picture. Indeed, the saleroom traced a reference and illustration to it in an article on the artist in the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society in 1997, meaning its existence was already ‘known’ to scholars.
Works by the artist who was a central figure in the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists only occasionally appear at auction, with the highest price coming for The Sunset Angel which made £18,000 at Christie’s in September 2005. When works do emerge, however, they normally generate interest from the artist’s decent following and here the £3000-5000 estimate at the July 23 sale certainly proved appealing.
The auction house reported four phone bidders on the day plus extra online interest, and it was eventually knocked down at £10,500 to a private collector of Birmingham School artists who saw off strong underbidding from another private collector. The price was the third highest for Sleigh at auction (source: Artprice by Artmarket).