Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Selling Art and Heart: The Perils of Auction

Today was the auction at Christie's that featured Isabella and the Pot of Basil...

Now, as you will remember from my last post, Delaware Art Museum were selling this picture in order to fill some of the fiscal hole they had dug themselves into.  They were looking for £5m to £8m from the sale.  They made £2.5m.  There was no reserve and so it sold for half of the lower estimate.  This defies belief on many, many levels and now begs the question if the Hunt failed to earn them enough, what else will be added to the auction block so that Delaware can continue to exist.  I don't see it as karma, I wish they had earned as much money as that painting was worth, more even.  Now we have to wait and see what the feckless board of Delaware will do next.  My sympathy is with the staff of the Art Museum who have to be on the front line of this situation, taking the flak.  I bet it isn't a member of the board answering the phone or manning their Facebook page today.

Moving on, the rest of the sale was a very mixed bag.  Starting with the bad...

The Home Quartette: Mrs Vernon Lushington and her children (1883)
Arthur Hughes
There were a number of passes (or no sales) in the auction including this beautiful work by Arthur Hughes, which fell short of it's estimated price £150,000 (it only reached £95,000).  Likewise Millais' portraits of The Very Reverend Thomas William Jex-Blake and Mrs Henrietta Jex-Blake failed to make their reserve and weren't sold.

An Autumnal Glow (1882) John Atkinson Grimshaw
The set of Grimshaws on offer had mixed fortunes.  An Autumnal Glow surpassed its £150,000 top limit and selling at £170,000.  However, four of the five other Grimshaws either didn't make the bottom limit or were just not sold.  Only View from Blackfriars Bridge by Moonlight made £160,000, the middle of the estimate.

While his Pre-Raphaelite brother will no doubt grab all the headlines, it has to be said that the Rossetti's in the sale weren't exactly outstanding performers.  From St John Comforting the Virgin at the Foot of the Cross (£3,000 less than the bottom estimate), a sketch for Lady Lilith (£2,400, under the £3,000 bottom estimate) Hesterna Rosa (£1,000 less than bottom estimate) and a sketch for Found (bottom estimate), things did not look so bright.  

Rosa Triplex (1874)
Rosa Triplex from Virginia Surtees' collection made £750,000, just over the bottom estimate and Ruth and Boaz made £70,000, again just over the £60,000 bottom. Not a good day for Rossetti really. Unless you count Rossetti painting 'lovely Guggums' by Douglas Percy Bliss, which exceeded its estimate of £1,500-£2,000 by £10,000, selling at £12,000.

Rossetti painting 'lovely Guggums' Douglas Percy Bliss
So, what did well?  It was a good day for the women artists. Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale's Lancelot and Elaine made £2,000 more than the top estimate (ironically the same amount the her friend Byam Shaw's picture made below his bottom estimate).  This beautiful gem from stained glass artist Margaret Agnes Rope went soaring past its £6,000 to £8,000 estimate and came romping home with £22,000...

Marie Spartali Stillman's A Lady with Peacocks in a garden, an Italianate landscape beyond made £8,500 and Mary Louisa Gow's A Kiss Goodnight made £16,000.  Big result of the afternoon has to be Elizabeth Siddal's St Agnes Eve which was valued as between £2,500 to £3,500 and was sold for £13,000.

So, to sum up, many of the beautiful Pre-Raphaelite pictures did not perform well in the auction this afternoon.  You would think that Rossetti would be a safe bet but his art only just made bottom estimates or faltered around the middle.  Hunt's A Staircase at Rochester Castle, Kent ploughed past its £10,000-£15,000 estimate to make £38,000, which makes no sense in respect to how badly Isabella did.  Maybe it came down to bad press, and Isabella had become tainted in the light of the outcry against Delaware.  It was good to see how well the women artists did, but again women artists have been gaining popular reputation lately with some good exhibitions and a tv series to boost their standing. 

The stand-out lot in terms of the amount of money it raked in was this one...

Nadia (c.1921) Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
Not my cup of tea, but obviously someone's because it sold for £105,000 after being valued at between £20,000 to £30,000.  Goodness me.  Actually, I far preferred this...

Primavera (1914) George Clausen
For twentieth century figurative, give me pink and nudie every time.  This is beautiful and made £75,000, just below its upper limit.

The thing to remember after what was a genuinely upsetting afternoon is that although Isabella has presumably gone into a private collection, maybe the person who calls it their own tonight will value it more than the board of Delaware Art Museum.  We won't get to see it very often, maybe very little, but it still exists and possibly in safer hands tonight.  I think a bigger worry is what will now happen with Delaware and their financial problem.  

We wait and see.  Nervously.


  1. I can see the Delaware going end up after this little fiasco. It's such a mess.

  2. Dear Kirsty
    How sad - not just that he paintings undersold in many cases, but more that they had to be sold in the first place. I agree that it is more worrying to see what will become of the rest of the Delaware collection. Some of the collection came to Nottingham Castle some time ago and I'm pleased that I managed to see it then. (I bet Fanny would be spitting feathers if she knew what was going on). Thank you for posting about this sad state of affairs.
    Best wishes

  3. Isabella isn't truly lost to public view as the premier version is in the Laing Art Gallery Newcastle....

  4. Thank you for your comments, and thank you Jan, you are quite right. At least on our side of the ocean we can see the amazing Isabella at the Laing.

  5. thank you for this summation. i am giddy that E.S.'s piece went for so much. a couple of high fives beyond the grave, methinks. i LOVED that amazing nude as soon as i saw it in the catalogue and do happen to very much like the Brockhurst one, tho i am not sure i'd want it in my house-- she looks shifty ;-) i feel bummed the rossetti's didn't do well, and you KNOW how i feel about losing the Hunt in my community. just sick. the staff and archives there are SO NICE. they clearly love the place. may be too little too late, but even before the auction, people were calling for the entire Board to be sacked and replaced. Bancroft must be spinning in his grave. Thanks again for the article. I wasn't brave enough to do the research on this one.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx