The latest and third instalment of the biannual Sotheby’s Made In Britain sale had something for everyone. Fine Art, Prints, Sculpture, Photography, Ceramics and Design were purchased for sums between £175 and almost £100,000. A sale total of £2,369,610 was achieved, equal to that of the first auction but less than the second, which featured works from the iconic Ivy restaurant. Twenty percent of works failed to find buyers however, many of those that did sell achieved prices above their estimate.
This time a large collection of work came from the estate of the late artist Michael Michaeledes, known for his abstract minimalist approach which he developed in London in the 1960s alongside contemporaries Bridget Riley, Mary and Kenneth Martin and Gillian Ayres. The gem of his collection was the rare proof of an early print by David Hockney. After refusing to write the essay required for the final examination, (he preferred to be assessed on the sole merits of his painting), the Royal College of Art threatened to refuse Hockney’s graduation which spurred the artist to etch his own diploma, sticking two fingers up at the institution. Of course in recognition of his talent and growing reputation they later granted him the real thing.
The predictable presence of the YBAs was interspersed by some remarkable works. Notably the large collection of ceramics by the Austrian born potter, Lucie Rie. Fleeing Nazi-Austria in 1938 she sought safe haven in in London where she established her studio and continued to produce progressive and influential ceramics for the next fifty years. Her inclusion served as evidence of Britain’s melting pot culture; a reminder of the importance of immigration to Britain’s cultural history. All twenty-one lots were sold, and most exceeded the estimate though none quite managed to outdo the exemplary matt blue footed bowl that went under the hammer at £23,750.
The prowess of British studio pottery could be discerned through other lots including an important piece by Hans Coper-an eminent presence in the field and close friend of Rie – that fetched £36,250, more than double the low estimate. Rupert Spira also performed well as did the more traditional work by both Bernard Leach and his wife Janet (whose pieces were modestly priced though arguably more charming). The ceramics category was very strong overall proving its popularity amongst collectors in the global marketplace.
Five pieces from Frank Auerbach – the German-born British painter who, like Rie, fled Nazi persecution – each shattered their estimate. Most memorably a drawing in felt tip of London’s Mornington Crescent sold for £20,000. In the same vain, other household names such as L.S Lowry and Henry Moore who are sought after by international collectors typically sold for high prices.
The most unusual lot, The Critic Laughs by Richard Hamilton – a numbered work (26/60) comprising a pair of dentures mounted on the end of an electric toothbrush- rather amusingly achieved £97,500, double what was anticipated. Its Duchampesque essence proved popular amongst bidders and confidence was boosted by its validating presence in the Tate collection.
Photography also fared well with collectors who were quick to snap up iconic images by home-grown British talent. Famous portraits of Kate Moss, David Bowie and Jerry Hall captured by the likes of Terry O’Neill, Ian Rankin and Chris Levine were amongst those featured. The stand-out lots included the Vanity Fair cover by Lorenzo Agius picturing Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit at the height of cool 90’s Britpop, as well as Sølve Sundsbø’s haunting portrait of Alexander McQueen proving as ever that sex, death and rock’n’roll is what sells.
Rachel Whiteread’s underwhelming ‘Untitled (White)’ estimated at an eye-watering £20,000-£30,000 went unsold as did her collection of screen prints. Hirst rather disappointingly found success: all but one of six spot paintings went for higher than the estimate and someone even made room for his larger-than-life portrait by Fergus Greer. Banksy’s work also triumphed though this was perhaps owed to his recent Dismaland fame.
Talk of auctions inevitably centres around big ticket transactions which can divorce us from reality. After all, what is happening to all of the normal people in the art world? Whilst the press bombards us with glittering success stories of superstar artists and record breaking prices many at grass-roots level are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. In order to ensure a successful future for British Art we must shift some focus from the sensationalist theatre of the art market towards assisting young talent. Perhaps in turn this could even help sweeten some of the obscene and disproportionate prices achieved at auction.