Berkshire auction house Dreweatts is the frontrunner in the resurrection of niche equestrian and sporting art, says Colin Gleadell
There is something of a mission statement about tomorrow’s fine pictures sale at Dreweatts near Newbury. On the front cover of the catalogue is a classic 1835 horse racing painting by John Frederick Herring Senior, estimated at £80,000 to £120,000 – a hefty sum for a provincial auctioneer.
Among the opening lots are further equestrian subjects by other leading sporting artists of the day – William Barraud, John Dalby and Frederick Lucas Lucas – all having once hung in the famous sporting art dealing gallery, Arthur Ackermann. Towards the back of the catalogue are hunting and racing paintings by Francis and John Nost Sartorius, horses’ legs splayed far apart as was customary in those distant times, before the lessons of the camera had been learnt. So, is there a sporting painting revival on hand; is it to be spearheaded by a Berkshire auction house; and who is behind it?
The answer to the third question is fairly clear. Dreweatts’ head of traditional fine art sales since last summer is James Harvey, who has worked as an auctioneer at Phillips Son & Neale; as a dealer at Mallett Antiques, where he was a director in the picture department in New Bond Street for 20 years; and as an independent dealer, running his own gallery in Chelsea, for the last five.
Harvey now wears several hats, each bearing the colours of an ardent sporting art enthusiast. A role of which he is particularly proud is that of trustee for the British Sporting Art Trust. Based in Newmarket, the trust is pooling its resources and collection with the National Horseracing Museum to build the country’s first national gallery of British sporting art.
Officially named the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, it will occupy Palace House behind Newmarket’s high street, which Charles II established in the 17th century as a centre for breeding racing and cavalry horses. The centre is undergoing a £15 million refurbishment and is due to open in April 2016 with loans from Tate Britain’s rarely seen sporting art collection. Harvey believes this museum initiative will reinvigorate not only public interest in sporting art but also the market itself which, he says, “has had a pretty bumpy ride over the last 10 to 15 years”.
According to Art Market Research, average prices for the top 25 British sporting artists at auction between 2010 and 2015 jumped by 118 per cent, or by 14.3 per cent per annum. But this was because three major George Stubbs paintings were sold, such as his £22.4 million painting of Gimcrack, which would have had a distorting impact on the index. In contrast, the index for the central 50 per cent of prices for these artists from 2010 to 2015 fell by 22.8 per cent or 4.3 per cent per annum.
Specialist dealer Jamie Rountree says “there is a lot of demand at the top end, from Texas and the Middle East, for the best work by specific artists, especially for racing scenes by Stubbs and Munnings. But the middle market from £10,000 to £250,000 has been a bit up and down. Buyers have been looking to decorate rather than collect. Sporting art in this range is very cheap at the moment and an excellent investment.”
Specialised auctions are rarer than they used to be. Sotheby’s and Christie’s include the best sporting art in their Old Master or 19th-century sales. Christie’s regular lower-value sporting art sales at its South Kensington branch appear to have been sidelined, with sporting pictures squeezed in with Victorian, Maritime and British Impressionist pictures in one sale this June. This is where Harvey has spotted a gap in the market; one that he thinks Dreweatts can fill.
At tomorrow’s auction, the sporting art is priced to sell. The paintings by Barraud and Dalby are conservatively estimated at £6,000 to £8,000 in line with their previous auction prices in 2009. The two Sartorius paintings have estimates between £3,000 and £10,000, which are comparable to their auction prices in the Nineties.
The Sartorius paintings are also part of a block of 48 works that Dreweatts is selling at auction on behalf of Mallett Antiques. A catalogue note explains that Mallett was recently bought by Stanley Gibbons (for £8.6 million) and is run by Dreweatts, which is part of the Stanley Gibbons Group. The acquisition was intended to enable Dreweatts to compete with the larger auction houses. Harvey’s first move is to put Newbury on the map for historic sporting pictures.
By Colin Gleadell