Report - The Market for Modern British Art in 2015

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

By Jamie Anderson

Boom years in any market are usually characterised by rapid price rises by particular artists or groups. For what is classified ‘Modern British Art’, which is broadly speaking art executed in a modern and progressive style between 1900 and 1980, the Scottish Colourists and the Newlyn School defined the boom years of the late 1980s and in the 2000-2008 period Post-War Abstraction, particularly St Ives artists, became highly collectable. After the economic downturn that followed the Lehman Brother's collapse and the banking crisis, the market for large gestural abstraction lessened and became highly selective, allowing the market to develop and discover other collecting areas.

More recently the market has shifted its focus away from the rural idyll of Cornwall and back to the metropolitan sophistication of London. Even those London artists routed in English romanticism - for instance Keith Vaughan and John Craxton – have experienced rapid price rises. There has been a huge growth in interest in the emergent Pop and Minimalist / Constructivist art of the early 60s. Hockney, Riley and Caro lead the charge, but a raft of other great artists associated with these figures are coming to the fore. Museum exhibitions such as Dulwich Gallery's 'Crisis of Brilliance' and Tate Britain’s re-hang, plus renewed interest in the broadcast media, have ensured a commercial growth in early British Modernism, not least Paul Nash, David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer and Ben Nicholson, ensuring that the market’s growth can be seen as a radiation out from a mid-century centre point, rather than a linear progression forward or back in time.

The catalogue deadline for this summer season’s major Modern British sales have just closed, and we await the auction houses’ offerings. Expect to see more Ivon Hitchens and Patrick Heron and Alan Davie, but watch out for the new trends. I hope to see more constructionist art, more 60s figurative work, perhaps some Vorticism and great 30s Unit modernism. But we may need to look further afield for exciting buying opportunities. The Modern British market is thriving and developing rapidly, making it a fascinating and rewarding collecting area.

For a more detailed statement on the current Modern British market, click here.

Boom years in any market are usually characterised by rapid price rises by particular artists or groups. For what is classified ‘Modern British Art’, which is broadly speaking art executed in a modern and progressive style between 1900 and 1980, the Scottish Colourists and the Newlyn School defined the boom years of the late 1980s and in the 2000-2008 period Post-War Abstraction, particularly St Ives artists, became highly collectable. After the economic downturn that followed the Lehman Brother's collapse and the banking crisis, the market for large gestural abstraction lessened and became highly selective, allowing the market to develop and discover other collecting areas.

The economic downturn had a profound effect on post-war abstraction and in particular the works of the those artists associated with St Ives during the 1950s and 1960s. Artists such as Heron, Frost, and Lanyon were subject to rapid price rises in the period 2000-08 but the market for all three have suffered to varying degrees at auction after that point. The market for Heron has become highly selective with more average pieces faring less well. However, at the top end very high prices can be made both at auction and through the trade. Frost's prices have witnessed a minor renaissance in the last 12 months but are still on average below the high water mark of 2008. An interesting aspect of the current Frost market is the reappraisal of his more recent work that have performed better at auction of late. He was hugely prolific and works vary wildly in quality.

The Lanyon market is harder to demystify. He is an artist who was not particularly prolific and who died aged just 46. He is also highly regarded by critics and curators, and yet his price points are surprising low. The central problem is that many of his most important paintings are already in public collections and the pieces which do appear on the market are often over exposed. In the case of buying Lanyon, market freshness is vital.

Not all St Ives artists are subject to the above trends. Roger Hilton was somewhat left behind by the market during the 2000-08 period, yet his prices have continued to rise steadily in the interim. Although the prices for the best works are some way below comparable prices for Heron and Lanyon, I would argue there is still room for growth in the Hilton market and the best works should be seriously considered. Only one of the top ten prices at auction for this artist predates 2008, and the record price was set in November 2014 (£170,500) at Sotheby's London. Bryan Wynter is also a rather overlooked artist, but my gut feeling is that he may continue to be overlooked for some time. A good Wynter canvas is a wonderful thing though.

So much of the art market, whether we like or not, is about branding and context. The St Ives 'brand' was what made Heron, Lanyon etc attractive initially, but because St Ives art was perceived to be a speculators market, the 'brand' became unfashionable, so prices for those artists slumped. These artists need to be 'rebranded' or re-contextualised. The most effective way of doing that is opening an artist up to a global audience and connecting them directly to global art movements. This can be done by placing the artists in less geographically specific sales (for instance major Ben Nicholson's, Barbara Hepworth's and Henry Moore's regularly appear in Impressionist and Modern auctions as well as at art fairs such as Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht) or connecting artist to global trends. If one was seeking to market a major work by Hilton now one might now avoid overt reference to St Ives, but instead concentrate on his links to Constant and the COBRA group. Many artists connected to St Ives, not least Alan Davie and Patrick Heron, had very close personal links to the leading lights of American Abstract Expressionism.

These links are not tenuous, just not widely known outside Britain. In August 1959 Mark Rothko visited St Ives to meet Frost and Lanyon amongst others. Frost had held a major exhibition in New York in 1957 where he became well acquainted with Larry Rivers (with whom he stayed), Robert Motherwell and Rothko. Yet, in May this year a major Rothko from the Paul Mellon collection will go under the hammer in New York for an estimate of $40-60 mill. For a tenth of the price, a first rate Heron could be secured and the world record for a Terry Frost at auction is little over £300,000. American collectors are increasingly aware of this, and what might be considered an overheated market in Britain appears very tempting to foreign buyers. More and more Modern British art is being sold to American and European collections, and this is creating greater stability in the market as well as helping prices of those more important artists.

Figurative art has been rising in value over the last few years. The demand for Stanley Spencer has always been strong, but in the last 12 months we have seen extraordinary but justifiable prices for pre and post war works by Paul Nash (a world record of £212,500 was set by Bonham's in November 2014 for a Nash work on paper, smashing the previous level) and Keith Vaughan respectively. The Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Gallery (London) and the recent re-hang of the Tate Britain's collection did much to increase interest in earlier painters such as Nash, but also rejuvenated the market in David Bomberg's art. These artists are quintessentially British and their markets remain largely local. The same is not necessarily true of their followers.

Kossoff and Auerbach both spent time under Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. A first rate charcoal by Bomberg of the 40s or 50s might set you back no more than £20,000, but a first rate 50s or 60s charcoal by Kossoff will cost ten times that amount. A new record for the artists graphic work was reached in November 2014 (Willesden Junction, 1962 made £206,500 at Sotheby's). This followed major gallery exhibitions in New York and London and a solo presentation at Frieze Masters Fair in October 2014. At the same event another dealer sold a major canvas of Hawksmoor's Christ Church Spitalfields, for in excess of £1 mill. Although the market for both Kossoff and Auerbach is very buoyant, there is still room for growth. For those with a more modest budget, both artists were accomplished print makers and their print work remains highly collectable (much like that of their long term 'School of London' peer, Lucien Freud).

If one were to look for less obvious figures, there a number that bear consideration. For those interested in Vaughan and Neo-Romantics, one might also look at John Minton. John Craxton is another very interesting artist but the market is somewhat wise to his charms and a great oil by him will make a good price. I firmly believe Bomberg is still under-valued by the market. Although it is perfectly possible to spend £1mill on the best landscapes (a price being asked in a private treaty sale by Christies recently), a far smaller sum could still allow you to acquire a very significant work by an artist regarded by many as one of the 20th century's greatest. Beware, one must be highly selective, there are many sub-standard Bomberg's on the market. Of his followers, I would highlight Denis Creffield who I consider incredibly undervalued. A stunning charcoal from his cathedral series could be had for as little as £3-5,000 and when set against comparable works by Kossoff and Auerbach, the price seems absurd.

We have seen a greater interest in more avant-garde art, in particular the constructivist and constructionists of the late 50s and 60s. During this period, many artists began to blur the distinctions between sculpture and painting. A pioneer of this was Victor Pasmore. Well known for his colour field abstracts created using airbrush techniques, his earlier constructions are in my opinion far more interesting. These pieces are often pitched at £40-60,000 at auction and represent good buys. Beware of condition - if the work does not look sixty years old it is probably because it largely isn't. Pasmore often used household paints which are prone to cracking and ageing, so if a relief has no cracking or ageing, it is likely it has been over restored. Pasmore was terrifically influential. Artists such as Anthony Hill, Mary Martin and Gillian Wise were all indebted to him and produced wonderful work. The market is small at the moment, but growing rapidly and it is worth looking out for these examples by these artists.

In terms of sculpture, Moore remains a colossus of British Modernism and the market for his sculpture and drawings continues to rise at a surprising rate. Even small and relatively insignificant maquettes regularly make over £50,000, increasingly the market is investigating the great man's heirs. First and foremost one must consider Anthony Caro. A wonderful artist and true innovator, up until recently his work as very under-valued. Although the record price for his sculpture was set at £1.4 million in 2006, three of the other top five prices have been made in the last twelve months. Given that the 6th highest price (set at Sotheby's New York in March 2013) is a shade under $250,000, one can see room for growth in the market. One can still pick up fabulous table top works for between £40,000 and £80,000. Indeed, two works are appearing at Sotheby's Contemporary sales in New York this May for estimates of under $50,000. I can only see an upwards trajectory for Caro's prices. Of course, Caro and Moore are not the only British sculptors to enjoy great success in the USA. Lynn Chadwick's market is an interesting comparable. Like Caro, his top price was set in 2006 and two of the remaining top five sales were made in the last twelve months. Average prices however are much higher. The 6th best price of a Caro at auction would just scrape the top 40 of Chadwick's prices. Chadwick's market is as strong as ever, but how much room for growth is there? British sculpture is a boom market though, fed in part by the great interest shown by American collectors in the artists involved. Reg Butler, Michael Aryton and Elizabeth Frink have all made record prices recently, and one must never overlook Barbara Hepworth.

At the top end demand for the big names of Post War art remains strong. Sotheby's took over £400,000 for a midsized 90s oil by Bridget Riley against an estimate of £120-180,000 last month (the provenance of London's Ivy Restaurant probably helped). I would expect Riley's graphic work (both her gouaches and print work) to rise. Hockney's prices continue to climb. His graphic work has risen rapidly in price (again kick started in part by sales from another landmark London restaurant - this time Langan's) and with major commercial exhibitions planned in London and New York for the autumn, this trend is set to continue. Even his later landscapes and ipad sketches - not universally admired - are highly sought after. If you have the budget, the big brand names remain safe options, but we would always urge collectors to stick by the golden rules. Buy the best you can for the budget. Don't get caught up in a branding exercise (single owner sales can generate higher prices than an artwork strictly speaking deserves). Don't be afraid of unfashionable artists but do not be swayed by previous high prices. Finally, if in doubt, get advice!