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Last week’s sale of Victorian and British Impressionist works of art once again illustrated my point that there are far too many mediocre works of art coming to the market and buyers are being very selective. However, like all the recent sales, when the right work/works appear with the right estimates, amazing results can be achieved. This was another sale that falls into my category of: what a difference a painting can make.

Taking the top position here was a large watercolor by Burne-Jones (the Pre-Raphaelite artist) that sold for an over-the-top price of £13.2M (£14.8M/ $22.1M – with commissions) and crushing its £3-£5M estimate. In second was Millais Sisters at £2M (£2.3M/$3.4M – with commissions), just making its £2-£3M estimate and in third was Leighton’s sculpture An Athlete Wrestling with a Python which made £410K (£494K/$735K – with commissions), beating its £250-£350K estimate … all three were auction records. Rounding out the top five were Millais’ Portrait of Lady Campbell at £400K (£482K/$728K with commission – est. £400-£600K) and Arthur Wardle’s A Fairy Tale at £280K (£482K/$728K with commission – est. £150-£200K) … the latter making another auction record.

Along with these great results were a number of works that did not find homes. Among those were Armstrong’s A Girl Watching a Tortoise (est. £150-£250K), Landseer’s Merry Trick & Mark Hall… (est. £200-£300K), Watts’ Portrait of Laura Gurney… (est. £60-£80K), Lady Butler’s To the Front… (est. £70-£100K), Herring Senior’s The Gamekeeper’s Shack… (est. £60-£100K), Ansdell’s Going to the Lodge…(est. £100-£150K) and other works by Riviere, Sharp, La Thangue, Munnings, Harvey and Seago (they had 10 Seagos in the sale and 4 were unsold – just too many for one summer sale).

Of the 123 works offered only 71 sold (57.7%) and the total take was an amazing £19.36M (£22.2M, $33.5M, with the buyer’s commissions) – the presale estimate range was £10.1-£15.6M. According to the auction room, this was their highest total ever for this category. Digging a little deeper we find that the top 10 works brought £17.2M (£19.5M with commissions) or about 90% of the sale’s total. In addition, the number one lot – Burne-Jones’s Love Among the Ruins – accounted for 66.9% of the sales total …like I always say, what a difference a painting (in this case a watercolor) can make.

Now I know they are all excited about the overall results for this sale, but let’s be real; without the Burne-Jones this sale would have fallen far short of expectations. Removing that one lot from the sale would have resulted in a presale estimate range of £7.2-£10.6M and the sale would have grossed £5.2M.

It is really time to trim the fat and reduce the number of sales. Small and stronger sales are the way to go.