This week’s art news: British impressionism at Christie’s; fake trades; a £2 million record breaker; and ‘silent’ auctions

This week’s art news: British impressionism at Christie’s; fake trades; a £2 million record breaker; and ‘silent’ auctions

British impressionism at Christie’s

The first sale ever devoted to ‘British Impressionism’ goes on view at Christie’s in London next weekend, raising the question as to whether there was such a thing, given the almost total association of Impressionism with France, or whether it is more of a market construct.

For those unfamiliar with the term, some late 19th century critics occasionally used the word ‘impressionism’ in relation to British artists – to Whistler’s nocturnes or the ‘plein air’ rural naturalism of Stanhope Forbes or George Clausen. But for most of the 20th century ‘British impressionism’ was too vague a term to gain currency in art historical studies.

Sir Alfred James Munnings, ‘Langham Mill Pool’ signed ‘A.J. MUNNINGS’. Estimate: £250,000-500,000 CREDIT: © CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LIMITED 2017

It really came to the fore in the 1980s art market through the efforts of the dealer, David Messum, to enhance the standing of the artists of the Newlyn School, like Forbes and Clausen, whose work he sold. His ally in academe was Kenneth McConkey of the Newcastle Polytechnic, who used the phrase as the title for a book in 1989. More recently, Tate Britain has included it as a catch-all in its glossary of art terms describing it as ‘forms of impressionism’ practised by artists in the British Isles who were ‘influenced by French impressionism’.

It was not until this century that the sale rooms picked up the baton. Standard Victorian art was struggling, so impressionistic paintings, that were previously in the Modern British art sales were transferred to Victorian sales to liven things up including the phrase ‘British Impressionist’ in their sales titles.

Dame Laura Knight, ‘Early Morning at a Gypsy Camp’, signed ‘Laura Knight’. Estimate: £120,000-180,000 CREDIT: © CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LIMITED 2017

Now their segregation within the Victorian market could provide a focus to further stimulate supply and demand. As Brandon Lindberg of Christie’s explains, “the term Impressionism is a complicated but potent one. People buy into it. We decided to separate the ‘impressionists’ from the more conventional Victorian works to make for a more digestible sale.”

The content of the new sale, though, is uncomfortably diverse. Coming close to French Impressionism is a rediscovered portrait of a girl in white by John Singer Sargent, a girl in a hayfield by George Clausen, and a mill pool by Alfred Munnings that resembles Monet’s water lily pond at Giverny. But to categorise other works in the sale – a formal society portrait by John Lavery or a realistic depiction of gypsy life by Laura Knight — as ‘Impressionist’, even though the artists may at some other point have displayed the influence of impressionism, is verging on the ridiculous.

Christie’s is clearly stretching the definition, but, says Lindberg, “we have to be commercial.”

Lot 920 from the sale in Dorchester

False trades

A news report in The Antiques Trade Gazette tells how a Dorchester auctioneer was fined over £18,000 for advertising fake works for sale purportedly by the primitive Cornish artist Alfred Wallis, whose genuine works can fetch over £100,000. At the back of the paper, a cleverly timed advertisement appeals to those who just want the Wallis style, asking for ‘outlets for authentic looking original paintings in the style of Alfred Wallis.’ On artist Max Wildman offers quite passable pastiches which he signs and dates on the back for £75-245.

Man Ray — Noire et Blanche

Man Ray’s £2 million record breaker

Pop star and photography collector, Elton John could be forgiven for dreaming about Man Ray’s 1926 photograph of his lover holding an African mask, ‘Noire et Blanche’, which John hangs behind his bed at his home in Atlanta. Last week another print of this image sold in Paris for £2.4 million – a record for any non-contemporary photographic work at auction.

Meiji period lacquer panel by Shibata Zeshin sold privately at Bonhams for an undisclosed sum CREDIT: CLIVE ROWLEY

‘Silent’ auction

Mystery surrounds the star lot in Bonhams sale of Japanese lacquer art from the respected Misumi collection in London last week. The Meiji period black lacquer panel depicting crickets on long grasses against a silver moon by Shibata Zeshin was estimated at £150,000, but withdrawn just before the sale.

Bonhams confirmed after the auction that it had been sold privately, but neither the price nor the buyer was divulged. Specialist Asian art dealers, Sydney L Moss in Mayfair, currently has a group of Zeshin’s work for sale priced between £20,000 and £40,000, but the Bonham’s work, they say, is bigger and equivalent to a similar panel by Zeshin that sold for £842,500 three years ago. Presumably, therefore, someone made an offer far in excess of the estimate that Bonhams could not refuse. The bets are that the panel is headed for a museum in the Gulf.