It sometimes happens that important artworks fly under the radar at auction. In many cases the work may be unsigned or have been attributed to the wrong artist at some stage in its life and never corrected. The work may also have been passed down through generations and its significance lost over time.
These lost artworks occasionally find themselves in one of the many small, provincial auction houses around the world and sold for a fraction of their true value had they been identified, correctly attributed and marketed to the right audience.
In the internet age, however, not a whole lot gets missed anymore and competition can be fierce.
Take for example this stunning portrait by George Washington Lambert. In 2012 it appeared at auction in the U.K. uncleaned, with the artist correctly identified but the sitter and title were unknown and it was incorrectly dated. It was carrying a pre-sale estimate of £200-300. I knew immediately this painting was worth looking at.
Here is a breakdown of what exactly goes on behind the scenes in the discovery of a masterpiece:
1. The Preparation
Knowing what artworks and objects that are being sold all over the world at any given time takes a great deal of time, patience and perseverance.
- Mailing lists and email notifications to online catalogues are an important part of keeping abreast to what’s coming up at auction all over the world. If there is a specific artist or category that I am looking for, I have registered these ‘triggers’ with most auction houses and bidding platforms internationally so that I receive email notifications at any given time.
However these notifications can only go so far. I will often trove through various online catalogues as incorrect cataloguing will mean it won’t register with my email notifications (and everyone else’s).
- Establishing trusted relationships with experts in other countries is also integral to this process. I have built relationships with many key professionals in the industry over the years which allows me to draw on their expertise first hand. Unfortunately it’s often the case that the artwork has been neglected over the years. As was the case with the portrait by George Lambert, I had a conservator view the painting prior to auction and give me a full assessment of the work. This cost time and money, but it alleviated any of the guessing work when it came time to buy abroad.
2. The Identification Process
Being able to recognize the good from the bad and the right from the wrong requires some serious expertise. This takes time and experience to build and making mistakes is part of that process. There are a couple of pointers that will help lead in the right direction:
- A masterwork, executed by a great artist, will exude presence and engage with the viewer. This is something that also takes time and experience to recognise. Having an eye and honing that perception to be able to spot that X-factor (which all good paintings and works of art have), can be the difference in generating a profit. What immediately caught my attention with the Lambert portrait, for example, was the captivating blue eyes and immediate beauty of the sitter.
- An original frame or mounting, of the period the artwork was completed, is a good indicator that the painting is in good original condition. Being able to spot any restoration or repair is equally important. I will always request condition reports and multiple images and close-ups so that I know exactly what I am getting. Being able to spot any discrepancies through experience is important when buying major works internationally.
3. Pre-sale Research
Only so much can be done prior to auction, but getting as much research done as possible before you bid is very important.
Once I have identified an artwork for sale, it’s necessary to establish its origins in order to ascertain a current market value. This may not be 100% possible until I have the work in hand, so my knowledge and experienced instinct are important factors here.
With regard to the unidentified portrait, George Washington Lambert is one of Australia’s most accomplished and highly regarded portrait artists of the early 20th century. His work has been known to fetch vast sums at auction, but with great variations in price. Having identified that this masterful but unknown portrait was executed in Lamberts signature style and at the height of his power with a most engaging subject, I valued the work after conservation at between $50,000-$100,000.
But who was the sitter? The answer would make a significant difference to the value of the painting as the Australian market values Lamberts work far more than the English do, but only if the work depicts an Australian subject. If the sitter remained unknown and dare I say it - English, the paintings value could drop as low as $20,000-$30,000.
Setting a budget is important in the process of buying and selling art internationally. I account for all costs in the potential transaction including:
- Buyers’ Premium – auction houses charge between 15-25% Buyers’ Premium on top of the hammer
- Shipping - if the painting is being sold in a different state or country, these significant costs need to be factored in.
- Conservation – if the painting needs cleaning or conservation work done, this can add a significant costs and time to your bottom line.
When the unidentified Lambert portrait came up for auction it attracted significant interest and it soon became clear that the portrait would not be bought cheaply. The painting was eventually knocked down to me for many times more than its presale estimation indicated, and admittedly I may have overstepped my budget by several bids. A little financially bruised, perhaps, but thrilled with my purchase – absolutely.
5. Post-sale Research - Establishing Provenance
This is the most important part of the process.
Lambert’s catalogue raisonné is authored by Dr Anna Gray. The auction catalogue dated the painting ‘1910’ but unfortunately the painting could not be linked to any of the entries for that year.
With the auction house unable to shed any light on the confidential vendor (which is standard practice) I had to go with my gut feeling that the woman in the painting was an Australian sitter.
Once I had the Lambert painting in my hands, it was my next job to confirm exactly who the sitter was.
After many months attempting to contact the vendor through the auction house, she eventually made contact with the breakthrough I’d been waiting for. She was a Lady, in the aristocratic sense, based in London and was the great-granddaughter of the sitter, Ruby Lindsay* – sister of Australian artists Percy, Lionel, Daryl and Norman Lindsay.
The Lady showed me a book called ‘The Leafy Tree’ by Daryl Lindsay which contained a photograph of Ruby wearing the same black dress with shear ruffled collar and the gold chain-link necklace and pendant around her neck. From this point on, things just started to fall into place.
Armed with this new information I went back to the catalogue raisonné. It turned out that a simple mistake on the date had been made by the auction house while cataloguing. What was read as ‘1910’ was actually 1916 – the six was mistaken for a zero. With the date confirmed I was able to identify the full provenance which linked the vendor (a direct descendant) to the previous owner - Will Dyson as well as its most important exhibition history.
6. Resale (Finding a New Home)
Although I enjoyed being the caretaker of this beautiful and historically significant painting for several years, a painting of this calibre deserves to be in a public institution. I am now delighted to confirm that a state-run institution has purchased Mrs Will Dyson (Ruby Lind) 1916 and she will be on view to the public in due course.
I hope you have enjoyed this little insight into the process of discovering lost artworks. It is one of the thoroughly rewarding pleasures of my career, to be able to discover and repatriate major works of art like Ruby Lind and ensure they are placed in appropriate institutions or with the right collection.
If you need any advice or assistance in buying or selling art on the international stage I’d be delighted to hear from you: email@example.com or 0421 122 023
*Ruby Lindsay (1887–1919) was a talented artist in her own right. Her brother Daryl described her as “never without a sketchbook and pencil in her hands”. While working as a commercial artist in Sydney in the early 1900’s, Ruby’s illustrations were published in the Sydney Bulletin and Lone Hand. After moving to London with her husband, the influential Australian satirist Will Dyson in 1909, Ruby continued to produce delicate black and white artworks and decorations for books such as Naughty Sophia (Winifred Letts) and The Lady Marjorie Papers (Holbrook Jackson), signing her work ‘Ruby Lind’ to establish her independence from her well-known brothers. Her life and promising career were cut short, however, after she contracted the Spanish influenza and died in 1919, leaving her husband and family grieving.
William Henry Dyson, London
(Baron) Yves Chanteau, London, by descent from the above
Private Collection of a Lady, London, by descent from the above
Pictures, Books, Prints & Ephemera and Antique Furniture & Objects, Semley
Auctioneers, Dorset, United Kingdom, 28 January, 2012, lot 105, illustrated
D’Lan Davidson, Melbourne, acquired from the above
The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, The Autumn Exhibition, Twenty-first London Exhibition,
Grosvenor Gallery, London, October – November 1916, no. 29
Commemorative Exhibition of Works by Late Members, Winter Exhibition, 52nd year, Royal Academy of Arts, London,
7 January – 11 March 1933, no. 220
Anne Gray, George Lambert (1873–1930) Catalogue Raisonne: Paintings and Sculpture, Drawings in Public Collections, Bonamy Press, Perth, 1996, p. 63
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