Every Spring and Autumn an eagerly anticipated sale takes place at Bonhams auction house in London.
It’s relatively understated, just 100 to 130 lots, but its clientele has one important thing in common: a love of ships and the sea and a keen interest in the art that depicts them.
Bonhams senior specialist Rhyanon Demery is one of those who puts these sales of marine art together. ‘We try and keep them carefully curated,’ she explains, ‘with high-quality paintings by well-known marine artists with good auction records.’
That list includes people such as Charles Edward Dickson, who was active around 1900, the Victorian era’s James Buttersworth and Edward Cooke, and Montague Dawson from the 20th century, in addition to contemporary artists such as John Stephen Dews.
‘It’s a relatively tight-knit group,’ adds Demary. ‘We try and sell what our clients want and they tend to like works by a select group of people which are in good condition and are ready to hang.’
Bonhams is the only major international auction house still to hold marine art sales as the market has consolidated and focused on this dedicated audience.
Demary explains: ‘We tend to see some high net worth individuals buying, as well as people who are avid collectors. The sales are quite varied and might include works that start at around £1,000, going up easily to £30,000 and above. And what people tend to be interested in is naval history or sailing or travelling the world on cruise ships.’
Certain subject matters are always a magnet for interest, she adds.
‘Works depicting the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 always seem to be popular. Another area that grabs people’s interest is famous tea clippers, sailing boats that transported tea from Asia to Europe very quickly for their day are also of interest to people, especially when the boat is featured with a smooth sea and a clear sky.’
The top level of marine art on which Bonhams focuses is predominantly dominated by British artists, but not exclusively. It also features works by Dutch, American and even Chinese artists.
At the last sale, in October last year, it was a pair of paintings by Buttersworth that were the star attraction while other early works also performed better than anticipated.
‘I think a couple of years ago interest in these traditional 18th-century had waned a bit,’ says Demary. ‘Now estimates have dropped slightly people are interested again and that generates bids. And these particular works were nice compositions.’
The sector also includes items such as model ships and naval memorabilia, she adds.
‘Generally we’d have five or 10 of these items to start the sales. That could include all sorts of fascinating items such as figureheads or ships’ bells. They always spark considerable interest.’
October’s sale, for example saw an incredibly intricate bone model of a Royal Navy ship of the line, made by a prisoner of war in the Napoleonic Wars, change hands for almost £12,000.
Demary adds: ‘A couple of years ago we had a few items relating to Admiral Horatio Nelson, including the chair which he had on his flagship, HMS Victory. That aroused a vast amount of interest among buyers and sold eventually for £85,000, more than double its estimate. We also had a letter signed by Nelson that was estimated at £2,000-£3,000 that eventually sold for £11,000.’
Even more than 200 years after his death Admiral Nelson, it seems, is still big news in the marine market.