Support 110 years of independent journalism.

Advertorial feature by Study provided by Hiscox
  1. Culture
13 June 2016

What Brian Sewell’s Art Auction Tells Us About the Man and the Industry

By New Statesman

The late Brian Sewell certainly knew what he didn’t like but, thanks to a recent decision by his estate, we might finally get an insight into what he did like.

When it came to dissecting (or should that be dismantling) artists, fellow critics and the National Gallery, Sewell was second-to-none. Lacerating lesser art with a lexicon that was as vitriolic as it was acutely accurate, Sewell left an indelible mark on the art world with his critiques. However, in among his verbal jabs at artists, he was also a serious collector.

As you’d expect from someone that made a living from lamenting over the works of others, Sewell owned a number of highly ornate and expensive pieces.

The Changing Face of Art

While you won’t find a Hockney in his collection (he famously called him a “vulgar prankster”), Sewell did own works by the likes of Matthias Stom, John Craxton and Daniele da Volterra. Following his passing in 2015, the entirety of Sewell’s art collection is now set to be auctioned off at Christies. Unfortunately for Sewell’s estate, the pieces on offer might not fetch the prize the man himself would have undoubtedly demanded for them.

A recent study of the art market by Hiscox has shown that the global art auction market contracted in 2015. Assessing the changing face of the art industry and the growing prevalence of online art houses and auction sites, Hiscox noted that the future of the industry appears to be dependent on the Internet.

Feeling the full force of the slowdown in global art sales are the mid-to-high-end pieces, with price tags above and beyond five-figures, which is exactly where the examples in Sewell’s collection sit. For instance, the pièce de résistance in Sewell’s lot is Stom’s Blowing Hot, Blowing Cold, which is valued at between £400,000 and £600,000. While many consider this piece to be undervalued anyway, given the current love of modernism, a classic like this has undoubtedly taken a hit because of the evolution of the art world.

Sewell’s Sale is a Marker for the Art Market

Indeed, in line with this current move towards modernism is a desire for a more modern way to purchase art. As we know, Internet shopping is all about bagging a bargain and this seems to be driving down the price of classical pieces like Blowing Hot, Blowing Cold. Of course, it’s not all bad news. As Hiscox has stated, online art sales were up by 24% in 2015 and the industry is now worth $3.27 billion (£2.3 billion).

The consequence of this movement is that traditional auction houses must evolve and sellers need to adjust their expectations in line with the current market conditions. Offering up a piece based on a market value taken five years ago simply won’t wash in today’s climate of falling sales and click-and-buy bargain hunters.

The sale of Sewell’s art collection will certainly give us an insight into his mindset and tastes, but it could also act as a barometer for the industry as a whole. Will his classical pieces achieve the sort of money one would have expected a decade ago? Will the items from his collection go to the highest online bidders? These are the bigger questions the art world should be pondering at the moment.

Naturally, a glimpse into the controversial mind of Britain’s most “controversial” art critic is hugely fascinating, but it’s the perspective on an art world that’s slowly fading which appears to be the most interesting consequence of Sewell’s swansong.

Topics in this article :