Sporting memorabilia makes big money. Think of Michael Jordan’s Nikes, which sold for $1.4 million, or Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” shirt ($9 million). It also makes smaller money, in quantities. Specialist auctioneers Graham Budd in Northamptonshire have a sale today of more than 1,000 items, ranging from a 1958 West Ham vs Manchester United programme at £30 to a silver salver presented to footballing legend Billy Wright estimated at £30,000.
But what about art representing sport? There is nothing to speak of in Budd’s auction, and in the contemporary field, the most memorable work I’ve previously seen was at Art Basel – a 2006 film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno of Zinedine Zidane and his famous headbutt (an edition bought by the National Gallery of Scotland for £200,000 in 2006). In fact, there has never been a single collection of football-related art at auction – until now.
In a first of its kind, a collection of more than 100 paintings and cartoons inspired by the beautiful game has just gone on view at Bonhams, where online bidding has commenced. The collection was almost bought in 2018 by the National Football Museum in Manchester, but the funding could not be found. Last year it was offered by the Chris Beetles Gallery in its entirety for a reported £1.5 million, but individuals only wanted parts so it was not sold. Now, not wishing to keep it in storage, its elderly owner has decided to disperse it to the winds so more people can enjoy its parts. Estimates range from £100 to £100,000 so almost anyone can participate until noon on December 13, when bidding closes.
The story of the collection begins 25 years ago at the fashionable upmarket London eatery, Le Caprice, when St James’s art dealer Chris Beetles sat down for lunch with a wealthy client who was, like him, a football fan. Beetles had supported Spurs since he was 11. The only clue he gives as to the identity of his client is that he is from the Midlands and had been the chairman of a Premier League club. The two decided to acquire original works of art with football as their subject.
They would not, it was agreed, go for sporting ephemera; just the art. And they would focus on the history of the sport, and the social involvement that went with it – the crowds and supporters as well as the players. But where was the art to be found? As Beetles says: “Until recent decades, when football became the nation’s favourite sport and the democracy of wealth had given it superstar status, it has always been regarded as the working man’s pastime. So previously artists have not routinely been able to attract clients and patrons to the artworks with as much enthusiasm as those depicting ‘upper class’ sports, such as cricket, horse racing, motor racing, rugby, tennis, croquet and shooting.”
A good starting point was Beetles’s own gallery, where he specialised in original cartoons and illustrations for magazines and newspapers for regular illustrators’ exhibitions in which sport was a consistent category.
These were not expensive, and Beetles was able to mop up all the best examples that came to auction. One of their earlier buys was a Giles cartoon of a lone reveller by a snowbound pitch made for the Sunday Express in 1969 bought for £750 at Sotheby’s in 1998. In 2001, a Ronald Searle drawing of the schoolboy Molesworth, with a football cost them a triple estimate £3,290.
Other cartoonists they bought who had turned their hand to football were Reg Wootton, whose rotund dynamo, Sporting Sam, graced the pages of the Sunday Express in the 1940s, Norman Thelwell, better known for his ponies, Louis Wain for his cats, Roy Ullyett from the Daily Express, and Larry from Punch and Private Eye. All saw football’s funny side.
At the same time, Beetles and his collector were looking at more serious art. A favourite provenance they discovered was the first Football Association prize for a football painting in 1953, won by LS Lowry’s Going to the Match (recently sold for £7.8 million). They tried for another Lowry football painting in 2007 but were outbid by the Professional Footballers’ Association at £1.1 million. But the collection does boast other works that were in this competition by Bernard Dunstan, Stanley Roy Badmin and Michael Bernard Critchlow.
Badmin’s watercolour – inscribed “Here They Come! The Valley”, with reference to Charlton Athletic’s home ground – depicts the crowd, stadium and players at a match in the early 1950s between Charlton and Arsenal. Bought in 1998 for a record £8,800, it is now estimated at a tempting £7,000. Also in the 1953 exhibition was Bernard Critchlow’s view of a match from between the stands at Fulham’s Craven Cottage. This doubled estimates at Christie’s in 2005 at a record £30,000, and now has a tame £15,000 estimate.
Further records were set when they bought a panoramic view of an Aston Villa vs Sunderland match in the 1950s by the little-known Birmingham artist Henry Cotterill Deykin for £5,300, for which a mere £7,000 is expected; and a wonderfully observed view of the crowds, some climbing trees to watch a third round FA Cup tie between Manchester City and the popular Corinthians in 1926 at Crystal Palace by Charles Cundall. Bought at Christie’s in 2003 for a triple estimate £49,350, it is now expected to fetch double that.
Although the cartoons in this sale outnumber the paintings by 10:1, they might be bought for as little as £100 each. In terms of prices, it is the more serious paintings that will win the day.
Where Rembrandt rubs shoulders with Damien Hirst
While the contemporary art travelling circus lands in Florida this week for the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, London maintains its traditional winter focus on historical art as dealers stage a panoply of exhibitions known as London Art Week. Viewing is already underway, and special mention should be made of Eros, a new gallery in St James’s which places sculptures by Rodin side-by-side with his lesser-known contemporary Aime-Jules Dalou for the first time. Also, Colnaghi’s, now Spanish owned, has assembled a rare solo exhibition by the Spanish modern master, Joaquin Sorolla, as a worthwhile postscript to the 2019 exhibition at the National Gallery.
This sets the scene for London’s Old Master auctions which are estimated to bring around £60 million this week. Sotheby’s touts the highest value lot in a rediscovered Rembrandt at £10 to £15 million, but Christie’s may have the last laugh with the highest value sales. A few years ago, in the face of dwindling sales totals for Old Master paintings, Christie’s rebranded by calling their series ‘Classic Art Week’ to make it sound sleeker and sexier. In addition to its routine Old Master sales – led this year by a sumptuous pair of rediscovered Canaletto paintings of Venice (£8 to £12 million) – there is a £5 million sale devoted to the Josefowitz collection of Rembrandt prints, the largest private collection ever assembled, which includes no less than six etched self-portraits. Dating from his earliest in 1629 to his largest in 1639, each brimming with character, they are estimated to be worth between £15,000 to £120,000 each.
Less expected will be the sight of contemporary works by Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst whose golden The Severed Head of Medusa (2013) was part of his imagined shipwreck of ancient treasures that was shown at two Francois Pinault Foundation venues in Venice in 2017, and is now estimated at £500,000. The contemporary works are part of a series of sales from the £7.5 million collection of Christian Levett who is renowned for combining Old Masters and antiquities with modern and contemporary art which he turned into a museum near Cannes as a model for collectors to explore within their own collections. But after 12 years he has decided to empty the museum and fill it instead with works solely by female artists, notably abstract expressionists. With the boom in rediscovered female artists of the 20th century going strong, one wonders how far that £7.5 million will go.
Art Market Focus runs on the first Tuesday of each month