A Decade After Its Failed Gallery Venture, Did Christie’s Just Dump Old Haunch of Venison Stock at a Provincial U.K. Auction?

Artists and dealers are incensed by the “absurd” low prices and lack of research to the sale.

A man holds his hand up while bidding on a work of art inside the auction house Christie's. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

An unexpected sale of works by top artists in the English countryside just before Christmas has left artists and their dealers puzzled, perplexed and—most of all—angry.

The little-known Bellmans auctioneers offered 147 contemporary artworks by artists of the caliber of former Turner Prize nominees Richard Long, Keith Coventry, Katie Paterson, Nathan Coley, Keith Tyson and Simon Patterson, at below-market prices and possibly without proper title. The works in the December 16 sale entitled “Expanding Horizons: A Collection of Contemporary Art,” were all solely provenanced to the Haunch of Venison Gallery, which Christie’s bought in 1997 and closed down in 2013.

According to informed sources who have worked for both Christie’s and Haunch of Venison, the likely seller or agent was Christie’s, which took over the primary market gallery’s stock when they closed it down. No change of ownership after Haunch of Venison is recorded on the provenance and, when contacted for this story, both of Haunch of Venison’s founders, Graham Southern and Harry Blain, distanced themselves from the sale.

Haunch of Venison, London. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison.

Haunch of Venison, as seen from the street. Courtesy of Haunch of Venison.

Christie’s is also known in the trade for passing on lower-value works to Bellmans for sale. Both auction houses declined to either confirm or deny that Christie’s was the seller. Asked why the property was sent to Bellmans and not sold at Christie’s, a spokesperson for Christie’s responded: “We never discuss consignors or our clients’ business.”

Whoever the seller was, outraged artists and dealers have protested that the sale was an underresearched, underpromoted mess and—if it was Christie’s—resounding proof that auction houses are ill-suited to represent artists, an expertise Christie’s was trying to develop through its acquisition of the gallery.

Artist Simon Patterson had two works in the sale, a word painting diptych from 1988 (estimated at £800–£1,200 /$1,000–$1,600), which only made £350 ($475), and a photographic work (£200–£300/ $270–$400) which sold for £320 ($434). Apart from the very low prices, what alarmed Patterson most was that he had no record of ever selling the works—i.e., they might still belong to him.

Screenshot from Bellmans' catalogue for the "Expanding Horizons" sale.

Screenshot from Bellmans’ catalogue for the “Expanding Horizons” sale.

Berlin-based Mark Alexander, on the other hand, said he sold his black-on-black versions of Van Gogh to Haunch for around £38,000 each in 2005. They were later sold on for up to £200,000 each, according to Adrian Searle in the Guardian. Bellmans let several go for between £250 ($339) and £500 ($679) each.

Zhang Huan is a significant Chinese performance artist and painter who Haunch of Venison showed in 2007 and 2009 but now shows with Pace and Pearl Lam. Bellmans offered four examples from his “Memory Door” series from 2007 with £7,000–£10,000 ($9,500–$13,500) estimates. Just one found a buyer during the sale, and the remaining three were not sold until after the auction, when Bellmans updated the post-sale prices on the website to £2,500 ($3,400) each. Other examples from Zhang’s series of silkscreens laid on wooden doors have sold at Phillips for up to £32,500 (in 2013) within the last nine years, according to the artnet Price Database.

Dealer and collector James Hyman said he would have bought from Bellmans—“they were a bargain”—but he missed the sale because it was “badly timed and badly publicised.”

Keith Coventry, best known for his inclusion in the “Sensation” exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection of Young British Artists in 1997, was tipped off about the sale in which there were seven paintings from his 2002/4 “Echoes of Albany” series estimated at just £500 ($679) each. Coventry, who now shows with Pace where his work is priced up to £90,000 ($122,000), bought all seven paintings back for an accumulative £7,000 ($9,500) with the intention of reassembling the whole series to donate to a U.K. museum.

Like the dealers and consultants who were interviewed for this article, Coventry believes Christie’s was the seller, though why the art was all given to Bellmans with such low estimates and no catalogue background information on his or any other artists’ work he finds a mystery.

Other artists in the sale now represented by Pace include Kevin Francis Gray and Keith Tyson, both of whose works can sell in six figures. But a sculpture and a painting by each were sold for under £1,500 ($2,000) each. Pace director Eliot Mcdonald said that, as the gallery was not notified, they could not support their artists in the auction.

Screenshot from Bellmans' catalogue for the "Expanding Horizons" sale.

Screenshot from Bellmans’ catalogue for the “Expanding Horizons” sale.

Ben Tufnell, a former Tate curator and director of Haunch, who later set up Parafin gallery, said that neither he nor his artists, Nathan Coley and Katie Paterson, were notified of the sale, and regretted being forwarded on the results. “It’s so depressing…the prices (£20–£120 / $27–$163) were ludicrous,” he said, adding that the “work” on offer by Paterson is not actually a work but an accumulation of objects, which still belong to her.

One of the most vociferous critics of the sale is Edinburgh based gallerist Richard Ingleby, who represents photographic artist Thomas Joshua Cooper. Cooper’s work has sold at auction for up to £8,000 ($11,000) and up to £30,000 ($47,000) through his galleries. At Bellmans, seven lots of his work sold for between £300 and £700 ($400 and $950), just a fraction of their estimates.

“The prices are absurd, and it is very upsetting to see artists’ work handled in this way—not just Thomas, but others whose work seems to have been similarly dumped,” Ingleby, who was never alerted about the sale, said. “Frankly, I’m speechless.”

Typical of the lack of research was a 17-square-foot slate work, Spring Ellipse (1999), by Richard Long that made the top price at the sale of £35,000 ($47,500), less than half what it should have fetched. The sale, however, has not yet gone through because Bellmans had no certificate of authenticity from the artist. Lisson Gallery, which represents Long, said they were not notified of the sale, while Bellmans says the Richard Long sale had been “temporarily suspended pending an ongoing enquiry.”

This article is an abridged version of a longer report published in the February issue of Art Monthly.

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