Monday, September 21, 2009

Rare Danish watercolour found sleeping in Yorkshire

They're called 'sleepers' — auction lots whose true value is unrecognized by the auctioneer until the hammer falls.

On such occasions it only takes two knowledgeable dealers or collectors for the bidding to take off, leaving a derisory estimate in a cloud of dust. So perhaps the real sleepers are the auctioneers who only wake up when the item they've failed to recognize suddenly breaks cover and fetches an unexpectedly high price. This month some of the loudest snoring came from West Yorkshire, although the dozy auctioneers, Hartleys of Ilkley, will doubtless claim that it wasn't a sleeper as they knew all along what it was and what it was worth. Which merely confirms that pre-sale estimates are meaningless.

Among the pictures offered at their 9th September auction was the original watercolour illustration dated 1913 (above left). Entitled Knight Olaf, it shows a forest with a gaunt-looking medieval knight astride a white steed being welcomed by a frieze of ethereal female nudes doubling as swirling mist. Clearly influenced by fin-de-siècle artists such as Jan Toorop and Aubrey Beardsley, it also has affinities with the work of childrens' book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, and with the 'Fairyland' designs by Daisy Makeig Jones for Royal Worcester ceramics.

The artist was the Danish illustrator Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957) (right) who, like Rackham, specialized in illustrating fairy tales and legends by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Charles Perrault, and others.

After training in Paris, where he absorbed the prevailing Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of the European avant garde, Nielsen moved to London in 1911. There he established a successful career as a children's book illustrator. In 1939, he settled in southern California and the following year was commissioned by Walt Disney to design scenes for his 1940 film, Fantasia.

The illustration that turned up in Yorkshire was signed and dated 1913, making it an early work, executed when Nielsen was just 27 and beginning to pick up his first commissions from London publishers Hodder and Stoughton. It bore a label on the verso for the Leicester Galleries, the internationally renowned London dealers in avant garde art.

The Knight Olaf was entered for sale by a private vendor from Halifax whose family acquired it after the war when they bought a large Cheshire property that had been decommissioned by the army. The illustration was acquired along with the rest of the house contents and was for many years assumed to be a print. Even in 1945 it may have been worth more than the house.

There is no shortage of auction price databases on the internet that would have revealed the keen international demand for original illustrations by Nielsen, but it seems Hartleys didn't consult them. Only last year, Christie's South Kensington sold A Huntsman Vanquishes The Seven-Headed Dragon (left) for £23,273 ($67,500), by no means an unusual price for Nielsen's work.

How, then, did Hartleys arrive at an estimate of just £1500-2500 for such a hugely decorative, original, early work, signed and dated, in excellent condition, and in its original frame? The trade press described the estimate as "cautious". Pointless would be more accurate.

In the event, the hammer fell at £36,000 offered by an American bidder. It's the sort of picture that would probably have interested the Museum of American Illustration in Rhode Island, to say nothing of the wealthy private collectors of Nielsen's work who'd be willing to stretch themselves for outstanding early examples.

The buyer's premium alone on the hammer price amounts to £5400, to say nothing of the vendor commission.

Nice work, if you can get it. Even better if you can do it in your sleep.

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