Fragments and Elephants: Howard Hodgkin’s Eclectic Art Collection Is Sold

Blue Lagoon

Sotheby’s presale exhibition recreated the ambience of Mr. Hodgkin’s studio and home in the Bloomsbury district of London, allowing people to see the relationships between the artist’s vibrant paintings and prints and the Indian miniatures, Turkish tiles, Persian carpet fragments and other antiques that surrounded him.

“He’s unique,” said the London-based artist Nicholas Hatfull, 33, at the preview, describing Mr. Hodgkin’s art. “He’s a sort of English Cy Twombly. No other artist has his depth of color, or warmth,” he added, referring to the American abstract painter, who was also a collector.

By any measure, Mr. Hodgkin had unusually eclectic taste, beyond the comfort zone of many of today’s investment-minded collectors. This was duly reflected in what was, in pure financial terms, a relatively modest return for a lifetime of collecting. The final total of $6.8 million was less than a tenth of the current auction high for a single painting by Mr. Twombly.

Had Mr. Hodgkin collected international contemporary art or held on to more of his own paintings — an early 1980s Hodgkin sold at Christie’s earlier this month for $2.2 million — that total would have been far higher.

Proceeds would also have been boosted if the sale had included the artist’s renowned holdings of museum-quality Indian miniatures. Comprising some 130 drawings, the collection is being treated as a separate, single entity and will be available for sale privately at a price to be decided after the auction, according to Mr. Peattie.

However, Sotheby’s auction did include two paintings by Mr. Hodgkin from the 1960s that he had retained. These earlier, more figurative works are not from the most coveted phase of the artist’s career, as was borne out by the below-estimate £248,750, or about $330,000, given by a British private collector for “Bedroom” (1960-61), and the failure of “Travelling” (1961) to attract any bids.

But 20 proofs of prints by Mr. Hodgkin all soared above their estimates, led by a £32,500 (about $43,000) offer given by a bidder in the room for a proof of the large blue-and-white “Frost” (2000-2).

“The prices of the prints were three or four times retail,” said the London-based dealer Offer Waterman. “But we weren’t treated to any of his first-rank paintings. They were transitional works.”

The most hotly contested artwork at the auction was instead the 1972 painting “De-Luxe Tailors” by the Indian modernist painter Bhupen Khakhar, who was a friend of Mr. Hodgkin’s. The bidding on this piece, which shows two tailors in their shop, soared to £1.1 million, or about $1.4 million, three times the estimate and an auction high for the artist. “Sweet Bowl,” the much-admired 1966 painting by the British artist Patrick Caulfield, also a lifelong friend, was another standout lot, selling for £524,750, or about $690,000.

The commercial appeal of the collection was further complicated by Mr. Hodgkin’s enthusiasm for fragments rather than objects in complete condition.

“Fragments were more potent than entire panels, because they freed the imagination,” explained Mr. Peattie in his catalog foreword. These included a fragment of 17th-century Persian carpet, formerly owned by the legendary collector Robert von Hirsch, which sold for £224,750, or about $295,000. But there were also items like the bottom half of a 13th-century Persian Kashan luster pottery tile that failed to sell against a low estimate of £2,000, or about $2,600. In all, 14 percent of the lots were left unsold, a relatively high figure for the collection of a prominent private individual.

And then there were the elephants, featured in at least 40 of the Indian drawings included in the sale. Mr. Hodgkin regarded Rajasthan’s Kota-style portraits of elephants in particular as “my downfall — my Waterloo” as a collector, according to the catalog. Yet all but one of his elephant drawings sold, with a Kota image of an elephant stampede from the late 18th or early 19th century selling for £32,500, more than 20 times the estimate.

In the pure financial terms of the top end of the auction market, the sale of Mr. Hodgkin’s collection could not be regarded as serious or important. Yet the connoisseurial refinement and curiosity of Mr. Hodgkin’s taste served as a timely reminder of just how homogeneous the buying habits of today’s investment-minded collectors have become.

Last month Artnet News revealed that in the first six months of this year just 25 artists (Twombly comes in at No. 5) accounted for almost half the $2.7 billion of sales at the world’s contemporary art auctions. During that same period, premodern works represented just 17 percent of the global auction turnover of fine art, according to a report published by Artprice, the lowest share yet recorded by the French website.

“It was a wonderful old-fashioned collection,” said Ted Few, a London-based dealer, who bought a 17th-century German lime-wood relief sculpture for £1,500, or about $2,000, at the Hodgkin sale. “It’s very different from so many of today’s collections. People are obsessed with specializing and are much more minimal in their approach.”

Admittedly, Mr. Hodgkin became wealthy enough not to have to worry about overspending on Indian drawings of elephants. But in today’s finance-obsessed times, collectors have become much more reluctant to lose money and a lot less curious about art history. As a result, the wealthy now buy art like Mr. Hodgkin used to read Agatha Christie novels.

They always begin at the end.

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