From prized thoroughbreds to fast-paced fox hunts, paintings of rural pastimes have been gaining ground with collectors around the globe. And while much of the art world is clamoring for the contemporary and the cutting edge, there’s a small yet passionate group of buyers in search of the peaceful countryside past.
“When pieces of extremely high quality appear on the market, there can be fierce competition even from collectors one might not expect to be interested in sporting art,” explains Christie’s New York 19th Century European Paintings Specialist Laura Mathis.
Dating back to the 1800s, these works document beloved animals and the pursuit of country living. They might commemorate a particular hunt or depict a prizewinning horse. And given the well-bred subject matter, the paintings were often commissioned by the aristocracy.
The look is English to the core, but in recent years, more and more buyers are coming from China and the Middle East. “The interest in sporting paintings from collectors in the Middle East should come as no surprise considering the importance of Arabian horses in the development of what we know today as thoroughbred horses as well as the continued interest in horseracing and breeding in the region,” Mathis instructs.
A stellar selection of sporting art recently went up for auction at Christie’s in New York, taking in $306,000 as part of a larger sale of European art. The coveted works came from the private collection at Tivoli farm, a circa-1903 residence set against the panoramic backdrop of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. These beloved paintings took pride of place at this elegant Colonial Revival equestrian estate.
One of the most sought-after works was a luminous 19th century equine painting by British artist Henry Barraud entitled “‘Polydora,’ ‘Annette,’ ‘Salisbury,’ ‘Polyxena.’” It turns out that the canvas once had a very famous owner. “When we were researching it, we learned that the mares it depicts belonged to the fifth Earl Spencer and it hung at Althorp, Princess Diana’s childhood home, until the 1980s,” Mathis confides. With strong interest, the handsome painting sold for $56,700. Meanwhile, a spirited depiction of a fox hunt in full pursuit attracted a round of lively bidding. The circa-1810 work “Full Cry” by British painter John Nost Sartorius fetched a final price tag of $32,760.
But take note: You needn’t be the frontrunner in this category as there are savvy purchases to be made elsewhere in the pack, too. “If you aren’t yet ready to collect at the higher end of the sporting market, there are wonderful examples at more accessible price points that don’t sacrifice on quality,” Mathis advises. Case in point: the charming circa-1851 painting “Ducks and Ducklings” by British artist John Frederick Herring Sr. In the end, this endearing work sold for a comparatively lower sum of $13,860, offering new buyers a sporting chance indeed.