Byline: BROOK MASON
Luxury retailers from Burberry to Gucci have long harnessed the sales potential of pampered pooches. Auction houses too are benefiting from the devotion of a dog-loving clientele as the market for canine portraiture continues to boom.
A decade ago, the majority of works of art featuring dogs were hammered down in London and went for trifling amounts. "Now upwards of 70 per cent of the paintings in our dog art sales are air-freighted from London but more than 90 per cent of the buyers are Americans," says Alan Fausel, head of fine art at Bonhams New York .
As for prices, in February 2006 the auction house held a dog -speciality sale at its Madison Avenue outpost, and Fausel rang up a stupendous Dollars 842,250 for a John Emms 1898 oil "New Forest Foxhounds". It was a world record for any dog portrayal and for the work of the British painter; in 2001, the top price for an Emms painting was Dollars 192,750.
"Dog portraiture really began in England," says William Secord, a Manhattan dealer who has specialised in this genre for more than two decades and has written books on the subject including Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today (Yale University Press, 2006). The golden age of pet portraiture spanned from 1840-1910, during which time Queen Victoria helped to spearhead its popularity as she liked to commission portraits of her dogs; the aristocracy and gentry followed suit.
"But after the first world war, the popularity of, and the prices for, that genre declined," says Secord. In the past five years all that has changed. Secord says his sales of dog art have jumped by 80 per cent.
He has also witnessed a broadening of market interest far beyond Manhattan. He points to his recent participation in the Palm Beach-based America's International Fine Art & Antique Fair and March's Thomasville Antiques Show in Georgia, where Secord sold a Jules-Bertrand Gelibert 1881 oil of eight French hounds resting after a hunt at Fontainebleau for Dollars 64,000.
"As Thomasville is really the centre of quail hunting, there are many collectors of dog paintings there," says Secord. He has also sold a 19th-century English dog painting to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.
"Americans adore dogs," says Mario Buatta, a New York designer who furnished one client's Fifth Avenue apartment with 25 dog pictures. Other A-list Manhattan decorators catering to their clients' taste for canine chic include Charlotte Moss and Bunny Williams.
Consumer interest has spread beyond the US. In February, both Bonhams and Doyle in New York scheduled specialist canine sales on the same day, clustered around the city's Westminster Kennel Club for dogs, and pegged to the club's own dog show. They drew an impressive attendance of 40,000-plus and both witnessed a flurry of buyers from abroad.
At Doyle's, now in its ninth year of annual Dogs in Art auctions, bidders were international. "For the first time we had buyers from abroad, including Britain and France," says Elaine Stainton, Doyle's painting specialist.
Arabs with Connecticut homes were scooping up pictures, as were Canadians, while Australians were bidding by phone. In this setting, a Percival Leonard Rosseau 1931 oil of two setters soared above its Dollars 40,000-Dollars 60,000 estimate and sold for Dollars 210,000 to a British buyer Secord sold a Rosseau in 2003 for Dollars 90,000.
Bonhams' sale of dog-themed paintings, decor and memorabilia raised close to Dollars 1m. The star of the sale, ringing up Dollars 101,059, was the 1893 oil painting "Setters" by Thomas Blinks, who exhibited at London's Royal Academy. "Buyers were from Hong Kong, Britain and Austria as well as here," says Fausel.
It was Bonhams London that took the lead in marketing dogs in art as a speciality sale exactly 25 years ago. Other London auction houses regularly included this niche in general sporting art sales. "Our Dog in Art sales in London in the early 1980s never totalled more than Pounds 250,000," says Charlie O'Brien, Bonhams' London specialist in 19th-century painting.
Fausel, who previously headed Doyle's York's painting department, orginally established the house's Dogs in Art sale. Last year, he moved to Bonhams and replicated the auction there.
Clients, says Fausel, zero in on artists such as Thomas Blinks, John Emms, Henriette Ronner-Knip, Edmund Bristow, Edmund Henry Osthaus and John Dalby, all of whom featured in Bonhams' most recent sale.
As with regular portraiture, the subject matter counts - although in dog paintings, breed determines the aristocratic level of the sitters. "Setters, spaniels and terriers are most in demand," says Fausel.
Now, Christie's is entering the canine portraiture scene. Last month it showcased highlights from its first Dog Art auction, to take place on June 22, during the Westminster dog show. These included Victorian painter Sir Edwin Landseer's 1824 "Neptune", which portrays a life-sized Newfoundland, a breed synonymous with bravery (estimate: Dollars 800,000-Dollars 1,200,000). Perhaps affirming the heroic nature of the dog, the painting is framed with timbers from the famous HMS Temeraire, a battleship that fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Most of the paintings in the auction come from a private US collection.
"We know that the sale will attract buyers from France, England, Ireland, Germany and possibly even Turkey," says James Hastie, Christie's London expert.
The success of dog portraits at auction is now generating interest in accompanying areas. Doyle, for example, included dogs in porcelain and silver in its New York sale. Bonhams too is expanding to include an auction devoted to dog collars next year. This will feature collars with a royal pedigree, having previously belonged to dogs owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.