Henry Moore's Most Valuable Work Comes to Sotheby's

Sotheby's to offer $30 million Festival of Britain Reclining Figure from 1951 in November

In many ways, 1951 was a turning point in the career of British sculptor Henry Moore. His work commissioned for the Festival of Britain that year helped confirm his reputation. It also led to more public commissions which also tended to make his work larger and more impressive. 

Reclining Figure: Festival has prestigious place within Moore’s body of work. The plaster casts created to work out the composition are in the Tate in London and the Art Gallery of Ontario. The original bronze showed at the Festival of Britain is now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Another bronze acquired by the French State in the 1950s is now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. 

This particular cast was kept by Moore and his family who sold it privately to the consignor who will now offer the work at Sotheby’s during their November 14th sale in New York. Reclining Figure: Festival also has a unique place within Moore’s market. Two of the casts have been sold at auction. Both made prices triple any other price ever achieved for a Moore sculpture. 

In 2012, one cast was auctioned for $30 million. Four years later, another cast made slightly more at $32.8 million. In the same decade, more than 50 works were sold for prices between $1 million and $9.3 million. 

For reference, Moore’s peer and sometimes rival, Barbara Hepworth, has sold 63 works during the same period for prices between $1 million and just a bit more than $7 million. Without the Reclining Figure: Festival, Moore’s market would be fairly close to Hepworth’s. That may say more about the increase market appetite for Hepworth’s work than anything about Moore. 

That $20-million gap between those 50 Moore works that sell in the seven-figure range on the auction market and the two (soon-to-be-three) $30-million sales of Reclining Nude: Festival is one of the most interesting aspects of Moore’s market. Nevertheless, the gap points to the importance of the Festival of Britain work in Moore’s career. 

This cast is being offered with only the guidance that Sotheby’s expects the work to sell for “in excess of $30 million.” Given the performance a decade ago and then four years later, the estimate is relatively attractive. That may be a reflection of the current global macroeconomic moment which makes any eight-figure purchase potentially fraught. 

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