You are invited to an art world wake: Bargain-hunters are being lured to Burlington Street via the back door of Sotheby's. John Windsor does a recce

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DAMNED clever, these auctioneers. What looks like Sotheby's dingiest catalogue is certain to attract shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Black cover, no colour anywhere, it is designed to make you dream of finding yourself the only bidder, snapping up no-reserve bargains.

Sadly, there is not much chance of that. The auction is of the entire stock of Nigel Greenwood, the London dealer, who was renowned for putting the romance back into modern British art but was unable to sweet-talk his gallery's creditors. The art world will flock to the wake.

This saddest demise of the art market recession has ended 25 years of trading by the gallery in New Burlington Street, near Piccadilly. On the crest of the Eighties boom it got dollars 500,000 for a Howard Hodgkin, sold art books published by Mr Greenwood and serviced dealers and artists with endless cups of tea.

Anthony Wilkinson, assistant director during the gallery's last six years, said: 'A lot of people were very upset and shocked when Nigel closed. He was in the art business for the right reasons.'

One of Mr Greenwood's artists, Jeffery Camp, known for his London Underground poster of figures floating round the Monument, said: 'What a shame that the good dealers are not always the ones with most money. He's been least like a shopkeeper, most like an enlightened friend.'

Mr Greenwood was never enamoured of auctioneers, believing passionately that young artists should be patiently nurtured by galleries instead of prematurely exposed to the risk of sudden death on the block.

As it happened, many of his proteges rewarded this nurturing by throwing him over for tougher, wealthier galleries. It is ironic that the subtle but hard-headed marketing skills of an auctioneer are likely to bring record prices for works by artists who deserted him.

Most London galleries floored by the recession have been able to avoid clearance sales, considered a humiliation. (The mediocre job lots of contemporary Russian paintings of the collapsed Red Square Gallery were 100 per cent sold at Bonhams in July - but for as little as pounds 10 each.) Pictures from the smarter crashes - Odette Gilbert, Nicola Jacobs, Albemarle, Heim, Ackermann, Fischer, Kasmin and Leggatt Brothers - are still being discreetly dispersed or stacked behind sofas as dispossessed dealers begin 'trading from home'.

Sotheby's magic pack-'em-in formula for the Greenwood stock is not much different from that of its Robert Maxwell sale in February, which drew 2,000 people: no reserves, everything must go and extra-low 'come-on' estimates. There is an inspiringly uninspiring sale catalogue which has been sent to the entire mailing list for the mid-season Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales which coincide with the Nigel Greenwood sale (Thursday, 2.30pm).

Extra viewing days have been allocated: Sunday and, almost unprecedentedly, Monday. An unwitting addition to the sale's nudge-nudge, wink- wink allure for the bargain hunter is that bidders are being asked to enter via the back door in George Street.

Sotheby's said ingenuously: 'The sale was modestly priced because we thought it would maximise interest and get a lot of buyers to come and bid.'

Mr Greenwood, who was reported last weekend to be recovering from food poisoning in Paris, rescued British painting from the arid, minimalist abstractions which had supplanted pop art in the Seventies. Instead, he championed young artists who painted big, romantic figurative canvases - expressionist in technique, and in content often mythological or symbolic. Sotheby's catalogue echoes the conflict between minimalism and romanticism: only a romantic could believe that the top lot - by Christopher LeBrun, sometimes cited as the leading figure in Britain's 'neo-expressionism' of the Eighties - will sell for only the estimated pounds 4,000- pounds 6,000. Or that one of Kossoff's sought-after charcoal Head of Rosalind series will fetch just pounds 1,500- pounds 2,000.

Mr Greenwood earned an almost saintly reputation in the art world in 1985 when he became the first dealer to be invited by the Arts Council to select the work for the Hayward Gallery's prestigious annual exhibition. There, besides a Henry Moore and a Francis Bacon, he showed a massive Shrubberies Drawing by Gilbert and George of 1972. It was he who had discovered Gilbert and George, giving them their first break as performance artists. They danced to a scratchy recording of Underneath the Arches before dancing off to another gallery, Anthony D'Offay.

Mr Greenwood had no backers and lacked the financial clout of powerful galleries such as the Marlborough and Waddington - both referred to by artists as 'the bank'. He was often hard-pressed to follow the initial promotion of his discoveries. Wheeling and dealing, the tricks of packaging - such as offering work by upcoming unknowns as 'stocking fillers' to sweeten big deals - were alien to him. Some fellow dealers said he was more a curator than a dealer.

Although his artists were regularly picked off by more powerful galleries, when he closed two of his most bankable discoveries, Christopher LeBrun and Dhruva Mistry, were still with him. So was Glen Baxter, the cartoonist.

Mr LeBrun, who lives in New York, resisted stepping on to the beaten track to the London 'banks' until the Greenwood gallery had folded. He is now with the Marlborough. His work in the sale is typical of the figurative revival of the Eighties which Mr Greenwood promoted. His Tree and Hill (1984-87), est pounds 4,000- pounds 6,000, verges from abstract to figurative, like a late Monet, and uses romantic Impressionist-style lighting.

There are seven drawings in the sale by the Birmingham artist John Walker - tempted to London by Mr Greenwood and now also living in New York. The Greenwood gallery represented him for 20 years, mounting numerous shows. He showed at the Hayward and the Tate and is now represented by Knoedler in New York and Waddington in London. His drawings, like Blackboard-Hamburg III (1973) est pounds 250- pounds 350 in the sale, are a spirited cross between abstract and figurative.

The first six lots in the sale - stock nearly 20 years old - are by Bill Jacklin. These abstract watercolours and gouaches with pen are typical of the geometrical conceptual art which the Greenwood gallery left behind in the Eighties. Estimates: pounds 500- pounds 700. Jacklin, too, lives in New York, where his works are in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan. He now paints large urban figuratives - a month-long show of his recent paintings of Coney Island opens on 28 October at the Marlborough, London, which represents him here.

Adrian Wiszniewski, whose huge romantic, mythical pastel and charcoal Attack of a Right Wing Nature (1986) is est pounds 2,000- pounds 4,000, was one of a group of young artists propelled to instant stardom in the early Eighties as a result of their degree show in Glasgow. He left the Greenwood gallery for the William Jackson Gallery about 18 months ago.

The sale reveals the Greenwood as a gallery of two decades - the Seventies and the Eighties. More astute dealers of Mr Greenwood's generation, such as Bernard Jacobson, are surviving the recession because their stock is more broadly based. Mr Jacobson's vast stock spans the blue-chip artists of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties - Spencer, Nicholson, Sutherland, Bomberg - allowing him to graft on unknowns with less financial risk.

He said: 'Nigel Greenwood was one of the few dealers who was worth propping up financially by the dealer system. Unfortunately, at this moment we're all finding it hard to prop ourselves up. If we had had a bit more fat on us, we could have helped.

'Nigel has a great brain which cuts through things, a great eye - he also hangs pictures beautifully - and a great wit. He is much loved by the international art community. He knows more about art than the rest of us. His Hayward Annual presaged the return to nature which we are now seeing in the Nineties. But he'll become a private dealer. He'll come through.'

In the Hayward Annual catalogue of 1985, Mr Greenwood wrote: 'I felt the Hayward needed some flags, some zest on the outside. Who . . . better than Katherine Hamnett? But then I lost my nerve. Suppose she turned me down?' You have to be tougher than that to survive in the art market.

Sale: Thursday 2.30pm, includes paintings, drawings, photographs. Viewing tomorrow 12noon-4pm, Monday-Wednesday 9am-4.30pm. Sotheby's, 34 New Bond Street, London W1 (071-493 8080).

(Photograph omitted)

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