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William Prinsep’s watercolor 'View across the inner harbour of Macau,' which sold for £38,000 ($48,155, or $61,640 with buyer's premium) at Bonhams.

William Prinsep Macao watercolors and Michel Jean Cazabon works depicting colonial Trinidad were top earners at Bonhams

LONDON — Two watercolors of the Portuguese colony of Macao by the British colonial artist William Prinsep sold for record sums in BonhamsTravel & Exploration sale June 12.

Estimated at £3,000-£5,000 ($3,800-$6,300) each, 10in by 13in watercolor views titled Preparing chickens for market in Macau and View across the inner harbour of Macau sold for £36,000 ($45,620, or $58,400 with buyer’s premium) and £38,000 ($48,150, or $61,640 with buyer’s premium) respectively.

Both sold to the same buyer via the bidding platform as the online event closed on June 12.

William Prinsep (1794-1874) belonged to a large Anglo-Indian family that produced several talented amateur artists. The fifth son of John Prinsep, an East India Company official regarded as the founder of the indigo trade in India, he worked for the bankers and merchants Palmer & Co, first in Calcutta and then in Macao. He took lessons in painting from George Chinnery, the English painter who spent most of his life in Asia.

Prinsep worked in Macao, where Chinnery had settled, from the late 1830s until he returned to England in 1842. One of these two watercolors, Preparing chickens, is indistinctly dated 1838, the year before the First Opium War, which would spell the beginning of the end for Macao as a 19th-century trading center. The images show a sparsely populated collection of coastal islands, a far cry from the resort city that is today one of the richest and most densely packed spots on the globe.

Many of Prinsep’s most desirable paintings depict sights in the Las Vegas of the East. His paintings of the A-Ma Temple in Sao Lourenço, Macau includes an oil of a temple interior that sold for £15,000 (roughly $19,000) at Christie’s in 2008. According to Artprice, the previous high for the artist was the watercolor Barrackpore House, beside the River Hooghly, Calcutta, which sold at Christie’s in 1998 for £22,000 (roughly $27,000).

Unlike Prinsep and his contemporaries, who traveled in search of artistic inspiration and to make a living, Michel Jean Cazabon (1813-1888) was a native of Trinidad. The mixed-race son of immigrants from Martinique who owned a sugar plantation, Cazabon was schooled as an English gentleman at St. Edmund’s College in Ware, and later at art school in Paris. However, on his return to Trinidad in 1852, he is credited with introducing Europeans to the flora and fauna of the West Indies through plate books published the 1850s and 1860s.

George Harris, 3rd Baron Harris and governor of Trinidad from 1848 to 1854, was a key patron. The collection of 44 Cazabon paintings displayed at his family seat, Belmont in Kent, England, is considered the key visual reference for 19th-century Trinidad. Other collections of Cazabon watercolors were commissioned by William Burnley; the Scottish-American planter John Lamont; and the Earl of Dundonald.

A collection of seven 11in by 17in watercolors by Cazabon were offered by Bonhams from the collection of Sir Frederick and Lady Warner with estimates ranging from £10,000-£20,000 ($12,600-$25,300) each.

Sir Frederick Archibald Warner (1918-1995), who worked in the diplomatic service, was the son of Frederick Warner Sr. (1884-1917), who came from Trinidad, where his family had settled in the early 19th century. The late Geoffrey MacLean (1942-2024), a leading authority on Michel Jean Cazabon, cataloged these works a decade ago and identified some of the subjects as the Tucker Valley Estate in Chaguaramas, Trinidad. Although there is very little surviving evidence of the estate today, in its mid-19th century prime the 5,500-acre plot known locally as La Cuesa grew cocoa and coffee beans for an English owner named William Tucker. Together, these images of locals at their toil record what Bonhams’ cataloger called “a rare glimpse into a bygone era.”

Offered with an estimate of £15,000-£20,000 ($19,000-$25,300) and sold at £24,000 ($30,415, or $38,930 with buyer’s premium) was a watercolor depicting the Tucker Valley Estate House, while another showing four men raking and drying beans in a cocoa house took £28,000 ($35,485, or $45,420 with buyer’s premium). Earning the top bid of £30,000 ($38,020, or $48,665 with buyer’s premium) was an image of half a dozen farmhands using poles to pick cocoa beans under a lush canopy.

Signed works such as these are infrequent visitors to the auction room, although there are some precedents. Several works by Cazabon have appeared in regional UK sales while, according to Art Sales Index, the record for the artist is the £95,000 (roughly $120,500) bid at Christie’s back in 2019 for an oil titled Saint-Pierre, Martinique.