Born in Yorkshire in 1964, Harland Miller started creating his signature book covers in the early 1990s. The works’ witty, dry humour has since attracted high-profile collectors including singers George Michael and Elton John, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young and supermodel Brooklyn Decker. Yet on the secondary market, Miller’s work has never commanded the high prices of his Young British Artists contemporaries Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin or Marc Quinn. Until now.
March 2019 saw two works by Miller achieve record-high prices at Christie’s, setting a new world auction record for the artist. Since then, the demand for Miller’s work has exploded, with his paintings soaring above its estimate each time they are offered. Here we take a look at some of Miller’s recent top results at auction.
One for those looking for fastlove – Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore, from the personal collection of singer George Michael, set a new auction record for Miller when it was auctioned at Christie’s in London on 14 March 2019. Selling for £237,500, it more than tripled the previous record of £75,000 set by Sotheby’s in 2015. The painting sold after just two minutes of intense bidding in the saleroom and over the telephones, eventually achieving almost eight times its low estimate.
Incurable Romantic is quickly becoming one of Miller’s most popular artworks with collectors. Inspired by the lonely hearts adverts in newspapers, the artist has made many versions of this piece over the years, reworking the title onto different styles of Penguin covers. The record-breaking painting from George Michael’s collection was created in 2007 – the singer bought it in the same year and kept it in his collection for the rest of his life. Another version of Incurable Romantic, painted in 2011, was offered at Sotheby’s in New York on 6 March 2020 – it went for US$193,750, over three times its high estimate, becoming the most expensive work by Miller sold at Sotheby’s.
Displaying Miller’s mischievous wit and love of turning well-known phrases on their heads, this 2007 painting of Death, What’s in it for Me? was offered in the online part of Christie’s The George Michael Collection auctions in March 2019. After a week of bidding, Death rocketed past its low estimate of £30,000 and became the star lot of the online sale – beating works offered Hirst, Michael Craig-Martin and other contemporaries by tens of thousands of pounds.
“I’ve always liked to play with big themes, the commonplace and the everyday. Death is a big theme, but ‘what’s in it for me’ is very throwaway. I’ve always liked these juxtapositions,” Miller has said about this title, which he has also recreated in many variations.
In addition to referencing vintage Penguin book covers, Miller also creates works inspired by Pelican, Penguin’s non-fiction imprint that originally ran from 1937–1984. Plan-B My Story – a work that wittily presents memoir as authoritative non-fiction – made its auction debut in Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale in London on 14 February 2020. Kept in the same private collection since 2003 – the year it was created – the fresh-to-market painting sold for over three times its low estimate. It is currently the most expensive work by Miller sold at Phillips.
When Grimsby was first offered for auction at Phillips in London on 28 June 2016, the work sold for £36,250. Just three years later, Christie’s valued it at the US$60,000–80,000, nearly double its previous selling price. The painting eventually sold for US$125,000 in Christie’s New York Post-War to Present auction on 27 September 2019 — over double its expect low estimate.
Grimsby is part of Miller’s Pelican Bad Weather Paintings series, inspired by the non-fiction Pelican books and the artist’s memories of bleak days growing up in North England. Born and raised in York, Miller spent many childhood holidays in the surrounding seaside towns. These memories also inspired works like Whitby: The Self Catering Years, which recalls budget family holidays, and Scarborough: Have Faith in Cod, a nod to the seaside town where the artist and his sister spent their summers. The works formed the theme of Miller’s 2020 solo exhibition, York, So Good They Named It Once — the artist’s largest show yet.
“I think the majority of people have a love-hate relationship with their hometown… and I think I do too, but just without the hate,” Miller mused ahead of the exhibition.
One Way Donkey Ride To Hell, created in 2007, is one of Miller’s rare paintings to include someone else as the imaginary book’s author. When Miller first started painting book covers in the early 1990s, many of his works referred to existing authors – such as Ernest Hemingway: I’m So Fucking Hard, alluding to the writer’s macho personality, and Edgar Allen Poe: From Bad to Shit, a joke on Poe’s grisly stories. Gradually, however, Miller realised “the part of the process I enjoyed the most was just making my own texts, creating these fictitious books. I was trying to start writing at the time as well. It gave me a lot of pleasure to imagine a book I had already written and then painting it.”
John Holmes is one of Miller’s more obscure authors, possibly referring to the sci-fi author, the poet, or the published adult film actor of the same name – all of whom give One Way Donkey Ride To Hell very different interpretations. The work sold at Sotheby’s in New York on 30 June 2020, where it soared past its high estimate.