ARTnewsletter Archive

Victorian Art At London Auctions: ‘Well Below Estimates’

The results of the auctions of Victorian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s London salerooms on Dec. 15–16 made grim reading, as both fell well below estimates.

LONDON—The results of the auctions of Victorian art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s London salerooms on Dec. 15–16 made grim reading, as both fell well below estimates. Although Victorian art received a boost last month, when Lawrence Alma Tadema’s epic The Finding of Moses sold for $35.9million at Sotheby’s New York sale of ­19th-century European art in New York, any trickle-down effect was hard to detect here.

Christie’s experts were aiming to improve on last year’s £3.4 million ($5.4 million) sale (itself a big improvement on December 2008’s £1.7million debacle) with an auction estimated at £4.9million/7.9 million. But this year’s sale fell short, bringing in a total of only £3.5million ($5.4million). Of the 159 lots, 102, or 64 percent, were sold; by value the sell-through rate was only 61 percent.

While the market was solid for inexpensive pre-Raphaelite portrait drawings, Middle Eastern watercolors by Edward Lear, and the bird paintings of Archibald Thorburn, most lots that were valued at £100,000 or more failed to sell. These included normally sought-after pre-Raphaelite paintings, such as Arthur Hughes’ The Home Quartet: Mrs. Vernon Lushington and Children, 1883, from the collection of Egyptian collector Mohammed Said Farsi (estimate: £250,000/350,000) and George Adolphus Storey’s The Bride’s Burial, 1859, from the collection of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (estimate: £100,000/150,000).

The highest prices of the sale were for turn-of-the-century impressionistic paintings by the Newlyn School artist Henry Herbert La Thangue, though even these struggled to meet estimates. Shaking Down Cider Apples, ca. 1905–9, sold to a private U.K. collector for £349,250 ($553,163), just within the estimate of £300,000/500,000, and A Provençal Forge, 1920s, sold for £121,250 ($192,043) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.

Relying on the belief that an artist’s masterpiece will fetch big money even during a recession, Sotheby’s labeled the first section of its Victorian sale “Masterpieces.” Half of these, too, failed to sell. These included A Tryst, a Neoclassical depiction of a woman in Roman attire by John William Godward (1861–1922) estimated at £350,000/500,000, and Alma-Tadema’s In the Temple, 1871, estimated at £200,000/300,000, from the collection of U.S. stockbroker Jerome Davies. The Godward had been acquired at Sotheby’s New York in May 1999 for $442,500 (£275,000), and the Alma-Tadema at Sotheby’s New York in October 1996 for $175,000 (£110,000).

Two paintings from the Beaverbrook Foundation—William Quiller Orchardson’s The Duke’s Antechamber, ca. 1869, (estimate: £30,000/50,000) and Thomas Faed’s rustic narrative When the Day is Done, 1870, (estimate: £100,000/150,000)—also foundered on over-­optimistic estimates. The biggest casualty was A Winter’s Walk, late 1870s or early 1880s, James (Jacques) Joseph Tissot’s poignant portrait of his short-lived companion, Kathleen Newton. The work had been bought for £441,000 ($661,500) at Sotheby’s London in June 1996, when the Tissot market was in the ascendant. No one at this sale was apparently prepared to meet the estimate of £800,000/1.2million.

Alleviating the gloom somewhat was Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones, which sold on a single phone bid for £481,250 ($749,066) against an estimate of £400,000/600,000. One of nine paintings by the master of the moonlit view, John Atkinson Grimshaw—six of which did not sell—Old Scarborough, Full Moon, High Water, 1879, sold to a U.K. dealer for £235,250 ($372,600) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000. There were record prices for Laura-Thérésa Alma-Tadema (1852–1909), whose A Looking Out O’Window, Sunshine, sold for £229,250 ($363,100); for a work on paper by William Russell Flint, whose Bronze and Silver, ca. 1935, sold for £205,250 ($325,090); and for Briton Rivière, whose picture of a young girl with a dog, Compulsory Education, 1887, sold for £115,250 ($182,540).

The final total for Sotheby’s was £3.3million ($5.2million) against an estimate of £5.2million/7.5million (reduced from the published estimate because of several withdrawn lots from a U.S. collection that had been held up in customs). Although the sale was smaller than Christie’s, with just 84 lots, an even lower proportion of lots, only 52 percent, found buyers.