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.