Colin Gleadell explains how the market for Victorian pictures can be dominated by a few collectors so that the return of dormant buyer can play a crucial role in a category’s revival:
One of the star lots at Christie’s was a portrait of Munnings by Harold Knight, which had been discovered by Christie’s staff hidden mysteriously behind another canvas painted by his wife. Never even exhibited before, it got the auction off to a spirited start, selling for an artist’s record of £115,250 (est. £30,000 to £50,000) to London dealer Richard Green.
Paintings that have never been on the market before always attract an extra degree of interest, as was the case with a large family group, which had been in the family of the artist George Spencer Watson since it was painted in 1925. With its strong colours, composition and airy atmosphere, it was “the artist’s masterpiece”, said the Bond Street dealer William Thuiller, who bought it for a client for a record £151,250 (£100,000 to £150,000).
Another artist’s masterpiece which was on the market for the first time was a 10ft canvas of the birth of Eve (right), a symbolist painting by the late-Victorian artist Solomon Joseph Solomon, which had been given to Ealing Borough Council by his widow in 1946. Judging that the painting did “not fit within the borough collection’s ethos”, because it was not “a visual record of Ealing”, the council gained permission from the artist’s heirs to sell the painting. Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Christie’s were all consulted, and Christie’s came up with the best package, which included an estimate of £700,000 to £1 million – far above the record £35,000 for the artist – which would place him closer to his better-known peers G F Watts and Frederic Lord Leighton.
Although unarguably a museum painting that embodies a certain type of Victorian aesthetic, it was bought by the Australian collector John Schaeffer, bidding though an agent in the room, for £713,250 – the highest price of the week. Schaeffer was one of the driving forces in the Victorian market until a few years ago, and the news that he is back in business will bring encouragement to the market.