WHILE most reports in the media focused on the record price paid for a pair of Queen Victoria's undergarments, Lyon & Turnbull's sale of works from the Forbes Collection raised the more serious question of the current state of the Victorian art market.
The auction in Edinburgh on November 1 offered the entire
contents of Old Battersea House, the London home of the well-known
American publishing family which had been furbished by Christopher
'Kip' Forbes over three decades. The property is currently on the
market with Savills at £12m after there were no takers to buy it
with the contents in place.
He was once part of a quartet of collectors who helped revive
the entire Victorian sector (along with Isabel Goldsmith, Lord
Lloyd Webber and John Schaeffer), but the market is no longer awash
with buyers like Forbes who possessed not just an all-consuming eye
for 19th century British art but also large reserves of cash.
At this sale, the performance of aesthetic Victorian pictures
was noticeably patchy and bidding really only took off for works
with obvious Royal connections.
Overall, the 508-lot sale, which also included a range of
sculpture, furniture and furnishings as well as the 250 paintings,
made £2.2m hammer when as much as £4m had been expected.
To many this came as no real surprise as the cream of the Forbes
assemblage had already been sold at Christie's King Street in 2003
and this sale featured some of the unsold lots as well as works
which Forbes had tried to sell privately with dealers The Fine Art
With a number of items carrying reserves, the selling rate was
82 per cent, although the auctioneers were hopeful of
Certain pictures were allowed to sell at around half their
estimated value, such as The Crucifixion by Henry Hawkins
(c.1800-1881), which took £5500 against a £10,000-15,000 guide.
The two top lots also sold below estimate: The Princess
Chained to a Tree by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98),
which took £420,000 from a dealer, and Sir John Everett Millais'
(1829-96) For The Squire, which went to a UK private buyer
at £460,000. Both carried estimates of £500,000-800,000, whereas
they had been pitched at £800,000-1.2m at the £16.9m Christie's
event eight years ago.
However, it could be said these works did well even to make
these sums, considering their lack of market freshness, the
slightly strange composition of the Burne-Jones piece and the fact
that the Millais was a late work and, to some minds, a somewhat
'chocolate box' image of a young girl.
Three of the other major works failed to get away on the day:
another Millais (est: £40,000-60,000), another Burne-Jones (est:
£200,000-300,000) and a Dante Gabriel Rossetti portrait (est:
The best bidding emerged on Charles Burton Barber's (1845-94)
well-known portrait of Queen Victoria with her ghillie John Brown,
which was estimated at £20,000-30,000. Sold by the latter's
descendants at Sotheby's in Edinburgh in 1980, where it fetched
£1300, it was appearing at auction for the first time since then
and drew American as well as UK interest. It finally sold at
£120,000 to a private overseas buyer.
Also bringing significant interest was a study for the state
portrait of George VI by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (1879-1972), which
was estimated at £2000-3000. Although unfinished, it was in good
condition and the Royal subject matter helped lift the bidding to a
final £20,000 when it was knocked down to a London dealer.
The subject matter also helped Sir George Harvey's (1802-76)
The Penny Bank to £65,000. Estimated at £30,000-40,000,
the large oil on canvas sold to The Fleming Collection in London -
the private collection of Scottish art founded by The Fleming Bank
in 1968 which is open to the public.
Despite this mammoth event following on from the Christie's 2003
sale, there is still plenty of art remaining in the Forbes family
collection, but whether more sales will be staged in the future
remains to be seen.
And, in case you hadn't already heard, Queen Victoria's bloomers
The buyer's premium was 25/20%
By Alex Capon