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 Society.
With a number of items carrying reserves, the selling rate was 82 per cent, although the auctioneers were hopeful of aftersales.
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: £80,000-120,000).
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 made £9000.
The buyer's premium was 25/20%
By Alex Capon