English painting as a whole was not as hard hit in the recent shakeout as American or French painting. Prices had not climbed as fast in the first place and were less dependent on volatile international buying. Even so, the 37% drop in the Victorian sector is far more serious than the 9% setback that followed the 1979-81 boom. The artists in the index are a cross-section of landscape and genre painters that appeal to solid middlebrow taste and are bought today by the businessmen and professional people of the kind who bought them when they were painted.
Atkinson Grimshaw prices were inflated in 1989 and 1990 by demand from dealers holding exhibitions but dropped by no less than 56% in 1991 when that demand was satisfied. Even so Grimshaw’s work has outperformed the index with a climb of 500% since 1975. Other notable falls last year were 58% for Benjamin Leader, 49% for William Shayer and 52% for George Smith. The modest Japanese demand for Grimshaw and a few other Victorian artists such as Henry Parker, Breanski and David James is now subdued, though Christie’s expect Japanese dealers to take about 5% of a Victorian sale. Some 90% of all Victorian pictures are bought by British collectors though a few Italian and even French dealers were active at London’s December auctions. The sold percentages of Christie’s and Sotheby’s in 1991 averaged just 71% even though reserves had been pushed 20% or so below the boom levels of 1988/89.
Throughout last year the salerooms saw an increase in educated private buyers checking on condition and provenance, and shunning paintings consigned by the trade. Salerooms too have been resisting over-exposed trade pictures unless at realistic reserves. The recent shortage at auction of outstanding examples of Victorian painting is put down to vendors’ unfounded fears that prices for even the best must have suffered. Salerooms are at pains to point out that such paintings are now fetching as high or higher prices than ever.