Why is everybody and his dog piling into the salerooms in the dead holiday season?
No London auctions until next week, after the Christmas break: but at Christie's South Kensington this Tuesday, the empty silence of the salerooms will echo to the footfalls of specialists eager to hang their British and Continental pictures five days before viewing officially begins. Would-be buyers in the know will be welcome to a sneak preview.

The hols are a paradoxical time in the London auction houses: everybody assumes that everybody else will be away and that there will be bargains to be had. Result: everybody and his dog piles into the saleroom and bidding becomes lively. Last year, the British and Continental picture sale was not held until 18 January - by which time turkey had been long-forgotten and dealers were ensconced once more at their Morocco desks. It made a buoyant 87 per cent by value, 80 per cent by lot.

These annual sales of mostly Victorian paintings are minor, in the pounds 200- pounds 3,000 range. This year's is on Thursday 11 January (10.30am). The auctioneers hope that after nine days of viewing instead of only four, and with scarcely any other views to visit, demand will have built up steam.

The star lots are 30 19th-century textile designs from Aubusson, France, famous for its Arcadian landscapes and floral patterns since the 17th century. This is the last of four selections from the same collection and the experience has been that they sell for half as much again as the estimate.

The designs for curtains, carpets, cushions, in bodycolour or oil, owe their style to textile technology - blocky forms separating patches of wool or silk of different monochromes. They have a trompe l'oeuil effect - paintings that look like tapestries. Presumably, one is expected to commit the solecism that British Victorian designers such as Owen Jones and Christopher Dresser warned against: hanging on the wall flower designs viewed from above and intended for carpets.

There is a tantalising rummage lot: a roll of about 20 fragments of designs of various sizes, all unframed, and without estimate - meaning that less than pounds 200 is expected. A picture framer might find these oddments a good buy.

There is also an Alexis de Leeuw oil of a frozen river with figures and landscape. Very seasonal. De Leeuw's work can sell for up to pounds 4,000 if in prime condition. This one is estimated only pounds 800-pounds 1,000 because of a restorer's over-enthusiastic "inpainting". That is, there is too much of the restorer's paint and not enough of the artist's. Even the signature has probably been tidivated, forcing the catalogue to resort to the description "attributed to".

You can pick up paintings in such sales for as little as pounds 100. They are by unknowns, presumably amateurs, such as R. Falls, who painted Gibraltar Rock, lot 158, in 1893. The picture bears no estimate and is not considered worthy of an illustration, but if viewing convinces you that R. Falls wielded a handy brush, get in there and bid. At least the auctioneers have a soft spot for the picture. These days, with the market struggling for recovery, even minor sales are "tight" and auctioneers try hard to avoid the stigma of trying to palm off dross. Use your eyes. They might have got it right.

For provincial auctions and fairs, see pages 20/21

John Windsor

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