A SMALL avalanche of fine British drawings and watercolours has been precipitated by a reviving market. Estimates have firmed up since this sector lost its Cinderella status. But it remains to be seen whether or not dealers will be able to afford the sort of prices needed to lift watercolours out of the recession. Private buyers should take comfort from this.

Last month, Victorian pictures seen at auction as recently as the late Eighties still passed the fresh-at-auction test. To apply the same test to watercolours, watch lot 381 at Sotheby's British drawings and watercolours on Thursday (2.30pm). This meticulous watercolour of a blue auricula in a pot with butterflies is the most expensive work on paper by Augusta Withers (flourished 1829-1865), flower painter to Queen Adelaide. It fetched pounds 19,800 at Christie's in 1988; it is now estimated pounds 15,000- pounds 20,000.

A South Coast beach scene in the same sale by Turner is est pounds 70,000- pounds 90,000. Three years ago this piece of technical virtuosity might have expected pounds 100,000 to pounds 150,000.

At Sotheby's Thursday (10.30am), 300 drawings and watercolours collected by Old Etonian Cornish Torbock, of Crossrigg, Cumberland, who died last year, aged 87. His passion for fine brushmanship (lack of attribution never bothered him) and his eye, both discerning and with a twinkle for the absurd, have brought to market such gems as the pencil and watercolour Patience in a Punt - Reynolds, Johnson and Boswell uncomfortably afloat - by Henry Bunbury (d. 1811). Est pounds 1,000- pounds 1,500. The sale has one of the most collectable of works on paper by a master: Gainsborough's only known plant drawing, of mallows, est pounds 8,000- pounds 12,000.

Those unable to match the pounds 793,500 paid for Landseer's Scene in Braemar at Christie's last month might be tempted by his pencil study of an undernourished Tibetan mastiff at the pocket-money est of pounds 500- pounds 800 at Christie's sale of British drawings and watercolours Tuesday (2.30pm). There are better drawings in the sale.

Chance to stock up with art reference books with the sale at Bloomsbury Book Auctions, Thursday (11am) of the library of Sir David 'Pete' Piper, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, Fitzwilliam Museum and Ashmolean Museum. Many of the lots contain his manuscript book reviews and correspondence. A lot of 18 standard works on Constable is est pounds 150- pounds 200, Hogarth (21 books) pounds 120- pounds 180, pre-Raphaelites (30) pounds 200- pounds 300.

COUNTRYWIDE

Maiden Newton: On-site contents of Maiden Newton House today (12 noon): mahogany furniture, Royal Worcester. Duke & Son (0305 265080).

Manchester: Inflatables (paddling pools, armbands), 35mm cameras, clocks, tracksuits, toys, hardware, tomorrow (12 noon) at Area Auctions, Ferguson House, 11 Blackfriars Road, Salford (061-834 8246).

Cranbrook: In the Vestry Hall, jewellery, silver, ceramics, dolls, militaria, cigarette and postcards, Monday (12 noon). Wealden Auction Galleries (0580 714522).

Banbury: Government surplus: sleeping bags, tents, rucksacks, cooking equipment, boots, coats, laptops. Pedigree Centre, the Stockyard, Monday and Tuesday (10am daily). Midland Marts (0295 250501).

FAIRS

Birmingham: British International Antiques, NEC, to Wednesday (021 780 4141). Newark: Easter International Antique and Collectors at showground (0636 702326). Epsom: Three- day antiques at racecourse to tomorrow (0584 873634).

Countrywide: Antiques Trade Gazette (071-930 4957) and Government Auction News (071-928 9001, hotline 0891 887700).

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