But spectacular record prices at last month's spring sales at Sotheby's and Christie's in London have recalled the eager buying of 10 years ago and prompted speculation that prices for gentle rural idylls of the 18th and 19th centuries might be about to take off.
Two saleroom duels caused the sensation, both at Sotheby's. The London dealers Hazlitt Gooden and Fox paid pounds 109,300 for a watercolour by David Cox (1783-1859) showing one of his favourite subjects - travellers, some on horseback, hurrying across Lancaster Sands just ahead of the treacherous tide. The biggest price previously paid for a Cox was pounds 49,500. .
But the talking point in New Bond Street was not just Hazlitt Gooden and Fox's bullish bid but the fact that their bidding was aggressively chased sky-high by a brash newcomer on a first outing - the London dealership Spink-Leger. They are a marriage of two galleries that took place only last September, with a big but undisclosed buying kitty from Christie's, which owns them.
Spink-Leger carried off "The Interior of a Barn", an enchanting and technically brilliant study in light and shadow by William Henry Hunt (1790-1864). Of course, said wiseacres, the big bid would obviously have been on the instruction of a rich collector.
But the irrepressible and unrepentant Lowell Libson of Spink Leger, a watercolour specialist who used to be with the Leger Galleries, denied this: "I always buy for stock, never on commission - it shows I'm convinced enough to put my money where my hunch is, and that gives clients confidence. People have been telling me for 15 years that I pay crazy prices. But, luckily, resources here are not a problem. I don't get bored with a very good picture on my office wall."
The market, he says, is solid at the top. As a market-maker, he should know. "The rich are always with us", is a favourite quip of his - but what of the rest of us with only a few hundred or a few thousand to spend? "The middle-market - that is, between pounds 3,000 and pounds 20,000 - is a UK-based market and is more sensitive to economic downturns."
UK-based? It's a good clue. He means not just retired English clergymen but people in the professions and finance who would like to buy two or three watercolours a year but will stop buying in an ill wind.
He was off to a fair in New York when I spoke to him: another clue. Those Americans may know their Turners (an American private collector paid the top price of pounds 133,500 at Christie's watercolour sale last month, for a Turner landscape) as well as much-hyped French watercolourists such as Boudin, but when are they going to take a fancy to less famous English names such as Cox and Hunt?
It's happening, according to Libson. British scholars have been busy researching and publishing on English watercolourists for the past 15- 20 years, especially English landscape painters. Before long, rich Americans will have all the information they need.
Libson finds little to inspire him in the middle price range these days. But his catalogue of best choices offers for pounds 4,000 a delightful Edward Lear (yes, the much-loved nonsense man) showing the two sons of Walter Congreve, his neighbour in San Remo, playing with their dog.
Sotheby's auctioneer Henry Wemyss explains that, 10 years ago, there would be half a dozen big dealers buying for stock 15-30 watercolours in every sale. Now, there are fewer dealers and they buy only two or three paintings at the top of the market. The reason: clued-up private collectors are competing with them in the middle price range.
Ten years ago, a nice riverside scene by John Varley (1778-1842), a friend of William Blake and Cox's teacher, might be snapped up by a dealer for pounds 1,500 and end up with a tag of pounds 2,500 in his shop window. Not any more. Private buyers are prepared to bid that kind of money at auction.
But private collectors have become more discriminating, as well as bolder at auction. They want good examples of the school and good examples of the artist's work. Quality counts. If you have no eye for it, spend your money elsewhere.
What is more, the new private buyers think like dealers: they want not only good subject matter and good condition but pictures fresh to market.
Hazlitt's Lindsay Stainton, who was not saying whether her big buy was for stock or for a client, cautioned: "I don't know whether prices at the top end of the market will percolate down. Hitherto, this kind of art has been predominantly domestic consumption. But I think that watercolourists such as Cox could have the same appeal as, say, Gustave Courbet (French realist, 1819-77). Collectors abroad are beginning to realise that the English produced great painters, not just great writers".
A dealer who has succeeded in the middle market as well as the top is Andrew Wyld of the London dealers Thomas Agnew. "My selling exhibition in February-March was deliberately middle-market, pounds 2,000-pounds 25,000, and they were selling as thick and fast as in 1988-89. Not all of them are rich. Some have only pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 to spend. I take the same trouble in advising them as I do in buying for myself. That's how a dealer can come in useful."Reuse content