Collectors corner: Pooh could be your pot of honey

The illustrations in children's books may look cute but they can also be great investments, says Gwyn Jones

While many areas of the art market are just ticking along, children's illustrations are definitely buoyant. "The art market is always down when the property market is down," explains the gallery owner Chris Beetles, "but the illustrators market is maintained by people for whom collecting is part of their life, rather than finding a picture to go with the mantelpiece, so they collect through thick and thin.

"Although people don't like to talk about investment, the market is rising steadily. It is also affordable if you take out the expensive classics.

"Even Quentin Blake, Britain's top illustrator at the moment, is very affordable, with his work selling for anywhere from £300-£400 up to £3,000-£4,000. Affordability is one thing, plus it's art the whole family can share in."

Jamie Rountree, of Christie's, agrees. "The market is extremely strong at the moment, especially for things like Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh, because they are so durable. They are never going to not do well; everyone loves them and can remember them from their childhood."

Catherine Porter, a senior consultant at Sotheby's, has also seen a steady climb in the prices of the classics. "At the end of the day, there aren't many around and with a lot in institutional collections, the supply is drying up. It's getting harder to find good material to put up for sale."

Rountree also believes that, despite the high prices that are already being paid for Pooh drawings, there's still room for growth. "Children's book illustrations are always going to go up in value. You can buy a Winnie the Pooh for £60,000 now and you'd still make your money in 10 years' time because it will probably be worth £80,000-£90,000. All illustrations are a pretty good investment as long as the characters are well known."

The artist who illustrated Winnie the Pooh is EH Shepard and while his Pooh drawings are the crème de la crème of the children's illustration market, not all his work is so popular.

"It's very much character-driven," says Rountree, "Shepard's Winnie the Pooh makes tens of thousands, but his The Wind In The Willows sketches only make £8,000-£10,000. Everything else he did, for example The Emperor's New Clothes, only makes £600-£700." So who should we be considering apart from the classics? Chris Beetles thinks we should be looking to the book shops for guidance. "Artists like Quentin Blake, Michael Foreman, Posy Simmonds and Helen Oxenbury - all these established stars are doing better and better.

"Not a day goes by without an enquiry for Blake, and Foreman has produced such an enormous amount of books that there's almost no household that doesn't have a Foreman book in it. I think he's probably the man over the years who will become hugely collected.

"Oxenbury is also a great artist but is very reluctant to sell her work. Paul Cox, Jonathan Langley and Emma Chichester Clark are the younger ones. Emma Chichester Clark is hugely rated by Quentin Blake - she could be the leader of the next generation of artists if she starts to exhibit more."

This increased interest in the children's illustration market has also spread over to comics. Malcolm Phillips, of Comic Book Postal Auctions, has seen a steady and at times meteoric rise in the prices of comics which is now creeping into the original artwork. "There's no doubt that comic artwork is on the rise," he says, "but only for characters who are recognised in annuals like The Beano and Dandy, The Broons and Oor Wullie.

"Any artwork of Dan Dare is pretty valuable, selling for in excess of £1,000 a page, but I couldn't get more than £30-£40 for Billy Bunter from the 1930s and 1940s, because the character is no longer interesting and hasn't been reinvented in film or book.

"At present, the artwork market in general is undercollected and underestimated." There is a lot of artwork that sells for up to £200 because, for a collector, it's a big jump to go from a £50 comic to a higher value piece. But with some comics now fetching up to £20,000 each, it's not surprising that this fledgling collecting area is set to develop. This is popular culture at its best. None of us could have failed to have been touched by the stories of Winnie the Pooh or Rupert, Flopsy Bunny or Alice, in Wonderland.

The richness and prolific choice available from Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairies to Quentin Blake's interpretations of Roald Dahl's dark characters means there something for every taste. At the Chris Beetles Gallery from mid-November through to Christmas, is a children's artwork exhibition which takes place every year.

For other art shows, the gallery usually gets a few hundred people a week; for this one, it gets thousands which is an indication of how popular this art form is. Viewing a show like this is a great way to get a feel for the market and prices and children are welcome too.

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