Art Market: Victorians lead way as business revives: Two large Alma-Tadema canvases fetch pounds 1.65m and pounds 1.43m as sugary neo-classical paintings from the turn of the century attract millionaire buyers

VICTORIAN picture prices went through the roof last week showing that sugar-sweet reconstructions of classical or medieval life painted around the turn of the century are nearly as popular with millionaires as are Impressionists. On Friday, an unnamed Spanish buyer carried off a 7ft painting of the Emperor Heliogabalus drowning his courtiers in rose petals, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, at pounds 1,651,500.

This masterpiece by a Dutch artist who made his name in England and was knighted by Queen Victoria had been sent for sale by Fred Koch, an American millionaire who is dispersing the great Victorian collection he formed in the early 1980s. No one quite knows why.

The internationalism of the market was further underlined by a second 5ft Alma-Tadema which sold at Sotheby's on Wednesday for pounds 1,431,500, reputedly to a Lebanese millionaire who lives in England. The other star of the sale, Leila, depicting a seventh-century Persian heroine reclining on cushions with a vase of lilies by her side, painted by Sir Frank Dicksee in 1892, sold for pounds 793,500 and is also said to have gone to an Arab buyer.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was last year's big buyer of Victorian pictures, appeared to have contented himself with a masterpiece by a lesser Pre-Raphaelite, John Melhuish Strudwick, also from Koch's collection. Gentle Music of a Byegone Day cost pounds 276,500.

But the Victorians were only the flashiest performers of one of the art market's biggest weeks of the year. The Grosvenor House Antiques Fair opened on Wednesday with about 100 British and foreign dealers offering the best they had.

Agnew's offered a Constable landscape at dollars 6m ( pounds 3.9m); Christopher Wood, well aware of the Victorian boom, offered a Tissot he paid pounds 165,000 for a year ago at pounds 575,000; the Acanthus Gallery was offering Neolithic flint axe heads at pounds 300 and Johnathon Horne had 18th-century Liverpool tiles at pounds 50 a time. Business is much brisker than at the fairs of the last two years.

Other saleroom sensations of the week included the first set of Gobelins tapestries woven with illustrations to Cervantes's Don Quixote - which became one of the most popular lines among the courts of Europe in the later 18th century. This set of 16 tapestries was woven in about 1717-18 for the Duc d'Antin, who was superintendent of the royal Gobelins factory at the time. They sold at Christie's on Thursday for pounds 771,500.

Art works from English country houses were also being carried off at huge prices - something of the romance of the great house seems to impart itself to the object and stir bidders to special frenzy. A mid- 18th-century astronomical clock in a magnificent Louis XV boulle and ormolu case was sold from Alscot Park near Stratford-upon-Avon for pounds 551,500 at Christie's on Thursday.

Sotheby's was dispersing the family silver from the manor at Stanton Harcourt. A silver-gilt dressing table set made in Paris in 1770 sold for four times Sotheby's estimate at pounds 463,500, while a pair of French wine coolers of similar date, draped with a silver garland of grapes and vine leaves, went for double estimate at pounds 254,500.

(Photograph omitted)

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