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International Art Market: Victorian fairy painting inspires Lloyd Webber record

ONE NEEDS a lot of resources to spend more than pounds 100,000 on a work of art in a falling market, but Sotheby's and Christie's attracted an extraordinary number of big-time buyers in June, always a high point in the auction year. There were even a handful of items at more than pounds 1m, a Victorian picture for pounds 1.65m, a French 18th-century table for pounds 1.21m, a Monet view of the Thames for pounds 2,145,000, and a Faberge Easter egg for pounds 1.7m.

It is not always easy to fathom who the buyers are, but Andrew Lloyd Webber rescued the Victorian picture market virtually single-handed on 12 June. Christie's had one of its best sales for years; Mr Lloyd Webber spent pounds 1.65m on Richard Dadd's Contradiction, pounds 275,000 on The Village Wedding by Sir Luke Fildes and pounds 159,500 on Atkinson Grimshaw's Dulce Domum.

The Dadd, a miraculously detailed fairy painting which had cost its American owner pounds 550,000 at Sotheby's in 1983, set an auction price record for a Victorian painting. Mr Lloyd Webber's agent was bidding against Christopher Gibbs, the Bond Street dealer, who is thought to have been acting for J Paul Getty II. The other two paintings also set auction price records for the artists.

Some of the mystery bidders may be dazzled by how cheap art is compared to two years ago. Swedish pictures are a case in point - many Swedish art investors of the 1980s have gone bankrupt. An expressionist landscape titled Inferno, painted in 1901 by August Strindberg, the dramatist, which made pounds 1.1m in 1989 was sold for pounds 473,000 at Sotheby's on 17 June. An Anders Zorn bathing belle, Dalaro 1892, which had made pounds 670,000 last time out, sold for pounds 165,000 to a Swedish dealer.

The high point of the summer season usually comes with the Impressionist and modern picture sales but this time they were fetching prices barely higher than the Victorians. The return of a handful of Japanese buyers saved the sales from disaster. They took the top-priced pictures, the Monet view of Charing Cross Bridge at pounds 2,145,000 and a tiny Van Gogh still life of a branch of almond blossom at pounds 1,320,000. Both would have been worth at least double two years ago; Monet views of the Thames were sold in New York at dollars 14m and dollars 11m before the fall.

Sotheby's sold a 1915 pencil and gouache portrait of his wife by Egon Schiele, the Austrian artist, to Dr Rudolf Leopold of Vienna for pounds 572,000. Dr Leopold has the greatest private collection of Schiele - a painter of agonised, often erotic, figure subjects; his collection was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1989. The price for this drawing sets a new auction record for the artist.

Most years painting makes all the top prices but this year the decorative arts have come very close. Sotheby's sold a Faberge Easter Egg on 10 June for dollars 3,190,000 (pounds 1.7m) and Christie's a French table for pounds 1.21m on 11 June and a silver coffee pot for 8,325,000 francs (pounds 849,500) on 20 June. The buyers' names are closely-guarded secrets.

'There is a new breed of people in the market who only go to auction houses and remain very anonymous,' according to John Partridge of Partridge Fine Art in Bond Street.

Kenneth Snowman, of Wartski, the world's leading dealer in Faberge, says he has no idea who spent pounds 1.7m on the Faberge egg. It is known as The Love Trophy Egg and is said to have been given by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife at Easter in 1905.

The French furniture offered for sale by Christie's on 11 June was the stuff that connoisseur collectors rave about, mostly from great British aristocratic collections but including some choice treasures from the baby powder heiress, Barbara Piasecka Johnson. After paying the highest price for furniture two years ago, pounds 8.58m for the Badminton cabinet, Mrs Johnson has moved into a selling mode.

It was her table, made by the neoclassical cabinetmaker Jean- Francois Leleu, that sold to a mystery bidder for pounds 1.21m. It has an ormolu frieze below the table top of matchless quality and square, ormolu-mounted legs. She bought it at Christie's for pounds 330,000 when it was sent for sale by the Marquis of Lansdowne in 1981. The Lansdownes inherited the collection formed by Talleyrand's illegitimate son, the Compte de Flahaut. They sent another 60 pieces from his collection for sale in June. The star turn was a pair of Roman marble vases mounted around 1760 in ormolu olive branches and formerly owned by Louis XVI. They sold for pounds 286,000 to the New York dealers French & Co.