International Art Market: Victorians in demand as prices soar again

NO ONE could have forecast that high Victorian paintings would become a favourite collecting field of post-recession art buyers but the New York sales in February showed that they have. James Jacques Tissot, the voluptuous painter of beautiful women, was the star turn of both Christie's and Sotheby's auctions. His 7ft painting of The Orphan, a beauty in black with a little girl among reeds, set a price record for the artist at dollars 2.97m ( pounds 2.09m), more than tripling Christie's estimate.

Sotheby's had one Tissot at dollars 1.98m ( pounds 1.37m) and two at dollars 882,500 ( pounds 610,700). Tissot was a Frenchman who lived in England; he had a studio in Hampstead and a beautiful Irish mistress called Kathleen Newton who posed for most of the paintings, including The Orphan. He handed on his studio to the Dutchman Sir Lawrence Alma- Tadema, who specialised in everyday scenes in ancient Greece and Rome. Both have become English painters by adoption and Tissot has emerged as the most expensive of all British late 19th- century painters.

The London dealer David Mason paid some of the most sensational prices in New York. He fought for The Orphan with Jack Nicholson, the film star, and won. He went on to spend dollars 800,000, more than double Sotheby's estimate, on Sir Frank Dicksee's luscious rendition of The Mirror, a woman on a mother of pearl throne, draped in rich silks, staring at her reflection in a hand mirror - again an auction price record for the artist.

Several of the New York prices exceeded levels achieved for the artists at the height of the Eighties boom. The market has picked up sharply, according to Christopher Wood, a Bond Street specialist in Victorian paintings.

The rich were also feeling in spending mood on the ski slopes of St Moritz. Every February Sotheby's and Christie's carry jewel auctions up the mountains to get them spending apres ski. Sotheby's scored their highest- ever sale total at pounds 6.5m; a dealer based in Jeddah and Geneva, Sheikh Ahmed Fitaihi, carried off a pear-shaped diamond weighing 30.07 carats, at pounds 467,972.

The new sense of prosperity in the market also infected British buyers. Sotheby's in London saw private buyers, rather than dealers, bidding enthusiastically for standard 18th-century furniture pieces. Only 30 out of 210 lots were left unsold; pounds 34,500 was paid for a pair of George III giltwood sofas estimated at pounds 20,000- pounds 25,000.

British porcelains shared in the price hike. A group of rare 18th-century blue and white pieces put together in the early years of the century by one Alice Bremner, and sent for sale by her nephew, more than tripled presale estimates. A small Worcester bell-shaped mug circa 1760-70 fetched pounds 7,475 against an estimate of pounds 1,500- pounds 2,500.

Not every market has recovered its former buoyancy. Modern paintings are still in the doldrums. Almost half of Christie's contemporary art sale in New York, and 36 per of Sotheby's, were left unsold.

It was mainly the withdrawal of Japanese buyers that led to the collapse of the modern picture market in 1990. The home market in Japanese modern paintings collapsed at the same time.

A Shinwa auction of modern pictures in Tokyo on 18 February saw 49 out of 79 pictures on offer find buyers, not a sensational result but an improvement on last year. They also managed to sell their three most expensive paintings. A roofscape of the Forbidden City, Peking painted in brightly coloured, Fauve style by Ryuzaburo Umehara, sold on estimate for 94 million yen ( pounds 561,194).

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