Aobsessive, quixotic collectors go, few could hold a candle to the late Malcolm Forbes. He amassed Imperial Faberge Easter eggs and hot-air balloons, American historical documents, motorbikes, Orientalist paintings, cowboy pictures, toy soldiers, houses, celebrities. Of his five children only one, Christopher (`Kip'), inherited his particular virulent strain of the collecting bug, persuading his father at the age of 21 that Forbes Magazine could assemble an outstanding collection of Victorian academic paintings — that is, of paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy during Victoria's reign — for the price of the Monet 'Waterlines' that hung in his office. Malcolm could not resist.
For over 30 years, the collection was grown and honed, the paintings supplemented where possible with related sketches, studies, sculpture and pottery or pruned to help fund new acquisitions. The densely hung panelled interiors of the Forbes's late 17th-century London family home, Old Battersea House, are a testament to this labour of love. Soon, however, they are to be emptied, as virtually the entire collection — 361 works of art — follows in the wake of most of the Forbes collections, and will go under the hammer at Christie's in London in February. Siblings have the maddening habit of never liking the same things, and having other even more extravagant ambitions — running for president, say. And no doubt once the sales started — Christie's has so far sold around £30 million of Forbes material since 1993 — it is gratifying for all to be as rich as one thought one was. This sale is expected to bring in another £25 million — not had considering that the average purchase price for a picture was $2,000.
Of course, the fact that this auction is the largest dispersal of its kind since the 1930s makes for a gleaming but dangerously double-edged sword. It looks all the sharper after last week's British art sales. Christie's fairly disastrous evening sale on 27 November failed to find even a single bid for a significant number of its top lots, not least the sumptuous William Morris manuscript of the Aeneid, consigned to auction by Lord Lloyd-Webber and expected to raise over £1.5 million. Perhaps more alarming was the fate of Victorian painting's man of the moment, the most successful exponent of second-generation Romantic Pre-Raphaelitism, John William Waterhouse. Two years ago, Lord LloydWebber set the pace by paying £6.6 million for his enchanting 'Saint Cecilia' at Christie's; last week there was not a single bid on 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' (estimate £2–£3 million) or for the more reasonably estimated 'Tristan and Isolde' at Sotheby's. A similar fate befell a major Burne-Jones (not in the best of condition). At Christie's, a Tissot sold for £1.5 million after a last-minute drop of the reserve, while the other Waterhouse at Sotheby's was scooped up on the reserve (£500,000) by London dealer David Mason buying for stock — not something dealers do much of these days. It was the buy of the sale.
The problem for this market, which saw a great resurgence in the early Seventies, is that it remains relatively small. The Japanese pulled out over a decade ago, and its recent big guns (most crucially the American collector Gerry Davis and the Australian John Schaeffer) have retreated or retrenched.
Others are becoming so selective that buying has virtually ground to a halt. Even at the best of times, the auction houses have trouble in offloading more than twothirds of any given Victorian sale. Last week, for whatever reason, those that we are assured are still active major players decided to sit on their hands. Christie's is hoping that the Forbes sale will dislodge them.
Here, there are just a handful of £1 million pictures. It is hard to imagine that institutional and private buyers alike will not compete for the likes of Walter Howell Deverell's masterpiece, 'Twelfth Night', for instance. and Millais' enigmatic puzzle-picture, 'Trust Me', or conquer current prejudices to rejoice in Landseer's wonderful 'The Death of the Wild Bull'. (Little wonder the Forbes family describe Holman Hunt's portrait of his square-jawed fiancée in 'II Dolce Far Niente' as the truck driver in drag.) It is the deluge of the rest that will pose the problems. By far the biggest group of works offered are those in the £20,000–£100,000 bracket. The good news is that here is something for almost everyone here: the almost encyclopaedic nature of the collection means that it embraces every aspect of Victorian painting from history paintings to portraits, landscapes, literary and genre paintings, social realism and fairy painting. A great number are not by household names — but equally, while not all the pictures will be to everyone's taste, relatively few are distressingly bad.
Hearteningly, the strongest competition in last week's sales was, unusually, for midrange goods. For instance, perhaps the most desirable work on offer all week was a dense, elaborately crafted early BurneJones pen-and-ink drawing, 'Kings' Daugh ters', which was estimated at £40,000–£60,000 and sold for £116.650. Christie's can also take heart from the enduring appeal of story-telling and technical virtuosity in painting — and of course that so many people in American may well want little pieces of Forbes.