The availability and affordability of top Victorian paintings during the first half of the 20th Century allowed a select few collectors to corner the market and put together amazing collections of major historical and cultural significance. A short resurgence of interest in the Victorian era during the 60′s, particularly in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, saw even more of the few remaining top Victorian paintings go to private American and British collectors. With so many of the best that the Victorian era had to offer hidden away in the private collections of a few wealthy individuals, the market was left with an abundance of second and third rate works. Considering that a majority of the Victorian era’s top works of art were hidden for so long behind closed doors, it is no wonder that Victorian era paintings suffered such a poor reputation for so long.
With no financial or other incentive to sell works from their collection, most of the paintings snapped up during the first half of the 20th century, and the 60′s revival, remained in the hands of collectors and behind closed doors. Death, debt and disaster proved to be the saving graces for the market as a variety of unfortunate circumstances led to a number of the best private collections of Victorian paintings being released back onto the market after spending decades out of sight and out of mind. The auction houses love nothing more than a single owner collection that has not been exposed to the market for decades and, as these collections began to become available, spared no effort in making them seem as desirable as possible.
The first of the major collections of Victorian paintings to make an impact on the market was that of American millionaire Fred Koch who, in 1993, sold his major collection of Victorian paintings which consisted mainly of narrative work by artists such as Alma-Tadema, Tissot and Lord Leighton. Koch is thought to have made the decision to sell his collection after plans to open a museum in London were somewhat affected by a huge fire at a storage facility that housed most of the furnishings for the museum, as well as Koch’s collection of Bronzes, all of which were destroyed. The devastation of the fire is rumored to have been so disheartening for Koch that he lost his passion for Victorian paintings. Koch began by selling some of his collection in Britain through Sotheby’s and achieved some success, particularly with a 7ft painting of the Emperor Heliogabalus drowning his courtiers in rose petals by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema which sold for 1,651,500 pounds. Also achieving a high price was a painting by Sir Frank Dicksee of a a seventh-century Persian heroine reclining on cushions with a vase of lilies by her side which sold for 793,500 pounds. It was, however, in New York that works from Koch’s collection received the best reception with Christie’s selling Tissot’s “L’Orphine” for a record US$2,970,000. A few months