(Bloomberg) -- The first rule of collecting is that you should like what you get. You’ll be living with it, after all.
But people don’t buy art just because they think it’s pretty, they also buy it based on the premise that it will hold or increase its value. And because of the sometimes nine-figure prices paid for 20th-century art, many aspiring buyers assume the best investment opportunities are in that sector: Where else can you make 350,000 percent profit in 25 years?
But those types of success stories represent a tiny fraction of the market, and often result from the careful work of powerful collectors and dealers who have spent years building up an artist’s prices. It's hard to quantify, but it’s a good bet that less than 1 percent of all contemporary art is ever sold more than once.
So where else is there an opportunity to see an art purchase appreciate in value?
One place to look for value is the most unfashionable of all: Victorian art, an umbrella term for English works from the mid-to-late 19th century, which were often lush paintings and drawings. That category’s earnest depictions of society, landscapes, animals, and moral themes such as hard work, charity, and fidelity are at odds with the slick detachment that characterizes today’s contemporary art.
Yet “if someone actually likes this sort of art, it’s a very, very good time to be buying it,” said Polly Sartori, the director of Gallery 19C in Los Angeles and the former head of 19th-century European paintings at Sotheby’s.
Next week, a 6-foot-wide landscape painted by Benjamin Williams Leader in 1874 is up for sale at Christie’s with an estimate of $22,000 to $30,000; a similar landscape sold 13 years ago at Sotheby’s for $293,400. “Some of the best work by Victorian artists is fantastic value compared to other sectors of the market,” said Matthew Green, a director at London’s Richard Green gallery.
The Uncool Factor
“People still use 'Victorian' as a pejorative term,” said Rupert Maas, a London dealer who specializes in 19th-century art. “There are two world wars between us and the Victorian period. We’re still not able to look at it dispassionately and understand it as the extraordinary period of endeavor that it actually was.”
Victorian art sold for immense sums when it was first created and then was swept away by the Impressionists and Modernists who followed. For decades, the entire genre was consigned to the dustbin of history.
Sartori points to Victorian “sporting” paintings by such artists as John Frederick Herring Sr. “There was an incredible market for painting the horses of wealthy people,” she said. “Herring is fabulous, and those pictures sold millions, but they’re way down right now.” Portraits that might have sold for $70,000 can now be found for $20,000.
She speculated that Herring’s recent rise and fall was a result of “that Ralph Lauren look,” she said. “But that look, presently, isn’t popular or cool right now.” A Herring work is up for sale next week with an estimate of $3,700 to $6,100.
The genre experienced a brief resurgence in the late 1980s and 1990s. Collectors such as Andrew Lloyd Weber and the Forbes family, along with Japanese buyers, competed for both the top and middle of the market.
The work from the Pre-Raphaelites—such artists as John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—is still in demand, however. "When you get down to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, when they come up, they do well, believe me," Sartori said. Sisters, an 1869 oil canvas by Millais, sold for $3.5 million in 2013; that same year, A Christmas Carol by Rossetti sold for $7.5 million in London.
But those are the exceptions. The global art market has largely been dominated by contemporary art, to the detriment of most every other period. “It’s kind of a contemporary tsunami,” Sartori said. “Even with design. Everyone wants the Ikea look—they want that minimalist cool, and if you look at Victorian art, it doesn’t fit in.”
One thing in Victorian art’s favor is that it has institutional support, a polite term that means it still gets wall space in museums. Many of the world’s museums were founded during the movement’s heyday, and it serves as the foundation for many of these collections.
The Tate Britain has dozens of Victorian works on view, while New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a 2014 exhibition of paintings, textiles, and ceramics from the era. “If you’re going to start out collecting something, you have to substantiate why you like it,” Sartori said. “The idea that these artists are housed in museums around the world is a check in the right column.”
Also factoring in is the genre’s historical pricing. If a type of artwork has done well previously, auctions, dealers, and collectors can justify charging similar prices for similar artworks. This is particularly good for the Victorian market, because a select group of artists commands large sums.
“The top end always holds its value,” said Green, the British dealer. “If it’s a good piece, whether it’s by Lawrence Alma-Tadema or one of the Pre-Raphaelites, there’s tremendous competition.” In 2010, for instance, a work by Alma-Tadema soared past its $5 million high estimate to sell for $35.9 million, a record for the artist.
What You’ll Pay
For artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and John William Godward, look in the $30,000 range, said Maas. But don’t buy an elaborate, overdone painting by a well-known Victorian artist. “If you want a [Frederic] Leighton, buy a drawing,” he advised. “You can pick them up for nothing.” A drawing by Leighton sold for $4,644 at a Sotheby’s auction London last year. The same year, an oil painting sold for $4.3 million at Christie’s.
If you insist on a painting, The Harvesters, a scenic 1879 canvas of happy peasants, will be up at Christie’s March 22 sale in South Kensington and is expected to go for $12,000 to $18,000.
Prices can go even lower. At Bonham’s on March 21, a painting of a beach in Norfolk by Edward Duncan is on sale for an estimated $990 to $1,500.