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The Lure of Long-Lost Art

James Webbe’s White Owl

By Nic Forrest Created: December 18, 2012 Last Updated: December 18, 2012
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"Far Away Thoughts” by John William Godward, R.B.A. (1861–1922) (Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012)

"Far Away Thoughts” by John William Godward, R.B.A. (1861–1922) (Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012)

When British teacher Jane Cordy stumbled across a long-lost painting by the talented Pre-Raphaelite artist William James Webbe in her attic, she was shocked to find out from an expert at Christie’s auction house that it was worth more than 70,000 pounds ($113,000).

If Cordy was shocked at the 50,000 to 70,000 pound estimate, imagine how she felt when the painting, titled “The White Owl. ‘Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits,’” sold for 589,250 pounds ($950,000)—a new world record price for the artist at auction.

Part of Christie’s Dec. 13 Victorian and British Impressionist Art sale, “The White Owl” was given plenty of presale publicity thanks to the story behind its rediscovery.

“The White Owl. ‘Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits,’” 1856, by William James Webbe (fl.1853–1878) sold for a surprising 10 times its estimate price. (Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd., 2012)

“The White Owl. ‘Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits,’” 1856, by William James Webbe (fl.1853–1878) sold for a surprising 10 times its estimate price. (Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd., 2012)

No doubt also partly driven by the current publicity surrounding the major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the TATE, the price achieved for the painting is so far above the artist’s previous auction record of 72,000 pounds that it still appears to be an amazing result, even after taking into consideration the favorable conditions surrounding the sale.

When researching the rediscovered painting, Christie’s found that it been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, where John Ruskin, the great Pre-Raphaelite art critic, had singled it out for praise. “A careful study—the brown wing excellent. The softness of an owl’s feathers is perhaps inimitable,” Ruskin wrote.

Adding to the mystery and allure of the painting is the fact that Webbe himself is somewhat of a long-lost figure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. According to Christie’s, “although Webbe is included in Percy Bate’s early study of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, “The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters” (four editions 1899–1910), he remains a shadowy figure.”

Even the correct spelling of the artist’s surname name is not known, with “Webb” and “Webbe” both appearing in lifetime exhibition catalogs.

The combination of publicity, provenance, and a touch of mystery, ensured that Webbe’s “The White Owl” was fought over by a number of eager buyers with the winning bid coming from a U.K. dealer.

It just goes to show how much impact a good story and the right selling conditions can have on the way people perceive a painting.

Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art consultant, and writer based in Sydney and London. He is the founder of ArtMarketBlog.com and has recently been published in Fabrik, Verve, Visual Art Beat, Australian Art Collector, Art & Investment, and other magazines. The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.




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