The Lure of the Long Lost: A White Owl and William James Webbe –

webbe white owl The Lure of Long Lost Art: William Webbes White Owl   artmarketblog.comWhen 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 auction house Christie’s that it was worth upwards of £70,000.

If Cordy was shocked at the £50,000 – 70,000 estimate, imagine how she felt when the painting, titled The White Owl, sold for £589,250 – a new world record price for the artist at auction.

Part of Christie’s 13th December Victorian & British Impressionist Art sale, The White Owl was  given plenty of pre-sale publicity thanks to the story behind its rediscovery.

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 that it appears to be an amazing result, even after taking into consideration the favourable conditions surrounding the sale.

When researching the re-discovered 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,” Ruskin wrote, ‘the brown wing excellent. The softness of an owl’s feathers is perhaps inimitable’.

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-Raphalite 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 catalogues.

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 UK dealer.

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


William James Webbe (fl.1853-1878)
The White Owl. ‘Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits’
signed with monogram and dated ’1856′ (lower left)
oil on board
17¾ x 10 3/8 in. (45 x 26.3 cm.)

*Nicholas Forrest is a Sydney/London based art market analyst, art consultant and writer.  He is the founder of the Art Market Blog ( which offers independent commentaries as well as research and analysis on the current art market, and has recently been published in Fabrik magazine, Verve magazine, Visual Art Beat magazine, Australian Art Collector magazine, Art & Investment magazine and many others.  Nic has made several radio appearances (both nationally and internationally) as an art market expert and has received press from the likes of the New York Times, Conde Nast Portfolio and Times of London.

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