When this tiny 5 x 7in (13 x 17.5cm) William Henry Hunt watercolour, of seashells on a mossy bank, was exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1879/80 it met with high acclaim but at Sotheby’s on July 1 it could only make £2500 against hopes of £3000-5000.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Good examples have often steamed ahead of expectations.

Typical examples, looking back over the last few years include What shall I play? - Artist's daughter at piano (£9800 at Sotheby's, July 1998), The woodcutter's breakfast (£13,000 at Christie's, November 1999), Gardener in his potting shed (£10,000 in 1989 and £17,000 at Christies, June 2002), The Green Drawing Room at Cassiobury (£22,000 at Christie's, November 1995) and Pet lamb (£30,000, Sotheby's, June 2001) - being typical.

However, in the 1870s it was, in fact, Hunt's still life subjects that became popular, with dealers such as Agnew's paying up to around £500 for them.

Hunt embarked on fruit and flower painting in the late 1820s and developed a technique of using a base of Chinese white on which he used watercolour and bodycolour, giving his compositions an enamel-like quality.

Much admired by John Ruskin (1819-1900), the highly detailed images of fruits on a mossy bank, often incorporating a bird's nest, became a 'must have' for many a Victorian entrepreneur.

In real terms, these works have fallen significantly in value, most now selling in the low thousands. This was certainly the case with regard to eight specimens, which were offered at Sotheby's (20/12% buyer's premium) British Sale on July 1.

'The property of a gentleman' these watercolours represent fine examples and yet only three got away and all below the bottom estimate.

An oval still life with nectarines, plums, grapes and forget-me-notes on a mossy bank could only muster a lower-estimate £1500 and Still life with a jug, a cabbage in a basket and a gherkin and Still life with sea shells on a mossy bank sold at £2500 each, half the top expectations.

Fortune shone more favourably on another Hunt that appeared, also on July 1, at Christie's South Kensington (19.5/12% buyer's premium).

Despite being just 5 3/4in x 4 1/2in (14.6 x 11.4cm), the still life of grapes, a tankard and a sprig of holly went ahead of a top estimate of £1500 to bring in £3800.