|There's a tale of greed and vulgarity in the NYTimes today that's almost epic in its turpitude. It's the tale of a series of brilliant watercolor illustrations and the darkest of human motivations. It began in a dusty old bookstore in Scotland and would wind its way via villians most vile to the auction block of that Gotham chopshop we call Sotheby's. From the Times:|
From the browsing booksellers who realized the strange pictures they found might be valuable, to the bookstore who was then suddenly very interested in the works they had neglected after it turned out the customers they let pay to have them appraised were right, to the London art dealer who snuck in ahead of the Tate and bought the drawings just to turn around and then charge double for them, these watercolors seem to corrupt everyone who comes into contact with them. She, the London art dealer, Libby Howie, virtually comes across as Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings in this account:
The discovery was pure serendipity: nosing around in a dusty bookshop in Scotland on a spring day five years ago, a pair of British booksellers stumbled upon a weathered red leather case engraved with the words "Designs for Blair's Grave." Opening it, they found 19 Romantic yet macabre watercolors — depicting angels, sarcophagi, moonlit graveyards, arm-linked spirits — rendered in a subtle range of grays, black and pastels.
Five years, one lawsuit and an export battle later, the watercolors —illustrations created in 1805 by the poet and artist William Blake for a 1743 poem — are being heralded by scholars as the most important Blake discovery in a century.
Yet to the consternation of many experts, all 19 are headed for auction this spring at Sotheby's in New York, which plans to break up the set and sell them on May 2 for a projected $12 million to $17.5 million. Estimated prices of the watercolors, each mounted on a 13-by-10-inch backing, range from $180,000 to $260,000 for the inscribed title page to $1 million to $1.5 million for the most intricate and compelling scenes.
After Howie doubled the price, though, the Tate, who had been trying to raise the money before, could no longer afford them. So Howie decided to break up the set and maximize the return on her investment, and Sotheby's was only too happy to help her. You can almost hear the echoing cackles of evil laughter behind her lame justification:
"From the moment I saw them, I was completely obsessed," she said. "In British drawings you never get these kinds of discoveries."
Ms. Howie said she bought them from the booksellers with the help of a group of investors for whom she has "a responsibility to get the best price."
Sir Nicholas, the Tate director, said he believed that Ms. Howie had paid £4.9 million ($7.7 million) for them. "She simply snuck in and bought them," he said. At the time, he added, it was his understanding that she was buying them for a private collector who wished to take them abroad.
"One would always be happier to see them together," Ms. Howie said. "But in the end I think it's best to let people choose what they most like."
[Emotional outburst: One would be happier to see them together, would one? Then lower the price you diabolical freak! There's a museum with the staff and expertise to take excellent care of these wonderous works willing to pay what had been a fair and honest price for them....]
What's being lost here, of course, is an opportunity for scholars to easily study the set (well, all but the one that Yale already received years ago from Paul Mellon...how he came by that one is a mystery, but...). What's most disturbing about the unfortunate fate of this series is the idea that it went from sitting neglected in a dusty bookstore to having a group of investors and their staggeringly greedy ring-leader pay lip service to the idea that they're concerned where it ends up. I mean, Sotheby's at least doesn't pretend they're interested in anything more than profit here.
It's stories like this that make me want to take a shower when I think about the business I'm in.