Thursday, February 16, 2006

Blake and the Bottomfeeders

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:

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.

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:

"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.

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:
"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 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.


Anonymous pc said...


I agree, it's horrible. But that's a lot of money. Presumably, Howie didn't just wander into this ethical dilemma (it doesn't sound like it was much of a decision for her), rather she's the kind of person who would swoop in an poach the pictures. My point is, you or I or any normal person is unlikely to be in the position of having to sacrifce millions of dollars to do the right thing. But you sell art and it could happen to you in a smaller form (I assume that's why you wanted to take a shower). You obviously care about art first. But I kept putting myself in the place of Howie and finding that the money keeps sounding more and more important. What would you do in her case, really? And what's the remedy? Should governments regulate commerce when the buying and selling is in national treasures? (I kind of think so.)


2/16/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

Great story. I may be wrong about this story, but it seems that years ago I recall that a collector (in Australia, I believe) announced he intended to buy a Picasso at auction for the purpose of cutting it into half-inch squares. He proposed to sell each square for something like $1,000 dollars. I've tried to find links about this story, but this was way before the internet. I don't remember if he actually did this or not. I just remember there was a firestorm of protest at the time.


2/16/2006 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger mountain man said...

Wow, what a story, a book should be written. It is tragic to have the work broken up, it should be cared for, as you say, by a museum who will share these beautiful things with the public. I am dying to get a look at these drawings as Blake is one of my alltime favorites. It makes me want to take a shower too, this story...and it's true that smaller, less expensive dilemmas like this must come up all the time. But for a piece like this, it's for the benefit of all art lovers and Blake lovers for the works to remain together and accessible. Ick. It seems like Howie is getting her due smearing in the press at least.

2/16/2006 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

The transactions involved, cutting out the Tate in the process, is a sleezy tale reminding me of the corporate raiders in the early eighties. I hope they stay together but I doubt they will.

What we need here is a bidders boycott (or a knight with a bankroll)

2/16/2006 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Bunny Smedley said...

Edward, don't rush off for that wash too quickly!

From my limited experience, the business you're in isn't really that different from most businesses, in that it numbers both lovely people and horrible people amongst it ranks. There are dealers who are out there to make a quick profit, whatever the consequences - as well as people who do what they do because they love the art and basically need a way to finance their own 'habit' - as well as every shade in between.

Just by way of example, in the past couple of months, an art dealer friend of mine sold a very rare book - one containing a series of tipped-in woodcuts by a relatively well-known early 20th century British artist - for a far lower price than he might have done, had he cut up the book and sold the woodcuts one by one. He tries to pass this off as a hard-headed commercial decision, based on the need to keep up a relationship with a fellow admirer of this artist and regular buyer. No one who knows him believes this, though! In truth he's an old softie and would probably rather have close family members chopped up and sold off for scrap than damage the integrity of this volume, which is the work of an artist he really genuinely loves.

All of which is very small beer indeed when compared with this awful, fascinating story! I can only hope that there's someone out there with both the money and heroic ambition to ensure that these Blake drawings stay together, preferably in a context where scholars and others can have access to them. Somehow I don't think a decision on my part to boycott Sotheby's would do a huge amount of good ....

2/16/2006 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't think Sotheby's is the real villian here...but rather the booksellers and Howie and her investors. Sotheby's can't be in the business of telling their clients how to sell their property.

They should still be embarrassed though.

2/16/2006 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Bunny Smedley said...

You're obviously completely right about Sotheby's - but at the same time, the fact that they are basically being party to the semi-destruction of a work of art does not make me any more enthusiastic about them.

I wonder who Howie's 'investors' are?

2/16/2006 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

" boycott Sotheby's would do a huge amount of good ... "

Of course not. It's the nature of an auction market, if someone doesn't participate someone else will take advantage of the lapse.

I still believe that Sotheby's, while maybe not initially encouraging a split up of the drawings, is complicit in the action. I suspect they are suggesting selling them individually will fetch a highet price in total. They must have some idea what the prior offers for the unbroken set were and they have their own estimates for what they expect to be able to sell them for individually. Another factor here may be the due to the Sotheby's commision structure. All things being equal selling the drawings individually instead as a group nets Sotheby's an additional $150,000.

I'm in favor of free markets, it's business but it's a shame if their split up.

2/16/2006 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I still believe that Sotheby's, while maybe not initially encouraging a split up of the drawings, is complicit in the action.

I would agree. They should discourage such a split, IMO. I know that may not be a good business in the short run, but one must consider their reputation in the long run as well in such matters.

2/16/2006 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous burrito brother said...

The real tragedy is that none of us will see these works together for another 30 yrs. at least because of this. Everyone is implicit, including the original sellers. Did they really think an art dealer with an 'investment team' really had good motives going into this purchase? It doesn't seem as if anyone involved is really all that interested in serving the art, but at least - as Ed said - Sotheby's doesn't pretend to be a friend of art. If you ask me, the art would be better off in Blake's tomb with him...

2/16/2006 07:55:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

What the hell, I'm going to go ahead and just but the whole set! Oh, wait a minute...

2/16/2006 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

The real tragedy is that none of us will see these works together for another 30 yrs. at least because of this.

Oh c'mon, I'm sure someone will do a show with really big photos of all of them together. Won't that be just as good? ;)

2/18/2006 01:02:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oh c'mon, I'm sure someone will do a show with really big photos of all of them together. Won't that be just as good? ;)


2/18/2006 05:01:00 AM  
Anonymous jackie said...


5/06/2006 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like the Art Dealer who sold didn't make all the money she was hoping. Serves her right in my opinion (I hope she goes out of business) but the damage is still done. Unbelievable that the Government has all this money to waste on ID card schemes and Iraq but can't find a few lousy million for a wonderful investment for the nation like this.

5/30/2006 11:10:00 AM  

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