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by Paul Jeromack
In a spring auction season percolating with smashingly exuberant prices, it takes a special talent to hold a sale that turns out to be a disaster. But this was achieved on May 2, 2006, at the Sotheby’s New York sale of the album of 20 watercolor drawings by William Blake titled Designs for Blair’s Grave. Of the 20 lots, eight were bought in. The combined presale high estimate was $17,481,500. The works actually sold for a total of $7,102,640. The reaction -- especially from my British colleagues at the periphery of the room -- was one of barely disguised glee. With good reason.

If one wanted to illustrate exactly how the art market operates on a rarified plane of greed, callousness, stupidity, lawsuits and dishonesty, the saga of the Blake album tells you all you need to know. In spring 2001, Yorkshire book dealers Paul Williams and Jeffrey Bates purchased a red morocco portfolio labeled Designs for Blair’s Grave from the Glasgow second-hand bookshop Caledonia Books, for a sum believed to be in the £1,000 range. The bookshop had classified the works as prints (this is where "stupidity" comes in).

Flush with excitement, Williams and Bates showed the portfolio to the highly regarded Blake specialist Martin Butlin, who confirmed that the items were in fact drawings by Blake himself, works made for a rare edition of The Grave by the Scots clergyman Robert Blair (1699-1746), an updated, Protestant version of the popular medieval Ars Moriendi. Although four drawings for the book had been known to Blake scholars previously, this portfolio had been missing and untraced since the descendants of the project’s publisher, Robert Cromak, had sent them to auction in Edinburgh in 1836.

News quickly spread of the remarkable discovery, and in March 2002, the Tate Gallery, London, made a deal with Williams and Bates to purchase the drawings for £4.2 million.

Now, if you were Caledonia Books and heard about this, wouldn’t you be nauseous to your marrow? Of course you would be. But Caledonia Books didn’t just stew in their own bitter juices -- they filed an annoyance lawsuit claiming that they were hoodwinked by Williams & Bates (enter the "lawsuits"). The suit was not settled until November 2002 (it is believed that the ruling allowed Caledonia a small share of the profits) and all the while, the Tate was biding its time and raising the necessary funds.

The ruling is over, and the Tate can save the drawings for the British nation, right? Nope.

London dealer Libby Howie, who had been retained by Caledonia to advise on the case, persuaded Williams, Bates and Caledonia to renege on the Tate deal by offering £4.9 million pounds for the Blakes (£700,000 more than the original agreed price) on behalf of herself. All three parties agreed to this new scheme, and Howie was subsequently quoted equivocating by The Antiques Trade Gazette, saying she had bought them for an unnamed private collector, "a man who understands the importance of these watercolors to scholars. Their loan to a museum has not been ruled out."

For a while, all was quiet. But it became clear that Howie’s noble private collector was in reality a profit-minded private investment group, which wouldn’t do jack for the scholarly community, even refusing the offer by the Blake Trust to produce a facsimile edition of the drawings. Two years on, Howie got a new evaluation of the works, which were now valued at £8.8 million (investors love the idea that art values go ever upward).

In January 2005, Howie selflessly offered the portfolio to the Tate for this £8.8 million, a markup of £3.9 million, but even the Tate and Heritage Lottery Fund had their limits and turned the price down as exorbitantly excessive. Howie applied for an export license for the Blakes, which was not granted until mid-autumn of 2005.

Initially offered as a group, Howie and her investors might have thought the Blakes would be eagerly snapped by any number of wealthy Americans. She would have had good reasons for thinking that, since the William Blake exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2001 was a surprise smash, being (at that time) the museum’s most popular show ever of drawings and prints.

But despite his popularity and cachet as a mystical outsider, Blake is not the sort of artist that American collectors buy in bulk -- and certainly not for $10 million plus. And few American museums really need to buy any more Blakes. With the exception of the Getty (which turned the parcel down), all the wealthiest American museums already own great Blake watercolors.

So, her options exhausted, Howie consigned the drawings to Sotheby’s New York where the album was broken up and dispersed on May 2. As if in silent comment, the Metropolitan installed a selection of its most magnificent Blake watercolors in its drawings gallery, which seemed to indicate that the museum would not be bidding on anything at Sotheby’s that day.

In the past, Sotheby’s has included a proviso wherein after the breakup of an auctioned album or sketchbook, if a single bidder could offer a higher bid to keep everything together, then the individual sales would be declared null and void. This was not done with the Blakes.

Unlike any old imp-and-mod sale, the Blake dispersal was not one to attract throngs of onlookers, and was held in a small anteroom with barely 50 people (bidders and Sotheby’s staff) in attendance. The first three lots sold smashingly. The inscribed title page with a powerful image of nude, wingless angel sounding the Trumpet of Judgment as a skeleton stirs from its shroud (est. $180,000-$260,000) sold to private dealer Frederick Bancroft (on his cell phone to a client) for $650,000. The Meeting of a Family in Heaven, a comforting image with delicate blue and gray wash (est. $280,000-$360,000) sold for $500,000 to Munich art advisor Dr. Hinrich Sieveking, while the Musée du Louvre bought the Death of the Strong Wicked Man for $1.4 million (est. $1 million–$1.5 million -- it is the museum’s first work by Blake), in what would be the highest price of the sale.

Yet after the beautiful The Grave Personified (a moth-winged, muscular female nude dangling poppy-heads from her outstretched arms; est. $1 million-$1.5 million) sold (to Dallas collector Jessie Price) for a single under-estimate bid of $800,000, the energy ebbed from the room at an alarming rate, indicating the market for Blake is highly selective and unwilling to bid recklessly on drawings that were often less splendiferously eccentric than might be ideal for a Blake work.

An entire string of bought-in lots soon followed, most notably the most elaborate and brightly colored sheet of the group, The Day of Judgment (est. $1.5 million–$2 million), which expired at a $1 million bid. The drawings that actually sold went for far less than the estimates (the proto-Victorian black-and-grey wash image of A Father and Two Children beside an Open Grave at Night by Lantern Light sold for $28,000 against a presale estimate of $350,000-$550,000), the exception being the last drawing of the group, the Personification of Friendship (est. $180,000-$260,000) which was purchased by London collector Alan Parker for $270,000. Parker also bought the next-to-last drawing, Christ Descending into the Grave for $280,000 (est. $350,000-$550,000), while the depleted red morocco portfolio that formerly contained the drawings (est. $1,000-1,500) sold for $4,200 to San Francisco dealer John Windle, who, as the hammer fell, cracked, "Can I have the contents as well, please?"

The only winners in this outcome are the buyers (and the three dealers who sold the parcel to Howie). Howie has to pay Sotheby’s fees -- for once, Sotheby’s smartly did not put any money down to secure the plum consignment.

Nearly everybody else got screwed -- the Tate (twice) and, most gratifyingly to observers, Howie and her investor, both of them now holding eight drawings that have been thoroughly "burned" by overexposure and not a little bad blood. Esteemed critic Brian Sewell summed up the entire fiasco, writing, "Even though the goal of every dealer is profit, there comes a point when one needs to check one’s greed and rather do the right thing. Miss Howie could have very easily come to agreement with the Tate wherein she could have made a profit and the drawings would have remained together as they should have been. But I would not be surprised if she has done herself quite a bit of harm in this deal, if not apparent immediately, than certainly down the road. She has not done well by her investor client -- she hasn’t made the millions in profit for him he was obviously counting on."

Quoted in The Art Newspaper, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota threw in his two cents: "It is heartbreaking that this exceptional group of watercolor illustrations should have been broken up, especially as the sums realized were significantly lower than the auction estimate."

Of course, he hardly means that if everything had sold for a fortune, it would have been all right.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.