Rare Watercolor Collection Auctioned Piece by Piece
03.05.2006 By Carol VOGEL
"Death of the Strong Wicked Man," a William Blake watercolor that met its high estimate of $1.5 million at Sotheby's New York yesterday.
A passionate crowd of drawings dealers and collectors gathered at Sotheby's in Manhattan yesterday morning to watch as 19 macabre Romantic watercolors, created in 1805 by the poet and artist William Blake, were auctioned off one by one.
The works, illustrations for "The Grave," a 1743 poem by the Scottish writer Robert Blair, were discovered five years ago by two British booksellers. At the time, experts heralded them as the most important Blake discovery in a century and said the illustrations should stay together. It appeared that the public agreed; some in the audience spoke of the breakup of the collection as a criminal procedure.
Twelve of the 19 works sold, but many for far less than Sotheby's had predicted. The sale totaled $7.1 million, far below its estimate of $12 million to $17.5 million. The price was also considerably less than the $16.4 million at which the watercolors had been valued by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art in London when Tate Britain, one of the world's most important repositories of Blake's works, tried but failed to raise the necessary money to buy them in 2002.
When Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, heard about the sale's outcome, he released a statement saying, "It is heartbreaking that this exceptional group of watercolor illustrations should be broken up, especially as the sums realized are significantly lower than the auction house estimate from Sotheby's and the vendor."
The most expensive work in Sotheby's sale — "Death of the Strong Wicked Man" — was bought by Friends of the Louvre in Paris on behalf of the museum for $1.5 million, right at its high estimate.
(Prices of record include Sotheby's commission: 20 percent of the first $200,000 of the hammer price and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
The seller was Libby Howie, a London dealer, who had bought them from the London booksellers with the aid of a group of investors. She reportedly paid $7.7 million for the 19.
The illustrations — watercolors depicting angels, sarcophagi, moonlit graveyards and spirits with their arms linked — were still in their red leather case, which was also up for sale yesterday. John Windle, a rare-book dealer from San Francisco, bought it for $5,040. Mr. Windle also bought "Heaven's Portals Wide Expand to Let Him In," an illustration of Jesus standing in a Gothic doorway, for $329,600, under its $350,00 low estimate.
"We knew it was a lot of Blakes," said Nancy Bialler, an expert on prints and drawings in Sotheby's old master department. "But I thought because of their sheer beauty and importance that the market would rise to the occasion."