notebegin page 137 |
Blake and the Contemporary Art Market
As a rule, when we hear that a fine painting or an exceedingly rare book in mint condition has brought down a large price from the auction block we are not surprised. But few of us, I would imagine, are such careful observers of this rapidly changing marketplace that we realize the vast scope of the merchandise sold at auction or offered for sale by exclusive art dealers. As Blake enthusiasts, we often may watch the book dealers’ catalogues for the going prices of major works such as the Gilchrist biography or the Yeats-Ellis edition. We may even occasionally stare in disbelief at the audacity of certain bookdealers as they gleefully overprice their offerings. But we seldom hear of Blake originals coming to the block, and most of us, I suspect, imagine all these priceless products of Blake’s art to be housed in Institutions, private or public.
However, this fall as I was making inquiry among the major dealers, I stumbled upon three Blake originals, one recently sold, and the other two yet on the market. The two whose fate remains in question are the important Biblical watercolors, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife,” and “Felix and Drusilla.” The firm of C. A. Stonehill, Inc. of New Haven, Connecticut offered these two at $25,000 each. The offer was accompanied by descriptions taken from The Blake Collection of W. Graham Robertson, edited by Kerrison Preston (London: Faber and Faber, 1952).
By comparing the amount these watercolors brought during the famous sale at Christie’s on 22 June 1949 with their current price tag, perhaps we can arrive at some notion of the spiraling evaluation of Blake originals, an evaluation created by both current inflation and Blake’s rising popularity among collectors. In 1949 “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” brought £220.10.0, which, calculating by the wartime exchange rate of $4.03 (the pound was devalued two months later, 19 September 1949, to $2.80), is $888.61. “Felix and Drusilla,” on the other hand, sold for £275 or $1,108.25. In the twenty years since W. Graham Robertson’s collection was sold, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” has increased in value to approximately twenty-eight times its 1949 sale price, while “Felix and Drusilla” has increased by only twenty-two times. Obviously, the firm of C. A. Stonehill has arbitrarily equated the watercolors: in other words, a Blake original is a Blake original is a Blake original.1↤ 1 Since first writing this, copy C of The Book of Urizen sold at Sotheby’s for £27,000—approximately $64,800 or $2592 per plate. [See NEWS in this issue of the Newsletter.] Either the watercolors up for sale by Stonehill are overpriced, or the purchaser of Urizen got a real buy.
The third original work I turned up this fall is in quite a different class. The lavish Catalogue Seventy of Lew David Feldman’s House of El Dieff listed as item 16 the following:2↤ 2 Item 17 in the Feldman catalogue is also a Blake item, though minor in comparison: Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) with 21 engraved plates, proof impressions, unbound, 10 1/2 × 8 1/2 inches; together with Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil (with 17 woodcuts by Blake), 3rd. ed., 2 vols., octavo, contemporary sheep, rebacked, leather labels (worn), London, 1821: the lot $3000.
[BLAKE, William.] A Preliminary Study for “A Vision of The Last Judgment.” Pencil, pen and ink, and wash, 17 ¼ × 13 inches, matted, framed and glazed, 23 × 19 ½ inches over-all. [London, c. 1807-1810.] $10,000.00Mr. Feldman has graciously placed me in touch with the new owners of the sketch, who have been kind enough to allow me to announce that the drawing is now in the collections of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. The Center has allowed us to reproduce the sketch here [fig. 1], and Mr. Feldman has allowed us to reproduce the description of the drawing that appears in Catalogue Seventy [fig. 2]. It is, I believe, one of the most complete descriptions of the current state of the drawing.
While Blake originals do not daily come upon the market, I am sure that others begin page 138 |begin page 139 | have changed hands in recent years. I hope that as readers of the Newsletter learn of such sales, they will alert the community of Blake enthusiasts so that we may keep track of these important works.