Experts Protest Sale of Rare Set of Blakes
By CAROL VOGEL
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
That the works may end up scattered is a bitter prospect for Tate
Britain, one of the world's most important repositories of Blake's
works. Aided by a temporary export ban, the museum tried but failed
to raise the money to buy them.
"That a group of works that have remained together for 200 years
should be split up for financial reasons means that any opportunity
for scholars to see them has evaporated," said Sir Nicholas Serota,
the Tate's director.
Sotheby's counters that the set is incomplete anyway because one of
the 20 watercolors that Blake originally produced for the poem, "The
Grave," by the Scottish writer Robert Blair, was mysteriously
separated from the rest. That work, "The Widow Embracing Her
Husband's Grave," is owned by the Yale Center for British Art,
which received it as a gift from its founder, Paul Mellon.
"It's not complete, so in a sense it's already been broken up,"
said George Wachter, director of old-master paintings for Sotheby's
"Since one of them is at Yale, it makes the most sense to do
it this way," he said of his decision to auction them one by
Scholars and dealers who have been involved in appraising the watercolors
Martin Butlin, a prominent Blake scholar involved in the authentication
process, said that selling them individually at auction was "absolutely
"The seller has no regard for the integrity of works of art,
only for money," he said. "As a group they tell a story."
Titles of the watercolors range from "The Reunion of the Soul
and the Body" to "The Day of Judgment" to "Death's
Door." Richly detailed and occasionally eerie, they are a highly
individual interpretation of Blair's Gothic poem, a meditation on
mortality and redemption. The poem, part of a poetic genre that came
to be known as the graveyard school, proved so popular that by 1798
it had gone through 47 editions. By the time Blake created his illustrations,
it was a classic in schools across England.
Aside from their significance as works of art — created in the
same period that Blake was printing and reprinting his own "Songs
of Innocence and of Experience," now part of the literary canon
— the watercolors represent a painful episode in the artist's
In September 1805, the publisher Robert H. Cromek commissioned Blake
to make 40 drawings illustrating "The Grave." He told the
artist he would pay him 20 guineas for his work and select 20 for
the final publication. Although Cromek was impressed by Blake's watercolors,
he felt that the artist's style of engraving was not commercial enough.
So he hired a well-known Italian engraver, Luigi Schiavonetti, to
make 12 engravings based on Blake's designs. The decision was a slap
in the face for the artist.
Blake completed the 20 watercolors and delivered them to Cromek, whose
widow inherited them after his death in 1812. No one heard about them
again until 1836, when they were included in an auction in Edinburgh
and described as "A Volume of Drawings by Blake." They were
bought anonymously for a mere £1.25 and disappeared from sight.
At some point — scholars don't know exactly when — the
watercolors came into the possession of the Stannards, a family of
artists and art lovers in Bedfordshire, England. Unaware of their
potential value, descendants of the Stannards found them while clearing
out the house of a deceased relative and took them along with piles
of books to Caledonia Books, a shop in Glasgow that specializes in
children's books and secondhand academic works.
It was there that they were discovered in 2001 by Paul Williams and
Jeffrey Bates, two booksellers from Yorkshire. They thought the works
looked important but were not certain. They took the portfolio to
Dominic Winter, a book-auctioneer concern in Gloucestershire, which
then showed them to Robin Hamlyn, a Tate curator, and to Mr. Butlin,
the Blake scholar.
While Mr. Butlin and Mr. Hamlyn were familiar with 12 of the images
because they had been turned into engravings, it was the other 7 —
utterly new to them — that excited them.
"They're among his best watercolors and are very imaginative,"
Mr. Butlin said, citing "The Grave Personified," a frontal
image of a winged figure with outstretched arms, or "Our Time
is fix'd; and all our Days are number'd," a depiction of eight
airborne figures accompanied by six cherubs above a crescent moon,
together grasping the thread of life.
The Yorkshire booksellers decided to have Dominic Winter auction the
watercolors in June 2002. At the same time, they approached the Tate
to see if it might be interested in buying them. The Tate offered
the dealers £4.2 million (about $6.2 million) for them, stipulating
that it would have to raise the money. The institution was given five
months to do so.
As word of the discovery spread, Caledonia Books realized that it
had parted with a valuable treasure. It sued the Yorkshire booksellers,
contending that Mr. Williams and Mr. Bates had taken the watercolors
on approval, a common practice in the art world, and that Caledonia
Books remained the rightful owner. The lawsuit sought the return of
the watercolors in addition to £15,000 (about $22,000) in damages.
With a lawsuit looming, Dominic Winter canceled the auction. Meanwhile,
the Tate kept trying to raise the money to buy the Blakes.
The parties settled out of court in November 2002, agreeing to sell
the watercolors and split the proceeds. That's when Libby Howie, a
London art dealer, stepped in. "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.
"It is disappointing to learn she acted for herself and her investors,"
Twice Ms. Howie applied for an export license, but the British government
withheld approval to give the Tate time to find the necessary funds.
But over time, that became more and more difficult. Ms. Howie and
her investors had raised their offer to £8.8 million ($13.9
million), more than twice the £4.2 million ($6.6 million) the
Tate had originally agreed upon with the Yorkshire booksellers.
After the Tate finally said it was unable to raise the money, an export
license was granted in September. Ms. Howie said she had spent 18
months looking for a museum that might be interested in buying them,
including the Yale Center for British Art, since it already owns one
from the original group. She said she had concluded that no museum
would be interested in buying the set.
Because there are serious Blake collectors in New York and Los Angeles,
Ms. Howie said, she finally decided to send the works to Sotheby's
in New York.
"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."