Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2006 Issue

A Sordid Tale of The Destruction of a Great Collection

Blakew

Death of the Strong Wicked Man brought the highest price at $1,584,000.


By Michael Stillman

It was a miracle find. Drawings meant for an early 19th century book of poetry, created by a poet-artist-printer himself, lost for almost two centuries show up at an obscure bookshop in the English countryside. Thought at first to be mere prints, further research reveals that these are the original watercolors produced by the artist-poet William Blake. As the excitement mounts, they are offered to a museum, to be kept together for eternity. Then it all unravels. New players, for whom Blake is neither poet nor artist, but a financial opportunity, insert themselves in the deal. The price goes up, the collection is no longer viable as a unit, so it is broken into pieces to pay off the middlemen. Blake's drawings were auctioned off last month, one by one, the collection likely destroyed forever, nothing left but the pieces.

For those in the book trade, this is not one of our prouder moments. What started as a collection of amazing works lost in a family's attic for generations, appeared to be headed for a museum, to be protected for eternity. Along the way, some people in the book and art businesses inserted themselves in the process for easy money. Now, the collection is lost again, but this time forever. It is a sad and shameful day for the book and art trades, for it was our trades that destroyed this wonderful collection.

The story begins almost two centuries ago. William Blake, poet and artist, is commissioned to create illustrations to go with a new printing of The Grave, a poem first published in 1743 by Robert Blair. If you don't know this poem, you don't know Blair, as it was all he wrote. Blake produced twenty watercolor illustrations. Twelve were used in the edition published in 1808, though publisher Robert Cromek brought in Luigi Schiavonetti to create the engravings from Blake's illustrations, apparently an embarrassment to the latter. It also meant Blake made little money on the project. The vultures would make up for that centuries later.

After the work was published, the watercolors remained with Cromek. He died in 1812, and the illustrations passed on to his wife. They next appeared at an auction in Edinburgh in 1836, where they sold for just 1 pound 5 shillings. That's roughly $2 in American currency, or about ten cents each. The buyer is unknown. And then, they were lost. At some point, they came into the possession of the family of artist John Stennard. However, as they were passed down from generation to generation, their significance, like the drawings themselves, was forgotten. They would remain essentially unknown for the remainder of the 19th and all of the 20th century.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> MITCHELL, John (1711-1768). A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America. Copperplate engraving with original hand color. London, 1755. $250,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Brown Pelican (Standing), Plate 251. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London, 1827-1838. $175,000 to $225,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Fish Hawk or Osprey, Plate 81. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London: 1827-1838. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> GONZALES DE MENDOZA, Juan (1545 - 1618). <i>The Historie of the great and mightie kingdome of China…</i> London, 1588. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> VERBIEST, Ferdinand (1623-1688). [World Map] Kun-Yu Ch'uan-Tu. Engraved twelve sheet map with vertical sections joined to form six sheets. Korea, Seoul, c. 1860. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> SANGGI, Chong (1678-1752). Korean Atlas. Manuscript map on mulberry bark paper. C. 1750-1790. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Plate 66. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London, 1827-1838. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AKERMAN, Anders (1721-1778). & AKREL, Frederik (1779-1868). Pair of Celestial and Terrestrial Globes. Stockholm, c. 1800. 23 inch diameter, each. $60,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> BENNETT, Lieut. William Pyt (d. in action, 1916). AN IMPORTANT AND APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED SERIES OF GELATIN SILVER PHOTOGRAPHS OF LHASA AND TIBET TAKEN DURING THE CELEBRATED YOUNGHUSBAND MISSION OF 1904. $60,000 to $80,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions