A Sordid Tale of The Destruction of a Great Collection
What Howie and her cohorts paid for the collection is not known, though speculation puts it in the $7-$8 million range. Of course they wanted to be compensated for their role as unnecessary middlemen, and they were not looking for 5% or 10%. They estimated the value at something like $17 million, and began shopping the collection for this new and improved price. They were offered to major institutions including Yale, since they had the only other drawing from the original collection. However, the price was now too steep to sell them as a collection. The owners concluded that the only way to get their price was to sell the drawings off one at a time. Using the dubious justification that it wasn't really a complete collection anyway, since one out of twenty pieces was separated earlier, they took the collection to Sotheby's, to be sold piece by piece.
The attempt to sell the collection piecemeal in America was delayed when the owners were temporarily denied an export license. Much condemnation of the process was expressed by voices in the art and book worlds. The New York Times even chipped in with an editorial opposing the sale, noting that Blake's works were meant to be a coherent whole. It didn't matter. Money talks louder than reasoned words. If you thought art and literature has nothing in common with politics, think again.
On May 2, 2006, the collection, together for almost two centuries, was torn apart. The nineteen original watercolors by Blake, along with the portfolio labeled "Designs for Blair's Grave," were put up for sale at Sotheby's. One by one, they were sold, or at least eleven of them. Eight received insufficient bids and were not sold. The eleven, plus the portfolio, brought in a hair over $7.1 million. While the sale was something of a disappointment, with eight unsold and several others coming in below the low estimate, it is unknown whether the owners are feeling any regret over their decision. They did not collect anything like $17 million. However, they did get close to the price for which the collection was offered to the Tate, and they still have eight drawings left to dispose of in the future. They may not get as much for those eight as they once thought, but they should still get enough to turn a profit. Whether it will be enough to justify tying up millions of dollars is yet to be determined.
We asked John Windle, a San Francisco bookseller and one of America's foremost Blake experts, his thoughts on the sale. Windle purchased one of the drawings, Heavens Portals Wide Expand to Let Him In, for $329,600 (against an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) for a customer, while purchasing the leather portfolio which held the drawings for himself. He had been a strong opponent of the sale, and like many others, had unsuccessfully sought to find a way to stop it. He minced no words in describing the process: "Splitting up the collection was a disastrous decision from every possible viewpoint, a heinous crime against England's greatest visionary poet/painter/printer which dishonors his life's work and his memory." He described the process as "a sordid and grubby affair from start to finish that reflects badly on everyone involved." Mr. Windle was particularly upset to see the twelve drawings that were used in the Blair edition broken up, which he described as a "tragedy."