Blake turns in his Grave

So the cruellest month, also known as poetry month, is nearly over. Poetry will have been “honored,” fifteen-minute nano-fames will no doubt have been made here and there in the country, a few hundred more books will have been sold. And now back to normal.

A normality that will reassert itself with a bang and a buck, or rather the bang of one hammer and many million bucks, at Sotheby’s auction house. in the first days of May.

A set of William Blake watercolors (created to illustrate a poem by Robert Blair, but finally never used by the publisher) found in a Glasgow bookshop five years ago will go under the hammer. The publisher’s widow sold them in 1836 for the total price of £1.25. After their rediscovery in 2001, the sequence of illustrations became subject to a government export bar while the Tate scrambled to raise the £8.8m required to purchase them. As the gallery was unable to find the funds, Sotheby’s in New York announced that they would sell the paintings individually on May 2. They are expected to reach up to $17.5m (£10m) in total.

Worse even than the obscene amount of money involved is the breakup of the series itself. The Guardian quotes Martin Butlin, “a prominent Blake scholar involved in identifying the works,” as saying that “selling them individually at auction was ‘absolutely philistine’….The seller has no regard for the integrity of works of art, only for money… As a group they tell a story.”

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1 Response

  1. alahoff says:

    I’ve been following art market trends and the role of the auction houses for the last two years. As an artist, one cannot ignore the fact that we’re dealing with an art economy, not art world, now. And it directs, describes and decides our success by treating art purely as a commodity and giving artists the role of celebrity. I am appalled by the ridiculous degree to which the auction houses and their grubby rich collectors abuse the market and influence the careers of living artists. I am not a preservationist, but the upcoming sale of the Blake illustrations is a perfect example of the market’s lack of integrity. Greed stands in. Last summer, Modern Painters featured an article by Jerry Salz, describing the climate of these auctions. It was hilarious and depressing all at once, and Jerry was in perfect form. A collector will, in fact, pay far more at the auction house for the same work he passed up at asking price in the representing gallery, when he is among his peers, dressed to the nines, and looking to see who’s watching him.

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