Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sotheby's as Corporate Raider?

Today's New York Times highlights the upcoming sale of the recently discovered set of William Blake watercolors originally produced for the poem, "The Grave," by Robert Blair.

I'm not going to recount the entire NYT article. Needless to say it is a tale of a marvelous discovery and intrigue laced with copious amounts of plain old greed on the parts of the sellers and their agents.

What is distressing is that Sotheby's, in an effort to realize the highest possible commission on the sale, is auctioning the 19 drawings individually in separate lots. It seems that twice the Tate has uneventfully tried to purchase the drawings in order to keep the group together.

It is of note that the one missing drawing from the original set of 20, is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. This simple fact gave Sotheby's what it needed to excuse its decision to break up the remaining set of drawings.
"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 worldwide.
"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 one. (NYT)

Martin Butlin, a prominent Blake scholar involved in the authentication process, said that selling them individually at auction was "absolutely philistine."
"The seller has no regard for the integrity of works of art, only for money," he said. "As a group they tell a story."(NYT)

It turns out that Libby Howie, described as a "London art dealer" managed to out maneuver the Tate and with a group of "investors" purchased the drawings in 2002 for a reported $7.7 million. After shopping the set of drawings around unsuccessfully (apparently no one could come up with the price being asked) they are being put on the block.

I suppose the question I might ask is "does Sotheby's believe they have any responsibility to try and keep the drawings together?" Alas , it's rhetorical and the answer is no. I suspect they think the only people they have to answer to are their shareholders (NYSE:BID) Management just wants to keep those commissions rolling in regardless of any other opinions on the matter.

Art as investment or...? In the early eighties, speculative investors would buy well run companies at distressed stock prices, chop them up and sell the assets destroying the companies in the process. They were called Corporate Raiders.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a devil's argument that could be made for this, along two tracks:

1. Anyone who wants to can enjoy the whole series in a book. Splitting the illustrations up allows a greater number of people to enjoy the originals (of course letting the Tate purchase them would have allowed the most...).

2. If collectors (the people who supposedly care about this stuff) cared about keeping the illustrations together, then the auction price of the complete set would be higher then the sum of the individual parts.

Not great arguments, but there you go.