Monday - 24 November 2014

Maintaining Potter prices is not all child’s play

22 July 2012Written by Ian McKay

In 1922, Beatrix Potter, with her most famous little books already behind her, was persuaded by Anne Carroll Moore of the New York Public Library to produce a book of illustrated nursery rhymes.

Using a mix of old drawings and a few new ones, she came up with Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes

The four illustrations used for 'This Pig went to Market', though originally created in the 1890s, were redrawn for publication. Three of those are now in the National Trust collections, but the complete set of her original, 19th century watercolours was seen once more at Sotheby's London on July 10.

There are a number of differences between the originals and the published versions. The last illustration is reversed, and where the words 'To Porkham' appear on the signpost in the 1922 version, in this original the owl perches on a sign pointing to Melford Hall, the home of Beatrix's cousin, Stephanie Hyde-Parker, for whom the pictures were first made. 

In 1999, these illustrations were sold by a descendant of the Hyde-Parkers at Sotheby's for £65,000, but the market is not as strong as it was then and this time the price was just £50,000. 

Also making a second appearance was an ink and watercolour drawing of 'Three Rabbits eating Plenty of Buns' sent by BP (c.1893-95) as a Christmas greeting - the message spelled out on the labels of the jars and bag of buns pictured.

This was one of the unrecorded items in a group of pictures, books, letters, etc once owned by her brother, Bertram, that in a 2008 Sotheby's sale was billed as "the most extensive group of Beatrix Potter artworks to have appeared on the market in living memory".

The prices paid for one or two of those lots - notably copies of her 'Rabbits Christmas Party ' watercolours given to Bertram - were described at the time by department specialist Philip Errington as having "launched Beatrix Potter into an altogether different price stratum of the art market". One of them, 'The Departure', sold at £240,000.

In that 2008 sale, an estimate of £40,000-60,000 was placed on those bun-eating rabbits, but it made only £34,000. It was suggested then that the fact that the rabbits' faces are almost wholly obscured had worked against it, and this may once again have been the case in this summer's sale. Given the same estimate, it sold for £45,000.

Two other undated ink drawings of rabbits as 'Apple Gatherers', one of which BP re-visited for an illustration in Peter Rabbit's Almanac of 1929 sold at £8000 and £13,000 at Sotheby's.

Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny featured in a pair of watercolour-on-silk doilies sold by Dominic Winter of South Cerney for £14,500 on June 21.

Each showing Peter Rabbit wrapped in a white-spotted red handkerchief, they were once part of a set of 12 silk doilies that BP gave to Charlie and Cecily Townley, the children of family friends who lived at Hardcragg Hall in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria. It was the Townley home and its piggery that inspired The Tale of Pigling Bland, a book that is dedicated to Charlie and Cecily.

In 1996 the vendor had paid £9500 for the watercolours at Christie's South Kensington, where the full set of 12 was sold as six pairs for a total of £52,000.

The most expensive BP book seen in recent times was an exceptionally well-preserved copy of the very first to include some of her illustrations, A Happy Pair  of 1890. These illustrations were originally Christmas and greeting card designs of anthropomorphised rabbits - based on her own pet, Bouncer - that she sold to the publishers Hildesheimer & Faulkner, but which were also issued in this small booklet, with the addition of verses by the Victorian songwriter Frederick Weatherly.

Of the copies seen at auction in the past 35 years, said the cataloguer of a copy offered by Sotheby's New York on June 15, "none has survived the injury of time in so unblemished a state". It did sell for a high-estimate $25,000 (£16,045), but some of those other copies made more and, in 1997, a less attractive example in the magnificent BP collection formed by Doris Frohnsdorrf reached $55,000 (then £33,550) at Christie's East.

In the Dominic Winter sale of June 21, a virtually mint copy of the rare deluxe issue of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck of 1908, complete with printed glassine wrapper and the best they had ever seen, was sold for £6800. Again we go back to the late 1990s to find the record holder - £10,000 at Sotheby's - but the sum paid for the South Cerney copy has not otherwise been bettered at auction.

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