Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax, Pen & Ink, Sold $213,300, Skinner, Nov. 16, 2008
Last week I had a discussion with another art person about why understanding the history and availability of an item or item is important to market value. This led us into a deep debate about whether or not value is determined by more than past sales figures. As an appraiser, I know that it is, and, hoping that person will read this article I am going to illustrate the point.

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was born in Brighton England in 1872 but his family moved to London in 1883. After several different jobs including a stint in an architect’s office and with an insurance company, Beardsley settled on art as his profession on the advice of Sir Burne-Jones. In 1892 he attended the Westminster School of Art.

Eventually, Beardsley became a caricaturist, an illustrator, and most importantly a provocateur. He was, by far, the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau period—often depicting dark subjects and the grotesque. But today, it is the work he completed while working with Oscar Wilde on his play Salome that has captured the art world’s attention.

An appraiser near Boston was conducting a routine inspection of an older client’s items when he walked into the bathroom and spotted two of Beardsley’s original drawings over the vanity. The drawings, entitled The Platonic Lament and The Climax are part of only 13 illustrations Beardsley completed for the Oscar Wilde play. Incredibly, the client inherited the works from his grandfather forty years ago and had no idea of their importance. Nine of the pieces are held by the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the whereabouts of these two pieces had been unknown for more than eighty years.

The Climax (pictured) was auctioned for $213,300 (a world record for Beardsley’s work) and The Platonic Lament auctioned for $142,200. Collectors realized that this was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire two of the final three pieces of the suite created for Salome. Certainly it was not just those interested in collecting Beardsley’s works that were interested in purchasing the pieces. There are also those who collect items related to Oscar Wilde or to Wilde’s plays that were likely interested in the illustrations as well.

Some credit must also be paid to the astute appraiser who recognized the significance of the pieces when he saw them. What if the client had simply had an “estate sale” conducted by someone who was not familiar with Beardsley. Those pieces might have sold for a fraction of what they were worth or they may have never been discovered at all.

For those of you who are counting, there is still one missing illustration. It is entitled Enter Herodias and if it is found it could possibly break the record set in November.

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