A small drawing of a group of very civilized rabbits tickled the art world by selling for over $500,000 in London recently.
Expected to sell for about $80,000 at Sotheby’s in London, the illustration, ”The Rabbits’ Christmas Party: The Departure” by Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, instead found several buyers willing to pay over four times the pre-sale estimate. In the end, the ink and watercolor drawing was sold to a British buyer for $578,700, the highest price ever paid for a book illustration at auction.
In the drawing, several rabbits are shown donning their coats, thanking their hosts and exchanging holiday kisses under a bunch of mistletoe hung from the rafters. It is the final scene of a story written and illustrated by Potter in about 1892.
Sotheby’s sold the drawing along with other Beatrix Potter original illustrations, unpublished Christmas cards and personal letters, which had belonged to her brother, Bertram Potter. In all, the collection brought in $1.5 million at Sotheby’s.
Before last week’s impressive Beatrix Potter auction, the highest price for her work was $55,000 for a small drawing sold at Bonhams in London back in 1997. Her market is clearly heating up, and as it grows, we are likely to see many more of her drawings come to auction.
The new buyers may include the Japanese, who have used her children’s books in schools for years to teach English. The Beatrix Potter fascination is so strong in Japan that, in 2006, a full-size replica of her house was built at a children’s zoo outside Tokyo.
Collecting original book illustrations is not everyone’s cup of tea, and there is a lingering snobbery about whether illustration is really ”art.” The debate will continue forever but the line between fine art and illustration art is slowly blurring.