A maudlin Sotheby’s sale in London yesterday offered not so much as a hiccup of interest in the inscribed Yeats or Auden volumes but there was some unexpected entertainment for those who managed to stick it out to the very end. The last lots included ‘The Rabbit’s Christmas Party’, a series of three recently discovered watercolour drawings by Beatrix Potter. Aside from the usual crowd of holidaying Americans and bored London dealers, some might have been surprised to see at the very back of the room a young girl with golden hair, not unlike Potter’s ‘Lucy’, but dressed in an aquamarine hoodie and lime green wellington boots instead of a smock and kerchief.
The first watercolour in the series, which shows rabbits arriving at a party in a formation that has been compared to Renoir’s Les Parapluies, had a high estimate of £60,000. Despite using her paddle more like a Regency fan to hide behind than a tool to bat down other bidders, the unknown girl saw out several other parties and beat the price up to £100,000 before deciding to withdraw. Bidding in the room was fierce for the second image ‘Dancing to a Piper’ which details debauchery almost unparalleled in any published Potter text, which I dare not reproduce here for fear of offending the internet watchdog.
No doubt many assumed that ‘Lucy’ was miffed, but she entered the fray again with the third print in the series, ‘The Departure’(which featured on the catalogue cover, above). Astutely allowing several dealers in the room to reach the limits of their pockets, she waited until the lot seemed sure to go to a persistent telephone buyer before bidding £101,000 to a general gasp of surprise. With great tenacity and courage, she continued up to £200,000. The pauses to touch base with reality (and a party of relatives) between bids grew longer and the auctioneer Tessa Milne appealed for patience. Finally, the telephone bidder realised he was no match for his opponent: she secured the drawing at a hammer price of £240,000 (£200,000 more than Potter drawings tend to fetch - and said to be the most expensive illustration ever bought at auction) and received an ovation from the room.