Collecting Beatrix Potter memorabilia
With Bloomsbury’s landmark auction of the Beatrix Potter collection of Mark Ottignon coming up this week, here at Wikicollecting we got thinking about the timeless appeal of Potter’s characters to children and collectors alike.
As a child, Beatrix collected animals: rabbits, mice, hedgehogs, bats, butterflies and others. She began to draw her little friends, observing them closely and getting better and better at capturing their forms and characteristics. She printed Christmas cards featuring her artwork, and began selling her drawings to publishing firms. Beatrix fell in love with the mountains and lakes of the Lake District during family holidays there in the summer. These became the backdrop for her books, as well as her own life.
In 1893, Potter was writing a letter to the child of her former governess Annie Carter Moore. She devised a story for young Noel, with pictures, about four little rabbits. It was this that formed the basis for her first children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She published this privately for friends and family in 1901, and later that year it was accepted by Frederick Warne & Co.
The rest is history. Potter went on to write a total of 23 books for children, beloved by generations across the world for over a century.
She was also a canny businesswoman. She made and patented a Peter Rabbit doll as early as 1903, followed by much other merchandise including painting books, board games, wall-paper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea sets.
Potter collector Mark Ottignon points out that Beatrix was ‘one of the first authors to see the potential of merchandising a popular character’. This entrepreneurial spirit was pivotal to the collecting culture that arose around Potter’s works, and is still going strong today.
Types of Beatrix Potter memorabilia
Potter was known first and foremost as an illustrator. She was drawing and selling illustrations of animals before she even conceived of writing a book. Original artwork Beatrix produced for existing literature, as well as for her own stories, can often fetch as much as first editions of her books. The original illustrations to ‘The Pig Went to Market’ nursery rhyme, circa 1890, sold for $85,000 at Bloomsbury Auctions in 2007. A watercolour drawing for The Rabbits’ Christmas Party sold for £289,250 at Sotheby’s in 2008.
Potter became a keen natural scientist during her studies under governesses. She was later one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. She drew and painted lichens to illustrate her conjecture, and became respected as an expert mycologist. Her natural science drawings are now also very valuable. A watercolour botanical study of the purple sowbread cyclamen and the dark-red helleborine sold for £10,200 at Bloomsbury in 2009.
As with any beloved author, first editions of Beatrix Potter’s books are extremely sought after by collectors.
Privately printed copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit from 1901 are the rarest and most valuable. Potter printed 250 copies privately initially, circulating them amongst friends and family, before publishing company Frederick Warne & Co accepted the work. A year later, there were 56,470 copies in print. One of the ‘true’ first editions from the first private printing sold for $95,600 at Christie’s in 2004.
A first edition copy of The Rabbits’ Christmas Party exceeded this price, selling for £121,250 at Sotheby’s in 2008.
First editions of other works by Potter, such as The Tailor of Gloucester and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, can be found at auction for considerably less – just a few hundred or thousand.
Other sought-after Potter books can include foreign language editions and centenary editions.
Figurines of Potter’s characters, such as Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck have been produced since around the 1940s, and continue to be manufactured today.
Some of the most popular are the china Beswick and Royal Albert figurines. The highest prices at auction usually go to the figurines produced before 1980, which can fetch into the thousands.
Some early figures were made of papier-mache and lacquered, a selection of these making an appearance at the Bloomsbury auction of the Mark Ottingen collection.
Just like the figurines, lamps based on Potter’s characters are popular collector’s items. Lamps are generally either white with a Potter illustration and a quote for a story painted on, or they are in the shape of one of the characters or of a scene. Some have lampshades to match. They fetch up to $100 at auction, but can be found on eBay and from other sources for considerably less.
Other merchandise based on Potter’s timeless stories includes but is not limited to:
- Steiff toys
- Board games
- Character bubble bath
China tea sets
Related to Potter herself
Some collectors are as much taken with details of the author as with the fruits of her creativity. High auction prices are consistently achieved for the letters, photographs, and possessions of Potter.
Letters from Potter have fetched several thousand at auction, especially when they include some literary context related to her books.
Last year, a recipe book filled with handwritten recipes, handed down from Potter’s mother in law, sold for £700 at a Mullocks auction.
Potter kept a diary from age 15-30 in her own secret code, not decrypted until decades after her death. This would be a dream for any Potter collector, but it is currently ensconced in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The Victoria and Albert Museum holds the world’s largest collection of Beatrix Potter drawings, literary manuscripts, correspondence, photographs and other items. The foundation of this collection was the legacy of Leslie Linder, a passionate Potter collector and the individual who broke the code of Potter’s diary. The most significant item in the collection is the letter written by Potter to five year old Noel Moore in 1893, the first telling of the Peter Rabbit story.
Whether you are a burgeoning or a seasoned collector, the auction of the Mark Ottingen collection at Bloomsbury on February 27 presents a rare opportunity to bid on some fascinating items of Beatrix Potter memorabilia, encompassing all of the aforementioned areas of collectible. Visit http://bloomsburyauctions.com for more information and to view the auction catalogue.
All images in this article are lots offered in the Bloomsbury auction of the Mark Ottingen collection on February 27, 2013.