In this post, Christine von der Linn, Director of the Illustration Art department at Swann Auction Galleries, shares insights into the current state of the Gorey auction market, including key factors on how to examine and evaluate his original artwork. As a specialist of rare books and illustration for over twenty-five years, Christine has handled numerous private collections of Gorey material in her auctions. She is a regular contributor to various media outlets and has written, lectured, and hosted talks on the history and collecting of rare books and art. To learn more about Swann Galleries please visit https://www.swanngalleries.com
Edward Gorey is having a moment. Gorey has had many of these over the years—he was the quintessential multifaceted artist/illustrator/author who remains many things to many people: a master of sinister stories yet a tender messenger of human tales; a brilliant, quirky playwright and producer of stage works, a puppeteer, a devoted ballet fan, and a prolific graphic designer. He could draw, sew, etch, and craft most anything: Martha Stewart has nothing on Edward Gorey. Recently, more of his books, ephemera, and artwork have hit the market and collectors are fired up.
Almost Apotheotic: A Scholarly Fan Base Like No Other
A few things have prompted this recent uptick in interest in Gorey. Much of this can be credited to the ongoing efforts and outreach of Edward Gorey House, the artist’s home in Cape Cod which serves as a museum and puts on fascinating exhibitions of his work and personal possessions.
Then there’s the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, which owns the copyrights to all the artist’s works and manages the estate, art, and archives. It recently expanded and is beginning to open its vaults and virtual doors to researchers. The Trust also ensures that funds go to support the animal welfare causes that Gorey championed.
Works by Edward Gorey. From left to right: Gorey Stories, illustration for exhibition poster for Gorey Stories: Books & Drawings by Edward Gorey, pen, ink, graphite and correction fluid on board, 1984. Sold December 2019 for $12,500; and Suppiluliumus dozes while the family finished decorating the fireplace, pen, ink. graphite and watercolor. Sold December 2019 for $7,000.
Media coverage blossomed again with the bestselling 2018 biography by Mark Dery, Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, which touched on his childhood, his extraordinary output and collaborations.
Online resources and social media fan pages are available as well. Hands down, the most informative, in-depth, and often witty examinations of Gorey’s oeuvre are found at Goreyana, the blog created by Irwin Terry. His posts, mainly focused on items in his vast collection, provide a greater understanding of Gorey’s works and are a must for those wishing to expand their aesthetic, historical, and technical appreciation of the illustrator and his work.
Gorey’s fans are passionate and love him with deep devotion. The common thread among them is an admiration of his droll wit and irresistible characters like Figbash, Mr. Earbrass, the Doubtful Guest, his dashing Flappers and hapless children. There is even the annual “Edwardian Ball” whose guests – many of whom sport tattoos of Gorey figures peeking from the flesh under their goth gowns—call him their “Patron Saint.” Most recently, “Gorey 849,” a 2021 Halloween Ball honored Gorey’s legacy with much pomp and live performances. And now fans can soon enjoy his work on the screen. Currently underway are a movie adaptation of The Doubtful Guest, a series produced by AMC based on Neglected Murderesses, and a feature-length documentary with live footage from his last years.
Gorey’s Worlds — Edward Gorey’s Influences
What about Gorey’s own tastes? He bequeathed his personal collection—what he loved, collected, and was influenced by—to The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. Their brilliant 2018 exhibition Gorey’s Worlds blew up the idea that it was only English art, Victoriana, and the macabre that piqued his wild mind.
It was French art and photography (Manet! Atget!), Japanese Ukiyo-e, modern, and contemporary art, like Balthus and Burchfield, that grabbed him. Of course, American folk art, animal studies, Surrealist works, and objects—in fact, lots of quirky objects and ephemera—also graced the rooms, contextualizing the full breadth of his 50-year output.
The Wadsworth Atheneum purchased Haunted America from Swann in 2015 which was included in Gorey’s Worlds alongside the artist’s own exhibited works. Through exploring these inroads both the dedicated collector and curious enthusiast alike can gain a strong sense of Gorey’s vast oeuvre.
The “Gorey” Details — What to Look for When Buying an Original Edward Gorey Artwork
So what do Gorey collectors look for when buying his original artwork? They seek examples of his most iconic imagery which, given his disparate subjects and interests, is a wide field. The highest prices achieved tend to be for anything relating to his most successful commercial work.
Topping that list is the macabre imagery of Dracula! Or Mystery! with its bats, cemeteries, and femmes fatales. Supporting that observation is the December 2021 sale result for The Dark Beasts (see image above), which currently holds the market record for Gorey. His fierce claw and teeth-bearing creatures were designed to slither across the covers of this second collection of Frank Belknap Long’s sci-fi Cthulhu Mythos tales. It serves as a particularly fascinating example of how one can appreciate original illustrations compared to their final printed version. Gorey’s detailed lines and rich ink work against the clean, white paper of his original was somewhat obscured when surrounded by a fiery burnt orange background and copious text of an equally slithery, white typeface on the published book.
Gorey’s involvement with the stage produced some of his most beautiful and lively works. The previous record-holder reflects the competition for Gorey’s coveted ballet and theater images.
And, without a doubt, collectors love anything relating to Gorey’s love of cats. He thought of his feline companions as family and kindred spirits; they served as artistic inspiration and appeared in his artwork with great frequency.
In addition to those themes, the more detailed the image, the more desirable and valuable it tends to be. One of Gorey’s hallmarks is the exquisite intricacy and meticulousness of his ink work: the wallpaper and fabric patterns, the shadow effects, the decoration. He loved tight composition and the miniature, which he peppered with dashes of trompe l’oeil.
Colored works are also uncommon. Gorey confessed that he never felt entirely comfortable applying color and preferred pops of bright, sometimes startling pigments that served as their own bold statement. These were often set off by muted hues to exaggerate the juxtaposition.
This trifecta of cats, fancy inkwork, and color play united in the original cover art created circa 1993 for The New Yorker. It was hidden for decades in the magazine’s archives, rediscovered, and finally published December 10, 2018, prompted by the acclaim of Dery’s book and once again evincing Gorey’s cyclical revivals.
Works by Edward Gorey. From left to right: ABA 75, cover illustration for the May 19, 1975 edition of Publisher’s Weekly, watercolor and ink, 1975. Sold June 2018 for $12,500; Signals, Drawing #6, a proposed but unfinished work intended for the set of limited-edition prints published by Signals Limited, ink, watercolor, graphite and wash, 1995. Sold December 2021 for $21,250.
Because he was so sure-handed, it is always fascinating to see Gorey’s edits. Several artworks reveal pencil sketching around the inked image, correction fluid, or occasionally, an actual paste-over with a redrawn detail as shown in this Publisher’s Weekly cover artwork: where you can see the patch to the plaid trousers of the man on the far right. Beneath the flap was an originally inked and anatomically awkward kneecap that Gorey could not accept.
One project he abandoned altogether was the proposed but unfinished work intended for the set of limited-edition prints published by Signals Limited, 1995. Within this unusually large drawing, Gorey inked several areas of intricate patterns over which he added watercolor to create an obscured effect. He even created a small grid in the lower margin to work out his design, something I’d never encountered in his originals. But some sections of the drawing bled, forcing him to re-work or collage over them. Some parts he didn’t even bother to finish.
These discoveries are always wondrous for cataloguers and help us understand his process and perfectionism.
Edward Gorey’s Enduring Popularity
Ultimately, what would Gorey think of his enduring popularity, his status as an icon of illustration? He would likely be flattered if a bit puzzled. His fan base was already growing steadily by the 1980s. To assuage his guilt at not being able to answer the growing influx of fan mail, he created a response postcard which he had printed, would hand sign within its fancy banner, and mail back. It, too, contained his favorite tropes: a languid cat sitting upon a Japanese urn of letters overflowing onto a patterned carpet, both camouflaged by the elaborate wallpaper and drapery (with tassels of course!). A voice bubble above the cat delivers the contrite-yet-candid message: “You’ve written me to no avail, Because I never read my mail.”
Edward Gorey’s celebrity, so much like his beloved character the Doubtful Guest, who also first appeared standing atop an urn one day, “has shown no intention of going away.”