This is a story about art and money, and when they collide.
About five years ago, I just happened to be down and out careerwise. My chemist career had stalled out and I was working at an auto parts store. Yes, I know, but work is work. A lot of people can relate in today’s economic climate. Well, I then quit my job, yes, quit. It was due to unbearable working conditions. Male dominant, undereducated co-workers and boss, who though my vibrator should be a general topic of conversation whenever I was around them. I was out of there, but not after much grief.
So, bummed and out of work, I filed for unemployment benefits to make it to the next great job. Sure, it is just around the corner in this small southern town that doesn’t know what a chemist does, anyway.
I went shopping at a local Church Charity Thrift Store, burning some time before an interview. When I spot a find. You know what I mean, the reason we all shop the thrifts, the diamond in the rough. It doesn’t look like much, but I knew what it was. It was an original pencil drawing. Original art work. The frame had a funky pink whitewash sort of coating, and it was dusty. The glass was dirty, and you could see the tell-tale iron spots just starting to come through the paper from the non-acid free backing.
The subject material was odd for me, it was a mountain stream scene with a boy fly-fishing in the stream. With the old-timey leather, tackle bag sitting in the shallow water next to the boy. Off in the distance was a large mountain, and glorious tall pine trees. The artist was unique in the technique of small artsy curly-cue sort of drawing, but extremely well done. I recognized it right away as art. Beyond the unkempt appearance, this was worth something for sure. I paid two dollars for it. Yes, I know, ridiculous, but really no one knew it was worth anything. I bought some more stuff just because I felt guilty about getting it so cheap from a Church Charity Thrift. Then I skipped away, whistling. My luck is looking up, I said.
There was a cut out piece of a cardboard box on the back of the pink frame, the source of the acid slowing trying to mess up this piece of art. On the back was a bunch of writing. I mean a bunch. At the top names and dates, painted by, for, and the date. 1962. Great big letters, like all across the whole cardboard backing. Then more, Given to, more names, and another date, and when we are done with it. 1985.
Provenence. That is what the Antiques Roadshow calls it. Proof of what it is, or whose it was, or who did it.
Legacy for art. This painting meant something to some people. What was it doing in that store I wondered. Did someone pass away, and there was no one left? There is usually someone left for the important stuff, anyway. So I started thinking and working.
I carefully disassembled the work. I took the frame and sanded down to the gorgeous plain-aged oak. Then hung oiled it several times and buffed it to a burnt almond patina. I called the only art frame gallery in town and asked about the cost of acid free framing. I took it in, we selected a dark charcoal matte, and she quoted me fifty dollars to frame it, with the oak frame. It was a lot, and I would not have done it for anything else, but this drawing was really something to look at. Age just does something to art. You can see the years in the paper, and the pencil and ink marks. The more I looked at it, the more fascinated I became. I would peer through a magnifying glass to see details in the technique. It appeared to be very meticulously done. Like it took a long time to make this drawing. Love went into this art.
Days later, I went to pick it up on my way to the unemployment office for my interview. Unbelievable what the rich aged oak and the charcoal did for the subtle hues of the paper. The minute oxide speckles on the paper and the subject of the boy in the creek, with his overalls rolled up, and the light filtering through those 100-foot pines. The swirls and eddies in the water almost looked animated, like cartoon letters and numbers licking the fisherman’s ankles. Wow, it was worth the fifty bucks.
I carefully put it in the back of my minivan, and proceeded to my appointment. These appointments are not much to look forward to. Just a formality, trying to find opportunities in a small town is often discouraging, but I knew something would come up, maybe the city water department would need a chemist. Look on the bright side.
As I sat in the cubicle with the caseworker, it is a lot like welfare, so I will stick with that. I was just gazing around and I just happened to notice the next cubicle was seated a shortest, fortyish caseworker, with black/silver hair and a well-manicured goatee. Printed on a brass cubicle slot was his name …
You know it was the last name on the back of the drawing cardboard. Yep it was. My heart started beating fast, not knowing what to do. His mother, I presumed by the same last name, (which she misspelled by the way, very odd I thought), presented to her in 1962, and then promised to him twenty-three years later, “when we are done with it,” obviously a will in effect on the back of the piece, dated 1985. Here it was 2005, twenty years later. Here I was sitting there with this man’s drawing in the back of my minivan.
So of course I always think well on my feet, I asked the caseworker if he knew the man very well, and he said, “Oh yes, that is Mr. … his family owned the cement factory in town for years and years. I asked if he knew if he was a fly-fishing enthusiast, and he chimed in, “Oh yes, he is an avid fly fisherman, his screen saver is even of fly fishing.” Well, then I just jumped right in. That look before you leap never meant a lot, because obviously you are always looking anyway, right?
“I just happened to purchase a pencil and ink drawing of a boy fly-fishing, and it has his name written on the back of it, do you think he would be interested in taking a look at it?”
“Oh, my yes, that is amazing, let me introduce you.”
So we now get up, the dye is cast, no turning back now, I am leaping, and I really was not looking at all. I am scurrying to my minivan, excited like I won the lottery or something, like I have found his lost child or something.
So, I get back inside, with the treasure. So handsomely glistening in its pristine package. Elegant looking really, compared to that pink debacle it was in before. And I show it to him …
Part 1 | (Part 2)