Pre-owned and priceless

Some museum curators travel the globe to acquire items of significance.  A more budget-friendly strategy:  pick up the phone and graciously accept when, out of the blue, a caller offers to donate and deliver something exceptional.  Actually, that’s the only approach if your institution operates on almost no budget with a part-time staff of one.

That’s my mom.  The artifact just acquired by the Fannin County Museum of History: a custom hand-tooled saddle that belonged to famed cowboy photographer Erwin E. Smith, she reported last week.  (FCM, incidentally, honors another local boy– electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian.)

The donation sounded beautiful and impressive, but I did wonder if a photograph or something documented its belonging to Smith.  Should I ask about provenance? I worried—just as Mom’s excited description continued with “…and along the edge, Mr. Smith’s name embossed in big letters.”  Provenance—check!

For our Antiques Roadshow-viewing household, ownership history creates the most rewarding moments: handwritten notes evidencing humor or kindness, furniture fakes attesting to trusting natures, photographs demonstrating how far back in time a necklace was worn—or how proudly a uniform was displayed in the subject’s last portrait in this life.

With some discoveries come jaw-dropping insurance valuations that prove how documentation translates into dollars.  No wonder readers seeking books about art and museum treasures so often find them cataloged with the terms “forgeries” or “theft”.

And what were the odds that I’d discover two books with “heist” in the title side by side on the Large Print shelf?  Molly Caldwell Crosby’s The Great Pearl Heist (one reviewer called it “a gem”) is a true-crime delight, recounting the 1913 theft in London of a strand of perfectly matched pink pearls valued at “twice the price of the Hope Diamond.”  (Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, stolen in 1911, was returned to the Louvre that same year.)   Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist addresses the $500 million dollar theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (“one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries”) that included Rembrandt’s only seascape.

In contrast to these nonfiction accounts of thieves fully cognizant of their targets’ provenance, the library’s New Fiction shelf offers Sonya Cobb’s The Objects of Her Affection, imagining a museum curator’s wife in need of some quick cash to fend off mortgage foreclosure.  Spying a cart of miscellaneous museum donations unguarded (thus, she thinks, of no particular value) she guesses that a couple of them wouldn’t be missed…

Susan Vreeland’s new Lisette’s List portrays a small art collection lovingly displayed in a humble French home, affording their owner comfort and inspiration but attracting covetous attention from occupying German forces.    Viewed alternately as trophies for Hitler and family heirlooms, the paintings act as great characters do–inspiring schemes, radiating hope, embodying unique viewpoints.

Historical fiction fans and readers who savored the artistic insights in Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will love this novel.  The story attests to the life-affirming power of art, and, with Vreeland’s name on it, carries a solid provenance.

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