Saturday, December 13, 2014

Recent auction purchases

Two auction lots, still in cardboard flats.
I buy a lot of stuff at auctions. Well, to tell the truth, I try to do my best to buy wisely: I really don’t want to fill the house up with junk just because it’s cheap. But antique auctions and eBay are two of my favorite places to buy, and it strikes me that, in some ways, they couldn’t be more different.

When you go to a real, old fashioned antique auction, you never know what will be there to buy. Some antique auctions, of course, now produce detailed catalogues or on-line listings, in which case you know exactly what you’ll find, but I prefer the sort of auction where you can discover something you never expected to find or even to see. Where you end up buying something you didn’t even know you wanted until you saw it. On eBay, by contrast, you can usually only find what you are looking for: you put search terms into the eBay search engine, and only those things that match your search terms usually show up. 

Despite the differences, though, I had a remarkable experience this week in which I bought two things that are, in many ways remarkably similar, and both were things I found by not looking for them. The first I found on eBay by searching through all the auction listings that include the word “manuscript” in the title. 

Usually there’s close to a thousand such things, including stamps with manuscript cancellations, medieval manuscripts and fragments, and just about everything in between. But when I found the eBay listing for this manuscript of Lord Dunsany’s one-act play, The Compromise of the King of the Golden Isles, I couldn’t resist it.

The pages are all one-sided, and they were formerly glued together on the left hand side. Now they've mostly separated, and the glue has stained the pages. 

This is not, of course, an authorial manuscript, but rather a kind of work of art, a hand-lettered manuscript of the entire play, accompanied by a number of full-page gouache-and ink paintings or illustrations.

The play dates from the 1920s; I think this manuscript must date from the 1930s, based on its art deco style. The artist signs her name Louise Womack; my Google searches haven’t been able to identify her. I especially like the illustration, "The gods are asleep," but "The king's questioners" and "assistant priest" are also striking.

My second purchase was at an antique auction in Ohio I often go to with my folks. On the day of the preview, I saw these two stacks of paintings in cardboard “flats,” (as shown at the top of the post) and I thought I’d like to get them if they weren’t too pricey. It turned out I got them for five bucks a box, which I was pretty happy about. When I got them home, where I could take the time to get a closer look at them, I saw that they were a college student’s (possibly a graduate student’s) semester portfolio of sixty paintings of historical costumes, probably the final project for a class in costume design for dramatic productions. 

Late Medieval

Each painting is on onion-skin, now somewhat wrinkled, usually mounted to a card, and with a typed or hand-written notation about the published source from which the picture is derived. 

Medieval Peasant Woman
Some class notes taken by the student are dated January 1950, giving a clear indication of these paintings’ age. But I was especially interested to find as many pictures of medieval costumes as I did.

In fact, some of the medieval pictures were distinctly familiar to me: though I don't know what original source might lie behind the romanticized picture of the medieval peasant woman, I am pretty sure I recognize this Anglo-Saxon monarch, and however many intermediaries there are, the painting still resembles its Anglo-Saxon manuscript original to a surprising degree. Those colors, though!
Anglo-Saxon Monarch

These costume paintings are not high-quality original art, but they are still impressive in their own way, especially when you see all sixty pieces together, and think that they were student work.

In the end, I like the one-of-a-kindness of these things, and the hand-work and care that always goes into a piece of art or a manuscript.

And, it seems to me, finding things like this is itself an important thing to do, or to allow oneself to do: it's a great experience to find something no one else knows about, to come to a feeling of appreciation for it, to share it--or try to--with others. 

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