Thursday, May 07, 2009

Wilmington Institute sells prints by N C Wyeth

Bad news.

The Wilmington Library plans to pay for a new roof, heating and air conditioning system and other repairs for its Rodney Square building by selling 14 illustrations N.C. Wyeth painted for the 1920 publication of "Robinson Crusoe."

The remarkably large collection of Wyeth originals is expected to bring about $5 million when it's auctioned piece by piece at Christie's in New York on Dec. 2.

"The paintings are among Wyeth's most famous book illustrations and their sale is significant in the world of collectors," said Eric Widing, an American painting specialist at Christie's.

It's rare that so many illustrations from one book -- there were 16 in all for "Robinson Crusoe" -- go to auction together, Widing said. That's likely to be seen by buyers as a momentous event, he said.

Also heading to the auction block in October is a rare, complete 20-volume set of Edward S. Curtis' books and photographs of the native peoples of North America and Alaska. It's expected to raise $700,000 to $900,000.

These items, particularly the Wyeth prints, belong here, not in some millionaire's collection in Saudi Arabia. No doubt it was the intent of the donor to assure them a safe home in the library--not to repair the roof!

I'm a librarian. I know what leaky roofs do in libraries. Air conditioning and heating problems are also quite familiar to me. But I wouldn't sell irreplaceable paintings to fix the roof. What will happen when the new roof needs a new roof, as it inevitably will? Will they sell the circulation desk?

A very similar incident took place in Paterson, NJ, a few years ago. The library had in its possession several priceless works by painters of the Hudson River School. These painters were very much in vogue at the time. They were sold, and some citizens brought a lawsuit, claiming that these paintings were a gift to the city of Paterson and were not really the property of the library. The suit was successful, the buyers returned the paintings, and the library had to re-pay the auction house for their lost commissions.

I'm not a lawyer, but I wonder whether the donor of the Wyeth illustrations intended the library to sell them for lunch money.


Anonymous said...

I am sure the board of trustees or whatever the governing body who's authorized to make this sort of decisions did look into various possibilities to find the money. I don't think the set of book illustrations is the most valueable possession in this library. Probably the least - and that's why it was chosen to pay for repairs.

In any case, it's not the library authorities to blame; rather look at the price of the construction, even as minimal as roof repairs. The tag can easy be in the millions range - if the library is required to use only union labor. Look at GM - unions' appetites were the reasons for Co demise.
And they don't even do a decent job.
It's a racket.
What poor clients are to do? they are ripped off - and have no choice. A sale of valuables is a logical step.

miriam said...

It seems to me that replacing roofs is a responsibility of the government body which owns the library building.

The Curtis books are also valuable, not to say irreplaceable.

I'd hate to see all this stuff moved to the collection of some tinpot foreign dictator.

Anonymous said...

Then you're mixing two different issues together.
If it's a public library, funded by local taxes, and their budget (from a city government) was cut, they have few choices - to fight for reinstatement of their funds (not gonna happen, in this economy), announce collection for repairs to their patrons, or cut their expenses. They chose to part with a few exhibits they probably keep in their storage anyway - nobody but few employees see it. It's their business.

A different issue altogether who is going to buy the items. As a seller, the library can put a disclaimer that they don't want to sell to foreign buyers (which I think is unfair; I'm for free flow of capital and global commerce) - but they have a right to do so. If they didn't, maybe their patrons, the taxpayers who fund them, should suggest the condition to them.

miriam said...

It's not that simple. The city owns the building, but it is not a municipal library, it is funded by an endowment.

The library uses the building rent free. To me, this is a gift to the municipality, which does not pay for the building's maintenance.

The prints have been on permanent exhibit in a public area of the library. I have often seen them.

Howard Pyle and all the Wyeth family have deep roots in this area and are a part of its history.Without this history, the Brandywine River Valley might as well be Passaic, NJ.

miriam said...

To clarify my previous remarks: the library I last directed spent over a million dollars a year for such things as salaries, benefits, books and periodicals, heat, electricity, computers and databases. That's not a lot, but my understanding is that the Wilmington Institute provides all these things free of cost to the community. The online catalog is, I believe, paid for by the state, but I don't know for sure. Thank God I don't have to oversee their finances, after 25 fun-filled years being hassled by politicians.

It would be nice if the town took care of the roof and HVAC costs, because it's a terrific library.