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.