Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One of the Paths That Have Made Themselves

One of the Paths That Have Made Themselves, Arthur Rackham, 1912

I drive down I-40, a route I’ve been on thousands of times without incident or concern, but this time, I’m hunched over the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip, eyes darting side to side. In a pitiful whimpery voice, I mutter, “Don’t hit me, please don’t hit me,” as reckless drivers careen past me on both sides. Ever since the kids were born, I’ve been a nervous driver, but this day I am quite beside myself. The culprit is in the very back, lying innocently on top of its frame and glass, a piece of paper with ink on it.

The drawing hung in my childhood bedroom in Manhattan for forty years. It’s a park scene with soaring trees and children playing with hoops on a rutted path. I never much cared for it, being sort of faded and dark and I always thought the children looked the slightest bit ghoulish. I would have left it in my father’s apartment when he passed away, except that my ex was determined that we take everything, since my father had left his wife the apartment and me the contents. The painting was unceremoniously shoved in a box and hauled south to North Carolina.

I spent the next ten years going through Dad’s things, which included crumpled scraps of paper, scattered Q-tips and folded envelopes containing ancient seashells. All his furniture, books and bits of bric-a-brac had to be sorted, given away or sold. It was a monumental task. The drawing, among other things, was temporarily stored in the barn, a sturdy, if somewhat dilapidated structure, with paintless, weathered siding, along with the rest of my father’s wall art, including a signed photograph of actress Ava Gardner and a wall hanging we acquired on a trip to Egypt in the 1970s.

When I finally finished renovating the old farmhouse, I brought the box of framed art into the house. It was a little dusty, but all my father’s things were dusty, having survived the smoke and ash fall after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When I started going through them, I immediately took two prints to the thrift shop. They were dark and not my style. I picked up the pen and ink drawing to put in the same pile, but at the last minute, I noticed two faded cards carefully taped to the back. I noticed they were from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and had an official look to them. Resigned to having to deal with this further, I put the drawing back in the box and forgot about it for months.

In a flurry of get-rid-of-clutter activity, I ran across the drawing again some months later. A closer look at the cards on the back revealed the name of the artist, Arthur Rackham. Wikipedia gave me an increased appreciation for the drawing, since Rackham famously illustrated many beautiful children’s books, most notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  I took a look on eBay and found prints selling for a couple hundred dollars. This one would not be bound for the thrift store, but I didn’t have time to put it up on eBay either. I plopped it back in the box again, where it sat unheeded for another few months.

In the next clutter-clearing episode, I contacted a friend who I knew collected antiques and he suggested I call a dealer friend, a man named George McNeill. I found George delightfully friendly and chatty and when I mentioned the drawing to him, he insisted I must take it out of the frame and mat to see if it had a signature. Because of the cards on the back, he suspected it might be a valuable piece of art, but without a signature, it was worthless. With trembling hands, I carefully cut away the brown paper, which had protected the drawing since 1939, the date on the cards. I tucked the cards into an envelope and gingerly pulled the drawing away from the mat. There, concealed for seventy years under the mat board, penned inside an inked scroll it read, “Rackham 1912.”

I gasped. This was no print. This was an original pen and ink drawing by the most famous and well-regarded illustrator of the twentieth century. I burst into tears. My father, the absent-minded and pre-occupied physician, had no idea what this drawing was or what it was worth. It had been a gift from a wealthy patient; something he dutifully hung on the wall and paid various housekeepers to dust, while he went about the business of saving people’s lives.

Further research showed the little drawing, just 9 X 12 inches without the mat and frame, to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to twenty thousand dollars. Panicked, I wrapped the drawing in acid-free watercolor paper and tucked it carefully into a large portfolio case I bought for storing old pictures. I put the envelope with the cards in next to it, zipped it up and leaned it against the wall in my office where it glowered at me unhappily. I sent off to Christie’s and Sotheby’s for auction estimates and tried to forget about it.

About a week later, I was lying in bed listening to a dramatic spring rain pelt the roof. The wind was screaming and the rain seemed hurled from buckets, splashing the windows like something out of an old movie set, stagehands flinging bucketful’s of water from the wings. Out of this din, another sound emerged, an irregular tapping sound. Alone in the house, it was up to me to discover the source of this sound. Shivering and afraid, I crept into the hall and discovered the sound coming from my son’s bedroom. Turning on every light I could, I saw the culprit as soon as I got into his room.

The roof was leaking in two places, wet puddles on the floor and a bookshelf. In the next room, practically unprotected with its zipper exposed to the ceiling, lay the drawing. I whirled away from the widening puddles, snatched up the portfolio case and removed it to the safest part of the house, behind the bathroom door, our safe place in case of tornado or hurricane. I grabbed a flannel-backed vinyl tablecloth from a kitchen drawer and draped it carefully over the portfolio case, folding several layers to cover the exposed zipper completely. No roof leak would mess with my treasure now.

Another week went by and I had somehow managed to forget the drawing when I was again awakened by a sound in the middle of the night. It was not the roof leaking; it was not even raining. It sounded like someone was rolling golf balls on my wood floors: Roll, roll, roll, stop. Roll, roll, roll, roll, stop. Silence. I tried to go back to sleep. A minute later, a soft banging sound and scratching came from right behind my head. Two thoughts came instantly into my head at once. First, the sound was from mice. Second, the sound was coming from the exact spot where the painting was propped against the wall in the bathroom in the portfolio case, which was full of paper, the perfect material for mice to chew into nesting material.

I shot out of bed as if propelled by a rocket, yanked the portfolio case away from the wall and found a pecan behind it. The little bastard had lifted the round shelled nut from a bowl in the living room, rolled it down the hall and was trying to get it into the gap between the drywall and the flooring. Burning with fury, I relocated the portfolio case, making sure the tablecloth was fully covering it and re-baited three mousetraps. I set one next to the pecan, one under my dresser, a favorite spot of mice in the past, and one in the kitchen. Heart pounding, I went back to bed. I had barely shut my eyes when I heard the first satisfying snap behind my head. With relief, I rolled over. Another snap came a minute later, under my dresser. I waited for the third, but it never came. Once my heart stopped pounding, I slept easier.

Two weeks went by when I was returning from a business trip to Charlotte, listening to the radio. I was about forty miles from home when the broadcast was interrupted by the emergency broadcast tones. It had been threatening to rain for the past hour, the sky ahead heavy with that ominous purple cast indicating the possibility of severe thunderstorms. The emergency announcement was for severe thunderstorms as well as possible tornadoes. Fear settled into my gut. My great grandfather had built my house after his previous home had been picked up and dashed to splinters by a tornado in 1884. His infant son died from injuries sustained during the storm. I was scared of tornadoes.

The painting was still in the bathroom, but it was not in the very safest place, the toilet room, because I was worried about moisture. Never mind that the thing was completely mummified by my protective efforts, I was nervous. As I drove into increasingly heavy rain and wind, the radio announcer abandoned the regular programming and gave his full attention to the storm, which had apparently begun to turn “cyclonic” (this turned my blood cold) and was forming up near Fuquay-Varina, a town just twenty miles west of my house. Naturally, the storm was headed east, with my house right in the path.

I slowed to a crawl in the torrential rain, grabbed my phone and called Eric to make sure he knew about the tornado watch. My first thought was for him and the neighbors with the toddler who lived in the trailer next door. I made sure they knew to come over and take shelter in the toilet room. Having survived Hurricane Fran, I suggested they fill some containers with water in case of long-term power outage. I tried not to think about the drawing, but all I could see were images of the house in a heap of timbers like a child’s game of pic-up-stix, the drawing sodden and ruined beneath it all.

The storm downed some trees and did some damage on the east side of Fuquay, but didn’t even cause a strong wind at my house. I felt as if I had dodged another bullet. I couldn’t wait to get that drawing out of the house. The auction estimate had come in from Sotheby’s confirming the value at between fifteen and twenty-five thousand. I inquired about commissions and fees, but never heard back. In another burst of clutter clearing, I called George McNeill about another item and mentioned to him about the drawing. Delighted, he crowed his glee at my good fortune and suggested I call his colleague Leland Little, owner of a well-regarded local auction company.

I sent Claire, Leland’s fine art person, an email with photos of the drawing, its dimensions and provenance, as requested. Less than twenty-four hours later, I received an enthusiastic phone call.

“We would love to include your drawing in our June sale,” she informed me.

“What about your commission?” I asked her with some skepticism.

“We charge a flat twenty percent.”

“That’s it?” George had warned me about Sotheby’s and Christie’s, how they would not only charge a hefty commission, but would also tack on fees for things like appraisals and insurance.

“Yup,” Claire said, “just a flat twenty percent.”

As I pondered this, she said, “The only thing is, in order for us to get into the June sale, we’d need to have it here by Friday.” It was Wednesday.

As luck would have it, I was traveling to Chapel Hill that very afternoon, within spitting distance of Leland Little Auction Company in Hillsborough. I told Claire I would think about it, hung up and called Eric and my mother.

They both agreed that since I had not heard a peep from Christie’s or gotten a response from Sotheby’s about commissions it seemed like serendipity to let Mr. Little handle the sale. Even better, I could get it out of my house and safely into the hands of those who would take care of it. This is how I found myself on I-40, driving like a nervous old woman. I told the kids at least five times not to throw anything in the back of the car, where the drawing lay relatively unprotected in a cardboard portfolio I’d repurposed for transport. They shrugged and went back to quietly reading. It wasn’t as if they were bored, agitated toddlers apt to fling leaky sippy cups on top of my priceless artwork, but still. I felt like a circumnavigator on the last leg of a perilous voyage.

In the course of researching the drawing, trying to ascertain its place in the long, illustrious career of Arthur Rackham, I made an educated guess looking at Wikipedia. Among the books Rackham had illustrated was a book by J.M. Barrie, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The trees and the children playing in my drawing certainly seemed like they were in a park setting, so I clicked on the link (I love Wiki!) and found myself transported to Project Gutenberg where I found the entire book lovingly reproduced in faithful quality and full color. Right there in chapter one, I found my trees and frolicking children. The illustration bore the caption, “One of the Paths That Have Made Themselves.” In J.M. Barrie’s imaginative and inimitable prose, she described how the paths create themselves as if by magic, the very sort of magic from whence comes Peter Pan, I’m sure.

It has been an honor and blessing to have found such a path myself with this beautiful and special work of art. It certainly feels like magic to have been entrusted with its safety. I’m especially glad just to have it out of the house. In an earlier conversation with George McNeill, he told me with fatherly concern (my father was also named George) that I was not to let the money languish in my bank account to be used for groceries or paying the electric bill. I had a duty to make sure the proceeds were spent wisely, on something that would continue to bring me joy and satisfaction for many years and maybe even grow in value.

I’m pleased to say that I already have the perfect plan for the money. That little painting will buy me a liveaboard sailboat, on which I will live happily ever after as the paths open up before me, as if by magic.

Possibly a boat like this one. Her name means "In Passing," a good name for a boat, in my opinion.