If Wishes Were Heifers:
a Bookhunter’s Adventure
First published in AB Bookman’s Weekly, Vol. 79, no. 7,
February 16, 1987
Our first fair was a lark. The St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, 1972. At 1 a.m., Thursday morning, September 20, we pulled up at the Post Street entrance, right across from John Howell’s. A friendly night manager opened some doors, and we spent a couple of hours unloading, full of high spirits.
The old part of the hotel, where we had a reservation for $28 a night, was full, so the management gave us a beautiful new room on the west side of the tower for the same price. We tumbled into bed and woke up glowing four hours later.
The soaring white tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral stands on high ground ten blocks due west of the St. Francis. Pietro Belluschi’s design resembles nothing else as much as a washing machine impeller of exquisite refinement. In some San Francisco circles it is known all too irreverently as St. Mary’s Maytag.
It was that unexpected form that riveted our attention when I opened the drapes that clear September morning at 9 a.m., for there, projected against its northeastern flank, was the 100-foot-high shadow of a female breast as fantastically idealized as any ever modeled by Richard Petty and his rivals. For a few minutes we gazed at this spectacle—the result of a fortuitous, but doubtless unintended, juxtaposition of a sharp plane and an undulating surface—and finally we roused ourselves to the day’s business.
The fair itself may have been a slight letdown from the anticipation and euphoria of the preceding eight hours. Certainly, it was less memorable. I see in retrospect that our sales were modest, but they matched our expectations. We had expanded our horizons and made some friends, and that was the important part.
Our second such venture took us to San Francisco again just over a year later, only this one wasn’t a book fair. It was an antique show at the Cow Palace with an ill-conceived array of booths tacked on just for the antiquarian book trade.
The Cow Palace, a vast, drafty hall with a high barrel roof, sits just below the city’s southern limit in a hollow behind Candlestick Park. Its name proclaims its origins. The periphery of the oval interior space is defined by a grim hallway that splays out in both directions from the main entrance.
It was to that no-man’s land that eight of us were consigned for five interminable days. Burger & Evans and Alta California held down the plum spots on either side of the entrance. Marian Gore and her cookbooks were banished to Booth 211, 120 feet down the right arm. The rest of us were scattered at awkward intervals among the rest rooms and the snack bars.
The worst part was the hours, forty-two of them spread out over five days. That gave ample time for conversation, for gallows humor, for admiring Bill Burger’s gigantic painting of Yosemite that filled the entire wall across from our booth. Inevitably, however, invention would flag, and traffic would bottom out to zero, and it would be far too soon for another cup of tea or coffee or a snack. Then I would drift down into the main hall to look at the wares of our more fortunate fellow exhibitors, the antique dealers, and marvel over the comparative values of rare books and 40-yearold, five-and-dime kitchen utensils.
On my first such ramble I came across a firm from Scottsdale, Arizona, that I will call Intérieurs Précieux. The proprietors were two couples, one obviously retired, the other in their late thirties or early forties. The older man looked like a Sunbelt kewpie doll: short, portly, polite almost to a fault, with polished, ruddy skin, impeccably trimmed short white hair, and pastel-colored clothes that evoked the golf course more than the halls of commerce or the arts. He was, in Paul McCartney’s immortal phrase, a clean old man. The younger man was tall, angular verging on horsy, and—well—hungrier. The two wives played their supporting roles to perfection.
Their French Provincial stock looked to my untrained eye like one of the better displays in the show, but the furniture was secondary. The centerpiece of their exhibit was a very large collotype reproduction of a fine Rembrandt painting, which stood on an easel with a sign proclaiming a price of $80,000. Well! The original, of course, was hidden away in the little closet at the back of their booth, or at their hotel, or in a bank vault to be brought forth with quiet ostentation should a live prospect miraculously appear. Still, there was that price: not enough for a real Rembrandt of superior quality, and far, far too much for anything else—a copy, for instance.
A bit later in the afternoon, a lady asked me where she could see the Rembrandt, which had been advertised in the local papers. She was only the first of several people whom I directed to Intérieurs Précieux during the course of the show.
When we tottered out of the Cow Palace at 10 p.m. that first evening, Wednesday, September 26, 1973, I suggested a light meal at one of my favorite restaurants. Cruchon’s, in Berkeley, was open very late; it was intimate, with a little fire burning in a raised fireplace; the menu boasted a wonderful open-faced sandwich of dark Ukrainian soldier’s bread heaped high with marinated mushrooms and topped with sour cream. For dessert there would be a chocolate pie the equal of which I have never had elsewhere.
Across the bridge we flew to Shattuck Avenue. When we got as far north as Serendipity Books, I knew I must have missed the restaurant’s dim lights. Slowly, we retraced our tracks the few blocks to University. No Cruchon’s. How disconcerting, how disappointing. We ended up at the only other place still open, a drivein. How depressing. The next morning when we visited Serendipity, Peter Howard told us that Cruchon’s had burned down a few months earlier. It never reopened; I still feel a pang when I pass that block.
The week ground along slowly. The final Sunday, on yet one more excursion around the main floor, I paused at Intérieurs Précieux and wondered again about their Rembrandt. The reproduction on display was a good collotype on paper at least two feet high. It could have come from one of the elephant folios of loose plates that were published on the Continent around the turn of the century. The subject, if I recall correctly over thirteen years later, was a portrait of a woman in Rembrandt’s mature style.
The older man, whom I will call Mr. Twinley, was alone. He asked if he could help. I motioned at the reproduction on the easel and said “Yes, where is the original?”
He started visibly. ‘‘Why, why, that’s the original.’’
This was not the answer I had expected. Clearly, he believed that the exact object before us, the collotype reproduction, was itself a work of art worth $80,000. There was no back closet, no bank vault.
I tried to phrase my next question carefully. “Oh?”
Well, it seemed that it was a rare etching by Rembrandt of unusual size, one in which he had experimented with a variety of secret techniques. It was well worth the price.
I could have said, ‘‘Thank you, how interesting,’’ and moved on. Other people must have asked about the Rembrandt during the show, been equally astonished at the answer, and left it at that.
Instead, I plunged in, not unkindly, I hope. Mr. Twinley was, after all, a gentleman of a bygone school, his time past, and calamitously out of his depth. I directed his attention to the overall pattern of parallel rows underlying the entire image. That was the camera’s accurate record of the weave of the canvas in the original oil painting. The crackle in the paint showed up as a fine network of irregular lines. Some of the brushmarks were easily visible. All these nuances are exceptionally clear in collotype plates of this size and period.
An etching has a plate mark and a surface of raised lines; the $80,000 Rembrandt was innocent of any texture. The paper was a highly calendered, machinemade stock typical of the turn of the century. Such observations required no great level of expertise.
Each objection elicited a new train of denials.
“I assure you, it is a true Rembrandt.” “It is a once-in-a-lifetime find.” All that clean, pink and white sincerity was fascinating.
“We have had it authenticated.” (Where? At the corner 7-11?)
I let that pass. “This, please understand, is a printed picture, made with a camera seventy or eighty years ago. It is not an etching; it is not original. Its value is perhaps five dollars, ten at the outside.” He was beginning to waver, when Mrs. Twinley returned to the booth and stood listening to our conversation with her lips pursed contemptuously. She was made of sterner stuff.
“What are your qualifications?” she demanded.
“I’m an art book dealer. Booth 209. I have handled many large books and portfolios containing pictures like this.” She was unimpressed.
Mr. Twinley suddenly remembered his trump card. “Have you seen this?” he asked triumphantly, as he opened up the mat and displayed the reverse side of the picture.
Anyone who has ever unmounted a cheaply framed reproduction 75 to 100 years old would recognize the broad brown stripes that marred the back of the paper, but to Mr. Twinley they were undeniable signs of great antiquity.
I went on very slowly. ‘‘This was in a frame with a wooden back. The boards produce acid. The paper contains wood pulp. The acid turns the paper brown. It can happen in a few years under the worst conditions.” I must have sounded quite the pedant.
Mrs. Twinley stood her ground, almost.
“He doesn’t know,” she said. Then she looked thoughtfully at the back of the picture. “The one thing that bothers me a little is what he says about the paper. We might have overlooked that.’’
Never mind that the whole thing was impossibly wrong, that there was no element of congruence between the real object and the one of their invention. That would not convince them, but an arcane detail—the paper—might.
With all this talk of collotypes and plate marks and acidic paper, I fear that my account may be leaving a wrong impression: that their blunder was a plausible one that might have befallen any lay person.
Had I been attending a livestock show at the Cow Palace and noticed a goat standing in a pen that was supposed to house a prize Holstein, it would not have required an examination of the beast’s teeth to correctly identify it. A casual glance would have convinced any reasonably observant person that it was a goat, not a cow. So it was with the $80,000 Rembrandt.
Mr. Twinley was troubled. I eased him out of earshot of his wife. “I hope you don’t have any money tied up in this affair.” He didn’t need to answer. “Get yourself a good lawyer,’’ I suggested. Then I left.
Half an hour later the Twinleys’ associate, Mr. Devereaux, presented himself at my booth. With him I could afford to have a little more fun than with his tender partner. He asked to speak with me. “Fine,” I said. In private, he meant. It was so dignified, so proper, but this was the Cow Palace hallway, and there was no ‘‘private.” We repaired down the passage beyond Marian Gore’s Siberia and stood in one of the several unrented spaces.
“Mr. McGilvery, I have been told that you think our Rembrandt is not real. ‘‘
“Mr. Devereaux, I know it is not real.”
“We have proof.”
There were vague mutterings about slander. We jostled around about the differences between photomechanical reproductions and original prints, but to no purpose.
“We have had the Rembrandt authenticated,” he said, with an added show of importance.
“By whom?” This was a crucial question.
He hesitated and then drew himself up to full height, and he was a good deal taller than I.
“I’m not at liberty to give you that information, but, never mind, we know what we have.” What a surprising response that was, considering that the value of any original work of art rests directly upon the credibility of its authentication.
We exchanged cards and parted company. I wondered if I should expect his seconds. The choice of weapons would be mine. Ivins’ How Prints Look at twenty paces in the Cow Palace parking lot.
Surely, Devereaux was the chief wishful thinker of the foursome, the one who inflated their collective foolishness and set it adrift in uncertain winds. His facade of precision and aggressive rectitude would have been irresistible to a Twinley. A more interesting question remains: was he hoodwinked by a brazen swindler who risked exposure the moment any unbiased observer laid eyes on the picture, or did he and Twinley unearth the treasure themselves in an attic or warehouse and invest it in greedy secrecy with qualities it never could have had? Who, in heaven’s name, was their expert? I wish I knew.
The story is entertaining, I hope, but is it so astonishing? Self-delusion seems almost the norm some days. It reveals itself again and again at the highest reaches of our society in matters far graver than the mere value of a sheet of seventyfive-year-old paper.
Some of our colleagues began packing up early, for which one could hardly blame them. We stayed to the bitter end, and that turned out to be fortunate.
Devereaux returned at quarter to six looking vindicated but prepared to be magnanimous toward the vanquished—me.
“I wanted to set your mind at rest.”
“Mr. Panizza of San Francisco—you do know Mr. Panizza, I trust?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, I thought you would.” He smiled for the first time. “Mr. Panizza has been with us all afternoon—is still there, as a matter of fact—and he is very, very interested in our Rembrandt.’’
“That’s wonderful, but, ah, who is Mr. Panizza?”
“He owns a gallery here in the City.” Devereaux paused for full effect. ‘‘The Rembrandt Gallery.’’
“Really! And what does the Rembrandt Gallery do?”
“Why, it sells Rembrandts, what else?” Devereaux said he would let me know the outcome of his negotiations. Of course, I never heard from him again.
Some dear friends had arrived from the Peninsula to help us pack. The long ordeal was over. Later we went out to Original Joe’s at Chestnut and Fillmore Streets for maritata, Italian wedding soup: a rich, steaming mixture of milk, noodles, eggs, and cheese, served with never-empty baskets of hot sourdough bread and sweet butter.
Monday and Tuesday, October 1 and 2, were wonderful. Both of us would rather buy books any time than sell them. Like 1968, 1963, 1945 and 1929, 1973 was a watershed year. To me it marks the beginning of the downhill side of the twentieth century, the moment just before the rollercoaster took off. Nixon was still in office denying everything, the OPEC embargo was looming, and good books were cheap and relatively plentiful.
We visited seventeen bookstores in those two days and spent a total of $1,274.31 at thirteen of them. From John Howell’s came Charles Eisen, by Vera Francis Salomons (London: Bumpus, 1914 [i.e., 1921]), copy no. 87 of 100, for $25 less ten percent. One of 750 copies of Thomas Cole’s Art by the Way with a signed wood engraving (NY: Rudge, 1925) cost all of a dollar at the Fields Bookstore on Polk Street.
In the East Bay we bought several books by Whistler from Holmes Book Company for prices ranging between $4 and $10 less twenty percent and Alma Reed’s Jose Clemente Orozco (NY: Delphic Studio, 1932) was $15 less twenty percent at Moe’s.
The real find of the trip came, not surprisingly, from Serendipity: a stack of 215 Daumier lithographs from Charivari. Even though the unit price was five times what I had paid a bouquiniste on the Seine for a smaller lot seven years earlier, it was so low that I will not mention it now, lest it occasion unseemly blubbering by the reader.
Early Monday evening we had an appointment on Pacific Heights. Our route took us up Broadway through the heart of the topless-bottomless-go-go-centerfold city. As we navigated that river of light and motion and depravity, a sign caught my eye. I double-parked long enough to run in and ask the hours. The Rembrandt Gallery would still be open when our appointment was done.
At 10 p.m. we were back. It was all we had expected and more: signed Norman Rockwell reproductions; European factory art by the square yard; framed color reproductions grossly overpriced at $85 full price, $5 down and $5 a month. There was even a dingy little etching over the cash register labeled “Rembrandt” for a mere $15,000. The only thing missing was the $80,000 Rembrandt. Apparently Mr. Panizza had not come through, and what a pity. I would have sent Herb Caen to take a look at it.
Tuesday, after finishing the rounds of the bookstores, we spent the evening basking in the warmth of our friends’ home in Menlo Park and then started south about midnight. At 3 a.m. we rented the last motel room in King City, California, a dead ringer for the squalid hideouts that so often figure in 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movies.
It was a perfect trip. Except for Cruchon’s.