Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Denver Public Library

Last week I attended a breakfast meeting at the Denver Public Library about their new Creating Communities project. This is a terrific program which is designed to make the historical resources of the library, as well as those from other affiliated institutions, accessible to the general public through the Creating Communities web site. As a die-hard believer in the use of historical material to promote knowledge and understanding of our past, and so also of our present, I was delighted to find out about this program.

First a word about the Denver Public Library. Until this summer, I lived for the last three decades in Philadelphia, which has one of the oldest and best public library systems in the country, so I was very pleased to find that the Denver library system is also absolutely first rate. The library was established in 1889, the city librarian calling it a “center of public happiness.” In 1910, a new Central Library building was constructed, and then over the next decade eight branch libraries were built, all with the generous help of Andrew Carnegie. As the library system matured, new branches were opened, old ones refurbished, and in 1995 an outstanding new Central Library was built, designed by Michael Graves.

I am a fan not only of libraries, but also of institutions which hold collections of prints & maps. It turns out that in Denver the public library is the institution in this area with the best collection of historic printed images, a collection held in the Western History and Genealogy department. Their collection of Western Americana is, without question, one of the best in the country.

Opened in 1935, the Western collection was initially intended to focus on books by Colorado authors, but soon the department broadened its focus to encompasses all phases of the development of the trans-Mississippi West. To quote the library web site, “[t]he collection continues to grow and presently includes 200,000 cataloged books, pamphlets, atlases, maps, and microfilm titles. In addition, it offers 600,000 photographs, 3,700 manuscript archives, and a remarkable collection of Western fine art and prints to researchers across the world.”

Among the collections in which the library is particularly strong are publications of Western railroads, reports and maps of Colorado mining companies, trade catalogs, records and printed memorabilia of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, frontier theater programs, land grant materials, Colorado territorial imprints, architectural drawings, and extensive clipping files of local newspapers. The maps and atlases, of which there are about 6,000, and the historical views are, of course, of particular interest to me. The Western Collection is a place I plan to spend much time researching.

As with any library, one of the main goals of the Denver Public Library is to reach out to the community, both to provide it with access to its resources, but also to stimulate curiosity and increase knowledge. That is what Creating Communities does. Other local institutions are also involved in the project, including the City of Denver, History Colorado, the Auraria Library, the University of Colorado at Denver, and the University of Denver Penrose Library. This program makes available on the web many of the resources about Denver and its history from these institutions. One of the main parts of the web site is a section with information on seven of Denver’s historic neighborhoods, and many of the Western Collection’s archival materials, in digital form, are also available through the site, including property maps of the city.

An interesting part of the program is “myDenver”, which is designed to allow the general public to upload photographs and stories of their own, and to be part of an ongoing conversation about their city. The further development of myDenver is one of the main goals of the Creating Communities program going forward.

I was rather spoiled by the extensive institutional riches of Philadelphia and I was a bit concerned in moving to “the West,” that I would be bereft of this important type of resource. I was, as I should have known, mistaken in this, for Denver not only has its own rich history (though not as long a one as Philadelphia) but also its own wealth of historical material which available to me and to anyone else with an interest in the history of this wonderful city.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Peter Marzio

I just learned of the passing, on December 9, of one of the superstars of the print world, Peter C. Marzio. Peter was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a post he held for almost three decades, and he was instrumental in helping build the museum into a world-class cultural center. He died last Thursday from cancer at age 67, much too soon.

Peter's was something of a rags to riches story. He was born into a working-class immigrant family, becoming the first in his family to graduate from High School. At Juniata College he became inspired by the art and museum world, deciding to make this his career. He went on to earn a doctorate in art and American history from the University of Chicago. He served as curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian and then as director and chief executive officer of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, before becoming the director in Houston.

Peter is best known to the general public for his art scholarship, educational programs and for his dynamic leadership of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. However, for those in the print world, Peter is "the man" when it came to chromolithography. As I have mentioned many times in this blog, I think chromolithographs of the nineteenth century are among the most interesting and over-looked American prints and it was Peter's work which turned me on to these wonderful prints.

In 1979, while director at the Corcoran, Peter Marzio wrote his superb book on American chromolithographs, The Democratic Art. Pictures for a 19th-Century America, , as well as curated an exhibition on the subject at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art. This was the first time that a serious work on American 19th-century chromolithographs was published and that a major exhibit on the subject was put on.

The books is tremendous and when I first read it, it opened my eyes as to the fascination and importance of these hitherto overlooked prints. Peter wrote in his preface that "My deepest wish is that this book will help students to see the field of American lithography as worth of research." It certainly has done that, and while Peter contributed a huge amount else to the art world, if this was all he had done, his name would still be one revered among those with an interest in American prints. The world is a poorer place now than before his death, but much richer for his having been in it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Audubon's Birds of America sets record price

philadelphia print shop west birds of americaOn December 7th, a beautiful, complete copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America sold at Sotheby's auction in London for a hammer price of 6.5 million pounds. With the commission charged by Sotheby's, this brought the total paid by the buyer to slightly over $11.5 million dollars! The work, complete with its 435 hand-colored aquatints bound into four volumes, sold to London art dealer Michael Tollemache. You can read the BBC report on the sale and watch an interesting video on the BBC News web site.

This is the most ever paid for a printed book, a record established both because Audubon is "the" great name in American natural history illustration, but also because this is a superb example of an extremely scarce book. Audubon's masterpiece was very expensive even when produced, so few were published. Just over 100 complete sets are known to exist, almost all of which are held in public institutions. The last complete set to go at auction sold for $8.8 million dollars in 2000.

It is interesting to note that when one takes into account inflation since 2000, the new record of $11.5 million is not a significantly higher price than was paid for the set a decade ago. So, I guess one can conclude that the value of this work is not really increasing that much. However, I would note that the economies of 2000 and 2010 are very different, so for the volume to even maintain its value is pretty impressive.

A sale of this magnitude is interesting to reflect upon. What is going to happen to this set? Will it affect the prices of individual prints? What does this say about the print market?

As to what is going to happen to the set, the new owner calls his set "priceless" and says that he will just keep it and enjoy it for a while, though he did not rule out eventually selling it. Frankly, I do not buy this (though it could, of course, be true). $11,500,000 is a lot of money for any dealer (unless Bill Gates decides to become an art dealer) to invest in something he is simply going to enjoy. My guess is that Mr. Tollemache already intends to sell or has already sold the set.

So, did the new owner buy the set with the intent of putting it on the market to see how it goes? I will say that I find it hard to believe the set was bought on speculation. Given that this is a very widely publicized auction price, and given that this is the most ever paid for a printed book, how much upside is there on the price that a dealer could ask? Certainly, even a small percentage, say 5%, is a lot of money ($575,000), but $11.5 million is a lot of money to put up front to make only half a million.

Now Mr. Tollemache made the surprising assertion that the amount he paid was well less than the amount one could get if one broke up the set and sold the prints individually (something his emphatically denied intending doing). This sure sounds a bit like a sales pitch to a prospective client (gee, Tom, just think, if your gold mines go bust you can always break the set and make a tidy profit selling them individually...).

However, Mr. Tollemache's claim is just not true. If one calculates the per print price of this set, it comes to about $26,500 per plate. That seems pretty reasonable when a good number of the better birds are bringing well over $100,000 each. However, if anyone has looked through the full set of Audubon images (you can do this even with the octavo set to understand this point), you will realize that there are a lot of prints of smaller or not terribly attractive birds where the prints sell on today's market for only around $2,000 each. And there are even more of these prints---of quite attractive and biggish birds---which sell for between $4,000 and $20,000, still under the average price of this set.

So, if you take out all these prints, the ones selling for under $20,000, the average cost of the remaining birds is much, much higher than $26,500. I have not calculated the exact figure of the 435 prints at today's retail, but I can tell you it will not be equal to, much less greater than, $11.5 million.

So, this raises a few questions: why did Mr. Tollemache make this implausible claim, what are his plans for this set, and how will this affect the market for Audubon prints? My guess to the first two questions is that Mr. Tollemache actually bid on this set for an unknown client. This would make a lot of sense, for if he is using someone else's money, then a small percentage profit would be great. This would also explain his comment on the break-up value, trying to make his client feel good about the purchase. It is even possible that Mr. Tollemache did the bidding for the client at only a token commission, as the publicity of being the buyer of this set is "priceless."

This is, I want to emphasize, pure speculation. I know nothing about Mr. Tollemache other than what I have read since the sale. My comments are also not really at all pejorative, for it would not be at all surprising if a new owner of this work would want to remain anonymous. Also if Mr. Tollemache is fibbing, it is a harmless fib and one of a sort that is not uncommon in the art world. I may be wrong, but it sure makes a lot more sense to me that Mr. Tollemache bought this for someone than that he bought it for himself.

As to how this sale will affect the market for Audubon prints, I think probably not a lot. First, as noted this price is not really that much higher than the 2000 price, when adjusted for inflation, so I do not think anyone is going to think all of a sudden that Audubon prints are worth more than they were. The publicity will increase interest in Audubon prints, but such increased interest does not often turn into an increase in sales/values. For instance, after Ken Burns' Civil War series appeared, there was a lot of increased interest in prints of the Civil War, but very little increase in sales of them.

I am, however, encouraged by the sale. Any publicity about an any prints helps raise the general awareness of the items with which I work, and that is great. Also, it shows that there is a belief that prints can be things which have a significant value and that even in today's economy they are worth investing in.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thematic maps

A thematic map is a type of map which is designed to show a particular theme, other than geographic data, expressed onto a geographic base. Themes can include social, cultural, political, economic, agricultural, climatic, historical, or pretty much any other theme which has a presence in the physical world. Thematic maps differ from regular maps in that for the latter, the geographic information is the end in itself whereas for the former, it provides the context for the thematic data.

What thematic maps do is to give the viewer a unique way to look at quantitative information, which can provide insight not obtainable directly from the raw data itself. It is the nexus of the data and the geographic base which presents new patterns, which in turn can lead to a new understanding of the data and, in some case, important discoveries.

Perhaps the earliest extant thematic map is the Turin Papyrus, an Egyptian map from about 1160 BC, which was prepared for Ramesses IV’s expedition to Wadi Hammamat to obtain sandstone for his construction projects. The map shows the wadi with the location of gold deposits indicated, as well as the distribution of different rocks and gravels (by use of different colors and symbols), making this the first geological map.

Another early thematic map is the Peutinger table, a map based on a 4th-century Roman map. A 13th-century copy of the original map was discovered at the end of the fifteenth century and ended up with Konrad Peutinger (thus its name). The map shows Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, but the map is designed to show the roads and travel routes of the Roman legions, with each day’s march marked on the roads. It is very elongated, as the map is built around the Roman road system network which primarily ran east-west.

One of the most important figures in thematic mapping was British astronomer Edmond Halley, who published the first meteorological chart in 1686 and then a map of magnetic variation in 1701.

The most famous early example of thematic mapping was John Snow’s map of the incidents of cholera in London in 1854. Cholera was a serious and not-understood health issue in the nineteenth century. Snow decided to plot the incidents of cholera onto a map of the London neighborhood just north of Piccadilly Circus, upon which was also marked the water pump locations. The pattern which emerged clearly showed that the cholera incidents centered around a pump on Broad Street, indicating that this was the source of the epidemic. The pump was put out of commission and new cholera cases ceased. This was the first real indication that cholera was spread by tainted water and not through some air-borne medium.

Thematic maps use various techniques, such as the marks used by Snow, or applying different colors to represent different densities of the theme in question (choropleth maps), or the use of proportional symbols on a map, or isarithmic or contour maps, where a fixed data point of, say, precipitation or temperature, is mapped in a continuous line on the map (reminds me of what a map of Alcatraz by an ex-prisoner is called, a Con Tour map…).

While few thematic maps have had quite the impact of Dr. Snow’s, there have been many instances of important and fascinating thematic maps over the years. A nice book on the topic is Arthur H. Robinson’s 1982 Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography.

The subject of this blog was inspired by a fascinating talk on thematic maps by Dr. Susan Schulten of the University of Denver. Her talk, “Disease Mapping and the Advent of Meteorology in America,” was presented as part of the Arts in Medicine program at the University of Colorado medical school. Susan looked at how the attempt to understand the nineteenth century epidemics of cholera and yellow fever involved the use of maps (the Snow map, obviously, featuring prominently), and how the success of thematic mapping in this arena extended its use to other areas of science, such as meteorology.

Susan (another example of the terrific network of map scholars who are members of the Rocky Mountain Map Society) is nearing completion of a book on thematic mapping. This is what she says about her project.... “The book I'm writing is a history of thematic mapping in the nineteenth century, looking at maps of the present but also the rising interest in old maps and maps of the past at that time. I'm closing in on a draft of the entire manuscript…. It will come out with Chicago, and will be accompanied by a website where high resolution versions of the maps will be available for close inspection.” I am looking forward to its publication and I’ll make sure to announce it in this blog when it makes its appearance.