Reba and Dave Williams continue to own prints, including some of the rarest
impressions from their original collection, and more than 100 color woodcuts.
They will buy prints from time to time, and will make their interests known on
this website. They are both enrolled at Spalding University, in the MFA Writing
Program, and continue to write about prints.
Dave Williams, drawing on his experiences as a collector,
is writing a book about print collecting. The book is divided into chapters on
particular types of prints; chapter working titles include "American
Screenprints," "Color Woodcuts," etc. The following is an excerpt from the
chapter "Early American Prints."
Paul Revere is best known as a Revolutionary War messenger,
immortalized in Longfellow's poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." His
primary occupation was as a silversmith, recorded in John Singleton Copley's
famous portrait of him, holding a silver teapot and stroking his chin.
He's hardly known at all as a printmaking artist, yet he
was--one of America's earliest and best. The strong, steady hands required for
working and engraving silver can also be used to engrave on a copper plate, and
that's what Revere did. His subjects related to the War; his most famous print
was The Boston Massacre of 1770, in which a squad of British soldiers
fire on a rowdy mob of American civilians. Revere produced this engraving in
black ink on white paper, then he and other artists colored it by hand, using
watercolors--mainly to show the red of the British Redcoats, clearly identifying
The Boston Massacre is the most famous print by an
American artist made in the eighteenth century. We never acquired it. In the
nearly forty years of our print collecting, The Boston Massacre came up
for sale only once, as far as I know. We were so concentrated on twentieth
century work, we let it pass--to our regret. In print collecting as in much
else, it's the errors of omission, not commission, that linger in painful
We did not miss another famous American eighteenth century
Joe Goddu, head of the print department at Hirschl & Adler
Gallery, called. "We've just acquired what I think is the only copy of Charles
Wilson Peale's only engraving. You should own it. It comes with the copper plate
as well. It's impossible to get any of his prints--they're all in museums."
This was in 1990, and we were well on our way to creating
our collection of 20th century American prints, having vowed to focus on this
period. Just the same, we raced to 71st Street, home of Hirschl & Adler,
intrigued with the possibility of owning this rare 18th century print by one of
America's most renowned artists, a true Renaissance man... scientist,
philosopher, author, as well as artist.
Hirschl & Adler is the ultimate "uptown" gallery, a
beautiful, immaculate space, filled with paintings and sculpture, mostly 19th
century American, carefully placed and lighted to present the art at its best. A
high quality museum that also sells art.
Joe Goddu greeted us at the door, led us upstairs to the
print department, and produced an elaborate gold frame that surrounds two small
bits: a copper plate about two inches square, and a printed piece of paper the
same size. We squinted at the tiny image as Joe explained, "Look at the animals
and exotic plants in the border. The pelican has a fish in its bill. This is an
actual ticket to Peale's museum of natural history, the first of its type in
America, located in Philadelphia. The ticket is dated 1788. He printed his own
entry tickets from his own engraved plate-- the entry price was twenty-five
cents, pretty rich for the time."
Reba looked at me. "We've got to have it. It doesn't work
with our collection, but it's a great historical object."
Joe told us more. "Peale made his first
prints--mezzotints--in 1787, portraits of famous Americans, like Washington and
"Don't you mean someone else made the mezzotints, copying
his paintings?" I asked.
"No, he did all the work himself. He must have been
tireless. He scored the copper plates, then burnished them to bring out the
image. Maybe a professional printer ran them through a press. He also made an
etching--only one, I think. It's interesting."
"You've seen it?" Reba wanted to know.
"I saw a copy at Winterthur. I don't know of any others.
It's a clever image."
Joe took a book off the shelf, and found an illustration of
the print, titled The Accident in Lombard Street. The caption explains
that it was the first of a planned series of Philadelphia street views, but this
was the only one he ever made.
Joe elaborated. "As you see, a maid has dropped a platter
of food, and it's broken and spilled. Spectators are mocking her, dogs are
barking. It's a great print, but I don't think you'll ever see an impression for
sale, or any other print of his. He stopped making prints after 1787-1788. He
devoted all his time to oil painting and his natural history museum. This ticket
is the last print he made."
I confirmed Reba's opinion. "Not only is it good quality
art, however small, but it's a token of an Enlightenment figure, artist,
naturalist, inventor, and scientist. We can't resist." And so it became ours.
Charles Wilson Peale stayed in our minds,
partly because of his progeny. As art historians know, he named his children
after famous artists, and some of them made prints. Rembrandt Peale, for
example, was an active printmaker. The art-making impulse in this family was
very strong. Several generations later, a descendant, Sophonisba Hergesheimer
made prints. We collected Hergesheimer's floral prints made in the 1920s-30s,
and hung them in our apartment. Reba was intrigued with the long family history
of printmaking, so we decided to go back in time and look at Rembrandt Peale's
work--if we could find it.
Find it we did, at the aptly named Old Print
Shop, located downtown on Lexington Avenue. The Old Print Shop is just that.
There's nothing modern or slick about the décor in this old-fashioned place.
Creaking wood floors, prints in bins and drawers, hung frame against frame on
walls, and stacked on tables--barely room for a customer to move around. A huge
inventory of many types of prints. This is a place for a serious collector to
search for and acquire prints.
The owner and proprietor, our friend Robert
Newman, wasn't in the gallery the morning of our hunt for Rembrandt Peale. We
were invited to paw through bins and stacks by a gallery assistant who helped us
search. We soon uncovered two portraits of George Washington, one of Rembrandt
Peale's specialties, both with inscriptions noting that Peale had himself drawn
on the lithographic stones. No "afters" these.
The prices seemed too low, at $750 and $1500.
We were assured that these prints weren't all that rare, and the condition
wasn't perfect for either. Reba believed otherwise about one of them--Patriae
Pater--in which the portrait of the Father of Our Country is seen through a
stone surround covered with a garland of leaves and topped by a mask. She
thought this a very rare print, and as usual, Reba had done her homework. She
had researched the Peale family lineage, identifying printmakers, Charles Wilson
to Rembrandt to Sophonisba Hergesheimer, etc. A typical American print research
opportunity, still awaiting completion.
Patriae Pater was early-made in 1827.
Lithography was invented in 1798 in Germany, and this was less than thirty years
later in frontier America. We argued with the dealer assistant about the rarity
of Patriae Pater, but he was adamant in his view. We asked, "Are you sure
this is priced at only $1500?" The last thing we wanted to do was take advantage
of a dealer on whom we depended for future supply.
We were assured the price was fair, so we paid
and left with both Rembrandt Peale prints. A few years later, the Childs
Gallery's annual sales catalogue arrived. On the front cover was Patriae
Pater. The catalogue had this to say about the print:
The Washington image is rare--Peale said the
stone was spoiled after only a few impressions. This exceedingly rare print was
one of the first major lithographs made in America during the first two years of
American lithography by the important American artist Rembrandt Peale.2
Childs was offering the print for $9500.
Reba White Williams has written two mystery
novels Restrike and Fatal Impressions, both set in the world of
prints, and is writing the third, while her agent seeks a publisher for the
Excerpts from the first two novels follow.
Excerpt from Restrike
Fifteen minutes before the bidding was to
begin, Dinah was in her seat at Grendle's, paddle in hand. The ancient auction
house on First Avenue in the fifties was small and shabby, and smelled of damp
and mice. But it was jammed with reporters and curators-the press to see Heyward
Bain and learn more about his plans for the print museum he was soon to open,
the museum crowd to look at Toulouse-Lautrec's The Midget, which many of
them would try to acquire.
Dinah had seen the print for the first time at
Grendle's preview. It featured a cabaret actor, a tiny man in a top hat, white
tie and tails, not an image the dwarf Lautrec might have been expected to find
appealing. But the little man had great charm and the print was brilliant with
splashes of red against the vivid yellow background, sharply contrasting with
the black and white of the figure's apparel. The Midget was an
outstanding example of Lautrec's Parisian nightlife series.
When she researched The Midget, Dinah
learned that only three impressions were believed to exist until this one-the
fourth-emerged. Neither The Metropolitan Museum nor The Museum of Modern Art
owned the work; in fact, there wasn't an impression in the United States. No one
seemed to know the identity of the seller. The catalogue didn't provide its
provenance, unusual for a work of this quality and rarity. She wondered why, and
also why such a rare and important print was being sold at an offbeat auction
house like Grendle's, instead of at Christie's or Sotheby's or Killington's.
The Midget should fetch a great deal of money; any auction house would have
been happy to have it to sell. She assumed Heyward Bain would try to buy it for
his museum, but he'd have a lot of competition.
Coleman arrived at Grendle's just before
The Midget was to come up. She looked fabulous in an olive green shift and
matching coat of her own design. She wore her signature three-inch heels, and
huge gold hoop earrings dangled below her mop of blonde curls. Dinah guessed
she'd dressed up to impress Heyward Bain, handsome, single, rich and new in
town. She sat down beside Dinah, whispering, "Brett-Barker says he's going to
buy the Lautrec for Bain-price no object. Look, there he is now. But Debbi
called just as I was leaving the office to say Bain won't be here, damn it." She
was already scribbling in her notebook.
The early bidding had been desultory with
prices near the lower end of their estimates, and the crowd was restless and
noisy. But the room became silent and tense when a Grendle employee brought out
the Lautrec. The crowd sighed in near unison, while dozens of covetous
curatorial eyes stared at the work.
But Simon held his paddle up ostentatiously
throughout the bidding, and one after another the bidders dropped out, until for
the last few bids, only Simon and a telephone bidder remained. The Midget's
price far exceeded the Lautrec print auction record of about $500,000, selling
to Simon for $800,000. Disappointed bidders from both the Museum of Modern Art
and The Metropolitan Museum left when the hammer went down on the Lautrec, as
did most of the other people in the room. Coleman raced after Simon to get a
quote, while Dinah successfully bid with little competition on two prints she
planned to sell in her gallery.
Excerpt from Fatal Impressions
Dinah's team hung the architectural
prints--bridges, skyscrapers, Manhattan skyline views-in the 33rd floor reception
area first. Next, they turned to the dining room. The river and harbor scenes,
ferries, tugs, and ships transformed the big empty room, softening its starkness
and complementing the magnificent water view. After the nineteenth century
landscapes and seascapes were hung in the 32nd floor reception area, she could
scarcely recognize the grim room; the overwhelming effect was now one of
When everything was completed, she walked
through the three rooms again, photographing the installations with her digital
camera. Tonight they'd hung nearly 150 prints, about 50 in each of the three
rooms. Getting these rooms finished so fast was fabulous. Her first corporate
client should be thrilled.
She and her team would hang on the corridors
next week. They'd require about 600 prints, and arranging them would be
challenging, because there would be greater variation in the themes, images, and
sizes of the prints, but she had plenty of time, and she'd already acquired
about half the needed works. She'd continue to hang at night--it was great not
having to deal with bothersome bystanders-but the empty office was eerie. She
heard a faraway clock strike midnight: the witching hour. She shivered, glad for
the company of the hangers, gladder still to leave the place. It was quiet as a
By five-thirty AM, Dinah was dressed, and had
finished packing. At 5:45, Tom, her husband's driver, picked her up in the
Lincoln Town Car Jonathan used mostly for business appointments and to travel to
and from the airport. Dinah usually took the subway to the gallery and home, but
today was different: Tom would drive her to her client's office, wait while she
made a final check of the installations, then take her to the airport.
She was on her way uptown by a few minutes
past six. Her suitcase and carry-on bag were in the trunk, her ticket to LA in
her handbag. The weather was cold, damp and gray--a typical March day in New
York. But in a few hours she'd be in warm sunshine, surrounded by the beautiful Bel-Air gardens, and enjoying a loving welcome by a surprised Jonathan.
She paused to admire the prints in the 33rd
floor reception room, then hurried towards the dining room. But before she
reached it, she noticed the door to Mrs. Anderson's office--the anteroom to the
Managing Director's throne room--was open. Hunt Frederick must be in. She'd
invite him to join her for a tour.
The door to his office was ajar. Dinah called
out, but there was no reply. Maybe he was on the telephone, and couldn't hear
her. She tapped on the door, and pushed it open. The carnage jumped up at her, a
vision in a nightmare, and the smell was horrific-blood, urine, feces and-oh,
God-a whiff of Jungle Gardenia. The heavily carved bookshelves on the left had
pulled away from the wall, and shelving and books lay all over the floor.
Beneath the jumble of dark wood, red leather, and white pages splattered with
blood, a body and more blood, black against the red carpet. Blonde hair soaked
in blood. A bloodstained beige platform shoe. A hand with purple-painted nails.
Dinah tiptoed into the room, avoiding the blood, and touched the woman's wrist.
No pulse, and the skin was cool. Nothing could help the poor woman.
Fighting nausea, she backed into the corridor
and called 911 on her cellphone. "There's b-been a f-fatal accident," she said.
Oh, help, she was stuttering. She hadn't stuttered in years--not since she was a
child. Well, she had good reason. She was alone with a dead body in a creepy