Monday, November 29, 2010
A few seconds from now you will have, from beginning to end, read the first sentence I have ever blogged.
Well. Talk about your modest beginnings!
The delay in my entry into this most 21st-Century form of communication is explained by two personal traits. First, as those of you who have met me at coin shows know, it is almost impossible to extract a word from me, so taciturn is my nature.
A second, greater impediment to my plunge into the blogosphere --what a word!-- is my legendary and all-consuming personal modesty. After all, what is a blog, but an advertisement for one’s self? What but an assurance to the World that what passes thru your brain to your fingers, keyboard, screen and website is golden; a belief that your thoughts and experiences are so original, so compelling, of such import and so singularly expressed as to command the attention of friends, strangers, the gods and Posterity? O, Lucky Reader: Come, pause and refresh thyself, in the fortuitous font of my phrases.
But my nature, abashed and reticent as it is, is not stubborn enough to turn aside the entreaties of the multitudes who, inexplicably, suspect I may have something to SAY. And truth be told, writing stuff down has an important benefit, beyond the putative value of contributing one’s mental wanderings to the Community of Ideas.
Even a coin dealer, whose livelihood depends on being able to remember dates and prices, will often suffer from want of memory. A case is point is my incomplete memory of what Fred Fried told me about his Assistant Window Dresser at Bonwit Teller.
Fried (d.7/1994, aged 86) was an authority on American Folk Art who wrote seminal works on carved wooden carousel figures and cigar-store Indians. He worked to preserve merry-go-rounds, many of which were being stripped of their valuable, collectible wooden animals, with their still-functioning mechanisms sold as scrap metal, if not outright abandoned. In this connection he met a very supportive Q. David Bowers, an authority of other kinds of mechanical musical instruments. Dave is also known as one of the most popular, successful and interesting coin dealers of all time.
In the early 1990s a grateful Fred mailed a box of medals and miscellanea to his coin dealer buddy. Dave (or some employee) promptly sent it back, but recommended he contact a certain very reputable New York dealer --that would be me-- who did a lot with medals. And so I journeyed to Northern Manhattan and met Fred. I bought the box for a little over $1000. In my November 2000 auction I sold four of the medals from that box --two War of 1812 white metal original strikes, and two bronzed copper Marksmanship US Mint medals (ca.1870s-‘80s)-- for about $3000. This is what people mean when they say I have the highest profit margin in the coin business. And the slowest turnover. My great fear is that other coin dealers will start mimicking my modus operandi, but so far there are no takers.
Well, enough with the numismatics...
Fred was an octogenarian and a widower, I’m guessing Jewish, living alone in a nice, huge apartment complex. Walking past the Puerto Rican kids playing outside, I guessed at his isolation, and indeed the man who greeted me was obviously happy to have a visitor, particularly one with unimpaired hearing. Fred had a lot to say and few chances to say it; I was quite the willing victim. It is precisely this kind of encounter, with someone uniquely interesting and informative; that is the greatest reward of Numismatics. And, of course, the greatest reward of living and working in New York City.
Competing quite successfully with the anecdotes were the artifacts. Fred’s large-ish apartment was full of stuff. Thousands of “smalls”. A 3-or-4-foot circular wall plaque, presumably for a theatre, which he called a “Mucha”. A carved wooden horse head that was the original model for the Steeplechase ride at Coney Island. (I think Jim Elkind of Lost City Arts wound up with it.) An empty Renaissance painting-frame which he swore was once home to a da Vinci. Stuff stuff stuff!
One thing Fred did not have was a certain photo by Ansel Adams, showing a New England farm-house and a lot of snow. That house was Fred’s. He wrote to the great photographer, suggesting that since he had made so much money on the picture, he ought to give a print to the home-owner. Adams wrote back, offering, under the circumstances, to sell it at a discount. Something like $800 instead of $1200. Fred wrote back, suggesting a warm, private and tight place where Mr. Adams could stick his $400 discount. Sadder but wiser, he told me he shouldn’t have destroyed Adams’ letter, which autograph dealers would tell you had “great content.”
One thing Fred DID have was another autographed item, a slim book that I remember as a biography of the author’s aunt’s cat, but almost certainly it was this:
25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy
a privately published (1954) title by Andy Warhol. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/25_Cats_Name_Sam_and_One_Blue_Pussy) When I queried Fred about this prize, he casually tossed off:
“Oh, that was given to me by my assistant.”
For many years Fred’s main gig was as art director --he himself said “Window Dresser”-- at Bonwit Teller, the ultra-toney fashion palace, kitty-corners from Tiffany’s at 5th Ave & 57th Street. (The location, then arguably the exact center of the universe. is now inarguably just that, with Stack’s a block to the west and Heritage Galleries a block east.) Warhol was his assistant before he became famous and, perhaps curiously, for a time thereafter. (Warhol, who grew up fairly poor, was an artist who respected money for its scarcity, while fearing its penchant for evanescence --not to mention its rather stochastic association with talent.)
Fred told about a day when he, Andy and two friends were ambling about Manhattan, missing connections, growing hungry. I forget the names of the other two. One was a big name in NYC art circles --Leo Castelli??-- and I expected I would remember. Maybe I did, for 10-15 years. Alas, I didn’t keep a diary then, and blogs did not yet exist. This is the whole point of this entry, of course: that BLOG equals MEMORY.
I do remember where the four of them wound up. One of them had a key to Emile de Antonio’s flat, where they went. De Antonio was a radical documentary filmmaker, a classmate of JFK at Harvard who moved in art circles, including the Beats. and moved away from mainstream America. I knew his name from his 1971 Nixon pic Milhouse: A White Comedy, which included the complete, rediscovered Checkers speech. Not too left-wing for Hollywood, his early anti-war Vietnam documentary In the year of the Pig (1968) was Oscar-nominated. He was decidedly left-wing-enough for the FBI, however.
“Andy was sitting on the floor, moping over some boy...” Fred recalled, his tone suggesting Andy was prone to such moping. The other three scoured the apartment for nourishment, but the pickings were slim: a can of soup.
“What do you do with it?”
“I think you’re supposed to boil it.”
In this era (the early-to-mid-‘50s) men and kitchens were not always on a first-name basis. They put water in a pot, put it on the stove, and put in the can. Not the contents of the can: THE CAN. After a time, the paper label began to separate from the tin and, from the boiling action, began to lift up from the can, visible over the edge of the pot.
“Andy sees this and he stares at the can. His eyes are almost popping out of his head!”
The three gastronomes, figuring the soup was done, deduce that they must somehow open the can. They find a can-opener, but not the right kind. One of them punctures the familiar triangular hole, but he is clever and does not try to pour the soup; he punches a semi-circle-plus of repeated triangles, maybe ¾ the way around the rim, until the lid can be pried back.
“And Andy’s eyes are HUGE, again.”
A few days later, at Bonwit’s, Fred sees Andy has some pictures on the table. “What’ve you got there, Andy?” “Oh, it’s nothing,” Andy claims, sounding a little embarrassed. But Fred is standing right there and sees the sketches. He becomes the first person to see Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup art.
True story. I may be the only witness to this scrap of art history. And I can’t report who was in de Antonio’s apartment with Fred and Andy, because I was too dumb to write it down right at the time. While I have no motive to make up this anecdote, verification is problematical. It’s possible that somewhere in its 10,000 pages on de Antonio, the FBI has the names of the four men in that apartment, and the exact time. But it would take an awfully dedicated (or anal) Warhol scholar to start the requisite FOI (Freedom of Information) suit.
I should have better luck with the true story of the Joe diMaggio autographed ball, for which $100,000 was refused. The owners are a family which includes the first Austrian female Olympic medal winner, a 16-year-old swimmer at the 1912 Stockholm games, Her father wasn’t happy at all about her dating a 21-year American at the games, another swimmer named Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian who is considered the Moses of Surfing. I think it was the age differential, not the fact that he wasn’t Jewish. 35 years later, another family member was also a good athlete, playing on a 1947 “national team”, a year before Israel actually was a nation.
The thing is, it wasn’t a baseball. Anyway, this time I have all the names.