Sunday, September 8, 2013

That $20 THING on the wall

Thirty years ago, when I was readying myself for my first real apartment, I went to a household auction in the center of the world, Caledonia, Ohio.  The estate was selling a woman's possessions that family either didn't want or couldn't have, including furniture, tools, textiles and artwork.

I bought a bedroom suite, a full sized 1920's bed, vanity and dresser (we still have the dresser) and I bought my fish spatula.  I love that fish spatula.  Still use to this day because you can use it mix, fry, stir almost everything with it. But, since I don't eat fish - it's a texture thing - we don't use it as it was intended.  If you only can have one implement in the kitchen, always go for the fish spatula.  Trust me, when that poor thing wears out I will be in mourning.

Anyway, I also bought a couple items that could be framed or were already framed.  There was one colorful art print in a polychrome frame and it still had the paper backing on the frame that read CRANE CANDY COMPANY, 1918. I fell in love with the blue in the picture, which really grabbed my attention because I am not a blue loving person usually.

My eye was also wandered to a stack of about 30 or forty pictures, each about 14X18" and mounted on card stock.  Each picture was stamped PRANG ART COMPANY in the lower corner corner, and in pencil, written under each of the pictures, in beautiful cursive, were the names of the pictures.

The auction was going on, and it wasn't before long the auctioneer got to the prang art prints.  A woman behind me said "She must have used those when she taught art classes."

I was really surprised that the pictures, being sold one by one as to milk the most money out of the crowd.  Some were selling for as much as $20, which was a lot of money thirty years ago at one of these household auctions.  I couldn't justify that, but two prints - scenes of deserts with men and camels didn't sell.  Anti-"A-rab" feelings were pretty high even though it was the Religious zealots in Iran three years before that held American embassy workers prisoners.  Folks back home still harbored a grudge - as they are bound to do - when they simply didn't know enough to have an informed opinion, but no one wanted those "A-rabs" in the prints on their walls.

So I bought them both for five dollars, which my mother felt was throwing good money after bad. I loved the picture entitled "Ships of the Desert" with men riding the camel across a desert with mountains in the background, the other one, not so much.

Then it came to the picture in the polychrome frame.  Bidding started at a dollar, I bid two, and up and up it went and when it crossed over twenty dollars, it was hard to see where it was going, but I had to stop bidding. The crowd was even a bit shocked that it was that high. Twenty dollars, like I said, was a lot of money for a picture in a frame back then.

But no one said twenty-one and the picture was mine.  My mother looked it over and sniffed.

"I'm glad that thing its going on your wall and not mine, buddy," she snarled.

People who looked at had no idea what its was, and that included me.  We knew it was a print, but no one seemed to know anything about except that they found it uncommonly beautiful and VIVID.

The print was a combination of art, and verse, each sharing the plain white background of the sheet that things were printed on.  The art portion was about three inches high by about ten inches wide.  And man sat crossed legged on one side, a book in his lap and he was speaking.  The woman sat on the ground on the other side, her legs drawn up and her arms around them, while she watched, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips as she gazed back at the man.

Under this, on the white field were these words, lettered elegantly was the following:

A Book of Verses Underneath the Bough.
A Jug of Wine a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Besides Me Singing in the Wilderness - 
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow -

My mother said "you do know that Omar Khayyam wrote that."  I stared at her blankly.  "It's from the Rubaiyat," said she.

I asked how she knew that - it seemed a little deep for her rural education and no college.

"Well I'm not stupid," she said in a huff.

"Your grandfather's sister," this was mother's code of familial relationships who died before she was born (ie her father's sister) "memorized the entire work over two winters."

"Why would she do that?" I asked, which I thought was a fair question. I mean I wouldn't commit it to memory, but I'm a philistine.

"What else are going to do when you live on a farm?  Howard Taft is president, the Kaiser is on his throne and you have no running water, no central heat and no indoor plumbing.  No radio."

She had me at that - I for one would need sedation if I found myself back in the "good old days".

"Wasn't she the one who tamed Racoons?"  Yes, I had an aunt who was the Racoon Whisperer.

"She did that, and she read everything she could get her hands on.  She would read labels on cans and when she found a word that she had never heard before, she'd look it up."

"Like tomato?" I asked.

Mother, clearly vexed said "You know one day you're going to mouth off to the wrong person and they're going to pop you but good.  No, not tomatoes.  But roma tomatoes, or creosote, or olive oil.  Tallow, and other things.  Pop said she like to pick words apart and discover their origins.  She'd make a list and when they went into town she'd find a dictionary and start looking up the words."

"Hazel was the first one in the family to go to college. She had the brains for it.  If she wouldn't have caught TB from taking care of Pop's father  - that would have been my mother's grandfather, but since he too died before she was born, he was really related to her either, in her mind) -she would have been a teacher or something else great."

So when I moved into the place that would be my apartment for the coming two years, up on the wall it went.  It made me happy.

Not the best image, reflections and all, but you get the idea.

About two months later a college PhD. candidate in English named Leanne, who was at a party that I was throwing jointly with my next door neighbor, said to me, "where did you get that Parrish print?"


"That print of the Rubiyat by Maxfield Parrish?  And it's in it's original frame!" she squealed with delight.

Mystery solved.  Evidently the Crane Candy Company commissioned a series of prints and frames that they could give away/sell.  And Maxfield Parrish was the illustrator of the day.

I was also able to get it appraised, which I happily sat down in front of my mother.  She looked at the appraisal.

"It's worth how much?"  she sat stunned.  "For that thing?"

"It's not a "thing"; it is a piece of art," I proudly stated. It's in the original frame, and you owe it some respect."

"Smartest twenty bucks you ever spent, buster," said the Oracle of Marion, Ohio.  "Are you sure it wouldn't look better in my house?"

Until she died, every trip at our house included a moment where she stopped, looked at the print and said "I still can't get over what this thing is worth."

We still have the print.  It hangs over the sofa and the wall opposite is the Prang Art Print of the "Ships of the Desert".

And over the years I have secured a couple more Parrish prints including a JUMBO copy of the Rubaiyat that hangs in our bedroom opposite of our copy of Parrish's Garden of Allah print, all from the Crane Candy Company issue of 1917-18.  Collect what you love they say, and we do.  Even if its "thing".

And it still makes me very happy.


  1. It's beautiful!
    I have an old copy of the Rubaiyat from the turn of the century which I bought when I was a kid....fascinated by the illustrations.

  2. don'tcha wish they all went this way?

  3. I love the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and how perfect it would be to read it again while sitting under Maxfield Parrish's illustration.

  4. When you come out to San Francisco, we'll go to the Pied Piper Bar to see their Parish mural of the Pied Piper. They also have lovely deviled eggs.

  5. I had Ecstasy in my bedroom (the print, not the drug…although…) but it got lost in a move.

  6. kabuki has The Dinky Bird, which he received in 1974. It always hangs by my bed. My mother once emarked 'You can't even see his dinky bird". Quaint

  7. Beautiful indeed! And proof of your exquisite taste. I've got a Chinese oil painting I found at a thrift store on the Texas coast that I love dearly; I know nothing about it, but don't care, because I love it.

    And I was going to mention the huge painting at the Palace in SF (which was only recently reinstalled after much hue and cry because it had been taken down for months in preparation for being sold because it was "too good" for the general public in a bar)but Peenee beat me to it. As he usually does.