In the early 1980s, I was working on my first biography of Joseph Henry Sharp, who in 1915, was a founding member of the important Taos Society of Artists. I was so raw at writing that I started out using a pencil on a yellow pad. My day job was running our Santa Fe gallery and we didn’t own a computer.
In some of our magazine ads we asked for information about Sharp. One day a nattily dressed man walked into my office. The guy’s chest filled out his shirt so completely that his tie looked like an aberration. When he sat down without being invited, I figured he had something important to say. I took a sip of Grapette and tried to appear nonchalant.
“Whatcha know about Sharp etchings,” he said with an attitude. It sounded more like a statement than a question. I explained that as far as I knew, there weren’t any. “Then what’s this?” He threw an 8 X 10 black & white photo on my desk.
It was of a Sharp etching for sure. The artist’s scald was all over it and the signature was right. I was astonished in an ecstatic sort of way.
I asked the man if I could please make a copy for my records, and I motioned to my secretary. “No you can’t,” the jerk said, as he grabbed for the photo. I quickly turned it over and read the logo on the back. JOHN WHITAKER PHOTOGRAPHY – CINCINNATI, OHIO.
The guy stormed out of my office like he was late for lunch with the queen.
The logo was burned deeply into my mind, and it started me on a research expedition that lasted for many months.
I must have made 20 phone calls in pursuit of that etching because it was fresh information to me and I needed it for my book.
The Whitaker photo business in Cincinnati had changed names and was being run by a wonderfully accommodating man. He gave me the name and address of lady who owned the etching. Phone calls and letters to her went unanswered. Requests for information about Sharp etchings in my magazine ads were ignored.
I received information about the artist from museums and galleries, but nothing about his etchings. The trail ran cold for about 20 more phone calls. Then I started getting some breaks.
I’ll shorten the story and get to the good part. I called a very elderly lady in Liberty, Indiana, and said, “Madam, about 1903, your father purchased at public auction in Cincinnati, 14 Joseph Henry Sharp zinc and copper etching plates. Included in the lot was a cigar box filled with etching tools.” There was a short pause, then in almost a whisper, she said, “No, I think there are 16 of them.”
It was a lightning strike moment for me.
They were stored in her garage and much too heavy for her to lift. When she agreed to sell them, I made plans to meet her the very next day. “Please have your doctor or lawyer present when I arrive.”
When I entered her home, 16 etching plates were spread out on her living room carpet. They were beautiful. Her attorney, John Something, was standing guard, probably not knowing for sure why he was even there. He struck me as being the kind of guy who would hit himself in the head with a stick because it felt so good when he quit.
I inspected each plate to make sure it hadn’t been cancelled. All but one were Indian portraits. They were in perfect condition.
I asked what she wanted for the 16 plates. Her lawyer started expounding on how valuable they were and…she interrupted.
“Mister Fenn, I don’t know what they are worth, probably not very much. What are you willing to give me for them?” I said “Madam, I will give $5,000 each for the 16, that’s $80,000.
They both were shocked, and numbed, almost into incredulity. Their faces gave testimony to that fact. John Something sat down and began cleaning his glasses.
“Mister Fenn, I think we have a deal.” The attorney had checked me out so I handed that beautiful lady a check, kissed her on the cheek, and was gone.
What I had going for me was a note Sharp had written many years earlier stating that his intention was to print 250 copies from each plate, but most he had printed was 23.
We had a special porous paper made, each sheet with a large F hidden in the watermark. It could be seen only when held up to a strong light source. I didn’t want our etchings to be confused with those Sharp had printed, which were more valuable.
Over the next few months we had a professional print maker finish printing the editions for us. That totaled 3,632 etchings that varied in value from $100 to $1,800 each. It was a wild expense for our gallery, but everything was tax-deductible. We donated 50 or more sets of the etchings to museums, art schools and other non-profits.
And more importantly, we bound an etching in each of 100 limited edition copies of The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance and Teepee Smoke, my two biographies of Joseph Sharp. Each book was leather bound, numbered, and signed. For years they lumbered off of our book shelves.
We gave the 16 etching plates to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center with the stipulation that no additional copies would ever be printed.
Our gallery sold hundreds of the etchings, both individually and in sets. They also made great gifts for birthdays, weddings, Christmas, anniversaries, graduations, and “I’m just thinking of yous.”
The complicated etching operation was spread out over several years and I never knew how we came out financially. I hope we at least broke even.
Those were happy days for me, partly because I was busy doing the things I liked doing. And now, nearly 40 years after I acquired the etching plates, I have 1 etching left. It’s a portrait of White Swan, who, after the Custer Fight, was found deaf and dumb on the battlefield. Sharp was deaf, White Swan was deaf, and so am I. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept this particular etching. f