Tuesday, January 29, 2019

eBay 101: A Thurber Façade

No doubt the place to be on Wednesday, January 19, 1949 was in the auditorium of the Museum of Modern Art. There the first complete American performance of Façade took place, an "entertainment" with words by Dr. Edith Sitwell and music by William Walton. The performance was introduced by Sir Osbert Sitwell, Edith's brother. Two sketches of the Sitwells at the performance document the noteworthy evening. These sketches are currently listed on eBay with the jaw-dropping price of $2,000, a price justified only, it would seem, by the unsupportable assertion that they are from the hand of James Thurber.

Thurber was a world-class cartoonist, but he was not a caricaturist and he certainly was not one to be relied on to capture a likeness. These drawings do not resemble his work in the slightest; they try too hard and they clearly fall short. They lack his effortlessly-flowing lines and his irreproachable simplicity. They bear handwriting that is clearly not Thurber's, and they are, as one might guess, unsigned. In 1949 it is doubtful that Thurber's failing vision would allow him even to attempt any sort of live sketching at an event.

Osbert Sitwell and Edith Sitwell
eBay Listing Retrieved January 10, 2019

Osbert Sitwell and Edith Sitwell
eBay Item Description

Façade:  An Entertainment
Poems by Edith Sitwell
Music by William Walton
Edith Sitwell and Peter Pears, reciters
Anthony Collins conducting The English Opera Group Ensemble
British Decca recording, 1953
Orchestral Fanfare
Poem 3, Mariner Man ("What are you staring at, mariner man..."), recited by Sitwell; 
Poem 6, Tango-Pasodoble ("When Don Pasquito arrived at the seaside..."), recited by Pears
Poem 7, Lullaby For Jumbo ("Jumbo asleep! Grey leaves thick-furred as his ears..."), recited by Sitwell
Poem 16, Valse ("Daisy and Lily, lazy and silly, walk by the shore..."), recited by Sitwell
Poem 21, Sir Beelzebub ("When Sir Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell..."), recited by Pears

August 5, 2019 Update:  Six months later and this post has come to the attention of Gabriel Boyers of Schubertiade Music & Arts, LLC, the seller who, according to eBay's terms, "assumes all responsibility for this listing." On July 22 he wrote:

It saddens me to see that it is no less than the immediate past President of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association (PADA) who is still trying to pass these amateur drawings off as the work of James Thurber. The autograph trade is rife with hucksterism and fraud. PADA should exist to establish standards so buyers will have faith that what they're purchasing is genuinely what it's stated to be. Instead apparently the standards are just for show; the deception goes to the very top of the trade.

Incidentally, copyright for the images resides with the artist and the artist's estate; it does not transfer automatically to the owner of the drawings. I would doubt these images were ever technically under anyone's copyright, but even if they were I would still have the right to display and discuss them publicly under the doctrine of fair use. For the seller to assert that he can post these images publicly on eBay and call them the work of Thurber—or, for that matter, of Picasso or of Rembrandt—without any supporting evidence but that for me to point out the spuriousness of his claim is "disparaging" and a violation of his copyright is simply ludicrous. Actually, I think that even as anonymous drawings these are valuable as a historical record of the first complete American performance  of Façade. I merely object to them being falsely called the work of James Thurber. It is the seller who is "disparaging" Thurber's reputation.

The burden of proof of authenticity lies with the seller. Numerous examples of Thurber's midcentury handwriting and drawing are available for comparison with these two drawings and anyone can look them up, even a professional autograph dealer. I personally would love to see what served as the basis for "our analysis of the work as by Thurber." I think Mr. Boyers should go public with his evidence and his analysis.

In the meantime, I would not recommend buying a Strad from Schubertiade Music & Arts.

July 19, 2020 Update:   Schubertiade is hoping to unload this piece at auction tomorrow. They have reduced the $2000 price to an estimate of $800-$1200, with an opening bid of $400. That seems fairly reasonable for a unique document from an American concert premiere. They continue to attribute the work to Thurber against all reason, but it's becoming clear that even they don't believe it. Thus we get to learn a bit more of the history of their acquisition forty years ago and we get a lot of new caveats—"the penmanship and drawing style are plausibly Thurberesque to our eye"—while they acknowledge his severely impaired vision at the time of this drawing and state, for once, the obvious: "...we cannot make a definitive attribution." Of course you can't. There's nothing "plausibly Thurberesque" about it. But good luck with the sale.
Auction Listing Accessed July 19, 2020

Auction Item Description Accessed July 19, 2020

July 21, 2020 Update:  No sale.

Note:  If you are able to recognize the artist or the handwriting, do tell.

At press time the sketches remain available on eBay.

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