By Alice Tangerini, Scientific Illustrator, National Museum of Natural History
On December 16, 2004 I received an email from James White, Curator of Art for the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, asking if I had received a query from a consignor selling two drawings by Walpole on EBay. Frederick Andrew Walpole was a staff botanical artist for the US National Herbarium, precedent to our current Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History. Walpole was employed as an illustrator from 1896-1904, and during that time, he made many drawings on government sponsored field trips with staff botanists, notably Frederick Coville and Joseph Nelson Rose. Many of Walpole’s works reside at the Hunt Institute on an indefinite loan from the Department of Botany and are catalogued there. About 10% of the collection is still here at the Botany Department and is catalogued (with the exception of missing drawings and paintings) using information from Walpole’s field notebooks.
James was scrupulous about the records of artists in the Hunt Institute and followed the activities of sales on EBay searching for art that fell within the collections. James was aware that botanical illustrations were often sold on EBay, and knew from previous instances that some of these could be the missing artworks from the National Herbarium collections. When he saw the Walpole drawings for sale on Ebay he notified me and forwarded this message on December 16, 2004 from the consignor:
“We thought you or someone you know might be interested in this eBay auction of botanical drawings by Frederick A. Walpole. Please note that this auction ends 18 Dec 2004 at 15:08:23 PST.”
I asked my Chairman if there was a precedent for purchasing artworks with federal or trust funds. I also conferred with Smithsonian attorneys and others to determine whether we had a right to reclaim Smithsonian collections that have been lost for a number of years and are just surfacing through public sales. Unfortunately, the drawings were sold before we could determine an appropriate strategy.
Then on January 12, 2005, James emailed me about another auction of Walpole drawings. Dates for the botanical sketches were included in the sales descriptions. They were posted by the same consignor as before. Jim tried to tie information from notes by a botanist who had researched Walpole’s work to the drawings on EBay, but without having a publication it was too difficult. This time, after internal consultations, we concluded that the Smithsonian might not have sufficient proof that the drawings were actually made on government time it would be difficult to prove they were our property. So again on January 14, 2005 Warpoledrawings were sold on EBay.
On February 14, 2005, however, another sale of two Walpole drawings with a tracing was announced by the same consignor (again). Specific details of dates and collection areas where the plants were drawn were included in the items’ descriptions. With this information I was able to go to Walpole’s field notebooks and find the individual entries for each of the drawings, which were made on official field collecting trips for the Smithsonian. They were three illustrations in graphite of two species of Pinus and two species of Abies made in 1898 and 1902. Walpole drew these in the field as studies for drawings to be executed in ink. I photocopied the item entries from Walpole’s field note books and faxed these along with an emailed request to Smithsonian attorneys [General Counsel] asking them to intervene for the Department of Botany and request return of the illustrations. The following request was sent to the consignor:
"The Smithsonian has received an e-mail from you informing us of the sales of two Walpole drawings on E-Bay by your company. According to our records, those drawings appear to be from the national collections and were not deaccessioned, sold, or otherwise transferred from our collections. Can you please provide us with information regarding the circumstances under which you acquired them? Would you be willing to withdraw them from sale while we determine whether these are, in fact, Smithsonian property?"
The consignor asked for faxes of the catalog information for the drawings and when he received the faxed pages of the field notebooks he informed the Smithsonian that he would return the drawings to us as follows:
"We have passed on the information regarding the Walpole drawings to our client. He has asked us to send the drawings back to you. Please let us know the appropriate department and to whose attention they should be sent."
The Walpole drawings of Pinus and Abies were returned and the consignor was thanked for his grateful return of the artwork.
Recovery of these three Walpole drawings would have been difficult or impossible without the information captured in Walpole’s field notes. The documentation provided in these notes not only serves as natural science data, but in this case, served as a means to track the provenance of other materials related to the same collecting event.