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Week of March 7, 2005

This Weeks Article:

Edgar Allen Poe disappears

How did a rare and valuable photo of Edgar Allen Poe disappear from a library in New York, then end up sold by an antiques shop in Iowa for less than $100? It's a puzzle worthy of Poe himself.

It begins during the Feb. 7 episode of the popular public television program "Antiques Roadshow," which unfolded in typical fashion. One after another, ordinary folks offered their family heirlooms and junk shop acquisitions to expert appraisers, hoping against hope that extraordinary value would be revealed.

That's just what happened to Sally Guest, the Omaha matron with the sensibly cut graying hair, flower-embroidered T-shirt and demure heart-shaped locket dangling around her neck.

Her hoped-to-be treasure was an 1840s, mirror-like, palm-sized photo known as a daguerreotype, encased in a thin brass frame. Similar pre-Civil War photos can be found glinting in the display cases of most antique shops. They aren't terribly rare. Well-worn daguerreotypes like the one Guest presented on the Roadshow fetch from $25 to $250. Unless, that is, the long-dead photographer had captured an important historical figure. Then the prices can skyrocket.

In the center of Guest's mirror-like photo stood a disheveled man with a towering forehead, brooding eyes and slightly tilted mustache. His bow tie was grossly uneven, his shirt blooming oddly beneath his vest, his hair uncombed. Quoth the raven: It was none other than the legendarily dour and disheveled 19th-century wordsmith Edgar Allen Poe, who lived from 1809 to 1849.

Those who collect daguerreotypes are quite taken by them. In 1840, the year after they were invented, Poe himself was fascinated by what was then a brand-new technology: "The variations of shade, and the gradations of both linear and aerial perspective are those of truth itself in the supremeness of its perfection," Poe wrote. "The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science."

In Guest's daguerreotype, Poe's silvery face was somewhat smudged where a previous owner had mistakenly touched the delicate surface beneath the protective glass. And to those most knowledgeable about the few photographic images of Poe, it was obvious that Guest's treasure was a century-and-a-half-old photo of a photo, a reversed image of an earlier, clearer, unsmudged Poe stored in Columbia University's library in New York.

Regardless of its flaws, the volunteer Roadshow appraiser, Cincinnati-based Wesley Cowan, decreed it to be worth $30,000 to $50,000, uttering his Midas-like pronouncement after the customarily dramatic "Roadshow" pause. Guest, described as a daguerreotype collector, was naturally delighted, having purchased the Poe photo in a Walnut, Iowa, antique shop for $96.

To most audience members, it was a satisfactory ending to another "Roadshow" episode. The odds had been beaten, the modest had triumphed, a missing piece had been restored from obscurity to the jigsaw puzzle of history.

But to New Orleans artist Michael Deas, known for his ultra-realistic portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on U.S. postage stamps, not to mention his rendering of the Lady Columbia logo seen at the beginning of every Sony Pictures movie, it was the first chapter of a circuitous mystery worthy of Poe -- the originator of suspense fiction.

In addition to his artistic talents, Deas is the world's foremost authority on the handful of Edgar Allen Poe photos. In 1988, he published "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe," a 198-page book that exhaustively reports on all the Poe paintings, drawings and eight primitive photos known to exist. As he watched the tiny picture Guest held in her hand, he felt a pang of familiarity. Hadn't he seen a similarly smudged portrait of Poe during his research for the book? Didn't Guest's daguerreotype belong in the Hampden-Booth library located in The Players, the venerable Manhattan theatrical club, founded in 1888 by actor Erwin Booth, brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth?

When Deas contacted the club, he met with tightlipped consternation. Indeed, The Players' distinctly smudged, reversed daguerreotype was missing and presumed stolen, though the venerable organization had failed to alert the police. The recent celebrity of their smudged Poe came as a surprise. In an odd coincidence, the Hampden-Booth library log book showed that Deas had been the last legitimate person to have handled the photo, back when he was researching his book. He encouraged The Players to call the cops.

Deas also contacted Cowan, the dapper daguerreotype authority he'd seen on "Roadshow." At first, Cowan, who had agreed to help sell the daguerreotype on Guest's behalf, dismissed Deas' suspicions, until the dogged researcher supplied him with point-by-point documentation of the Hampden-Booth library photo. Cowan acknowledged that it was distinctly similar to Guest's acquisition.

It became Deas' quest to return what he believed was the Iowa collector's innocently purchased but apparently purloined photo to The Players and to help discover how the rare piece had wandered weak and weary from a Manhattan theatrical archive to an Iowa antique shop. He also hoped to discover why a daguerreotype of such obvious value had been sold, not on the international black market in high-priced stolen art, but in a public shop for such a modest price. Finally, if possible, he hoped to help catch a thief who, as Poe might have put it, dared all things, those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man.

Walnut, Iowa, population 900, is a typical Midwestern farm town, with a mile-long commercial district that has suffered decades of economic downturn. Luckily for Walnut, as the grocery store, drug store and other conventional shops closed up, antique stores began popping up in their places. By last spring, when locals believe Guest purchased her Poe, Walnut had mushroomed into an antique-seeker's mecca, a corn-country shopping spot for all things quaint and curious, with 24 permanent shops and periodic festivals drawing as many as 400 itinerant antique dealers and thousands of shoppers.

Naturally, in a town built on the antique trade, gossip crescendoed after the "Roadshow" broadcast and subsequent newspaper stories. What the Walnut shop owners knew was that a shopper had scored big in their little town. What they didn't know was that the treasure might rightfully belong to someone else.

They also weren't certain of the exact place of purchase, though rumors swirl around a red brick storefront called Farm Fresh Antiques, known for its eclectic, some say disorganized, offerings. "It's a possibility we sold it," said Farm Fresh owner Bill Griffith. "But who knows? We would have never had an inkling of what it was."

The smudged Poe remains in Guest's hands, temporarily anyway, though interest in her find apparently has become a burden, as her telephone line is disconnected. Cowan, who is adamant that Guest was unaware the daguerreotype was stolen, contacted her on behalf of The Times-Picayune, but she declined to comment.

As to the identity of the antique photo, appraiser Cowan is circumspect. "Am I ready to comment on it, that it actually is the one from The Players club?" he said. "I'm not prepared to say that now. You've got to understand that this daguerreotype doesn't belong to me, that it belongs to a woman who bought it on the up-and-up. And I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize her by talking to the press."

"Roadshow" producer Judy Matthews said she is aware of the presumed theft but had no details to add. "The story is not finished yet," she said. "We don't know the truth of the matter."

Hampden-Booth librarian Ray Remlinger declined to comment on the status of The Players' Poe or to address whether police have been notified of its theft. John Martello, director of The Players theatrical club in Manhattan where the Hampden-Booth theatrical library is housed, said he was unaware of the purported theft prior to being contacted by The Times-Picayune. He said he has little contact with the library.

Deas declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.

But an investigation by whom? Despite rumors to the contrary, an FBI spokesman in the Omaha regional office says there is no investigation. The FBI office in New York City did not return phone calls.

For reasons that remain a mystery, The Players organization apparently did not follow Deas' advice. The 13th Precinct of the New York City Police Department has no report of stolen property from the organization. Neither does NYPD headquarters.

What is known is that The Players once fairly recently owned a distinctive Poe daguerreotype worth $30,000 to $50,000, and that a woman apparently bought it in a rural Iowa antique shop for $96.


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