Serendipitous find only a click away


Where can you acquire a rare and precious piece of local history? Try the Internet.

March 12, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

The book is fat and musty and bound in chestnut pony skin. Published in 1817 by Thomas Dobson and Son of Philadelphia, it describes Congressional wrangling over elections, the death of M. Guilliton, namesake of the guillotine, and a man with a horn growing out of his head.

All subjects of little interest to Catherine Rogers Arthur, curator of the Homewood House Museum at the Johns Hopkins University.

Still, one day last fall, as Arthur was visiting, the Internet auction site, to see what was being offered for sale, a description of the old book caught her eye. Among other things, it said: "Charles Carroll Jr. signed book."

Couldn't possibly be, she thought.

She clicked anyway.

A detail of a signature from the front of the book popped up on her screen. Written in black ink, the name is scrawled in confident, angular script. Beneath it is the pale suggestion of a line -- a swoosh of ink added in haste.

Chas. Carroll Jr., it read -- the signature of the former master of Homewood House.

Arthur put in a bid. By the end of the auction, the book was hers for $77.

This is how a collection is improved, one small item at a time. It is how a biography of a man is assembled through artifacts, how the history of early Maryland is made tangible piece by piece.

Curators are charged with protecting and interpreting their collections, and in many cases, for augmenting them. In recent years, museum professionals like Arthur have discovered a new tool to aid them in their search for acquisitions: the Internet.

"It's one more source, a broader source in many cases. Often a curator is limited to the [antique] shows given in an area or the area in which he travels. You'd be less effective if you didn't take advantage of all the possibilities," says James Abbott, curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art, who surfs the Net every few weeks looking for possible acquisitions.

"On the other hand," he adds, "there is something great about being able to hold the object before making a decision."

At the Maryland Historical Society, curators purchased via eBay a James Brown album recorded in February 1964 and called, "Pure Dynamite Live at the Royal." They're planning on using it in an exhibition titled "Filming Maryland" that opens April 15, says Nancy Davis, deputy director of the museum.

"We do use the Internet when we are looking for something very specific," she says. For instance, she is hoping to find via the Net a particular kind of lapel pin made in Baltimore in the early 19th century that was worn by suffragettes.

"When it's a larger object like a piece of furniture, that's another thing," she says. "You have to be able to see the object and to inspect it very carefully."

A startling discovery

Arthur's Internet purchase is something of a curatorial coup: The $77 book she found is the first object at Homewood House that historians are certain belonged to Charles Carroll Jr.

Of everything else in the museum, they can only say: This belonged to the Carroll family, or this is representative of the kinds of objects and furnishings that would have been owned by a wealthy family of that time.

"This is really like the proverbial needle in the haystack," says Stiles Colwill, president of Stiles T. Colwill Interiors and a member of the museum's furnishings committee.

"Finding something of Charles Carroll Jr.'s is a coup no matter where you find it, and the fact that she found it on eBay shows some tenacity. She could probably look for another 20 years and not find anything else."

Titled "The American Registry, a summary review of history, politics and literature, a magazine in two volumes," the book includes reports on British parliamentary debates over scotch distilleries and a range of obituaries including that of Guilliton, of a woman who died at age 100, and of John Carroll, the Archbishop of Baltimore.

Arthur purchased the book from Gary Wilt, an autograph collector and dealer from Silver Spring, who bought it from a dealer in Front Royal, Va., several years ago. That dealer had purchased it with several other books at an estate sale, Wilt says.

"I really thought, 'No way,' when I saw the description. Then I saw the picture and that was enough for me," Arthur says. "The date was right and to be honest, Charles Carroll Jr. isn't famous enough for people to be faking his signature."

Charles Carroll Jr. is believed to have been the architect of Homewood House, which he used as a summer house from 1801-1825. His winter residence was in downtown Baltimore on the now-vanished King Georges Street. Homewood House originally was budgeted at $10,000, but wound up costing $40,000, a fortune in those days.

The house and Carroll Jr.'s bills were paid for by his renowned father, Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Carroll of Carrollton is one of the four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. He also is the only Roman Catholic to have signed the document.

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