For state's law library, costly question takes flight

Officials seek to fix rare Audubon prints, without a nest egg

March 16, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The rips can be mended, the greasy finger smudges cleaned and the paper plumped, but such painstaking conservation of the Maryland State Law Library's valuable set of original John James Audubon prints comes at a cost of nearly $300,000.

The condition of the library's 19th-century prints was reviewed in November by Rolf Kat, senior conservator of the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.

He found some images in the four volumes crumpled, page corners torn away and splotches of glue from backing bleeding into the famed art. Also, four prints are missing from what state officials presumed was a complete set of 435 oversized Birds of America prints, perhaps the only set in Maryland.

"It's a lot of money that we don't have," library director Michael S. Miller said of the repair estimate.

Word that a full set in perfect shape brought $8.8 million at auction in 2000 prompted Miller to seek an expert's opinion on the state of the library's prints.

Part of a surprise $25,700 bequest from a Gaithersburg woman's estate funded the report. But what's left is nominal compared with the estimated cost for repairs.

"When you are talking about that kind of money, I think maybe I would like a second opinion, without paying another fee," Miller said. He said he is considering consulting with the Maryland State Archives conservators.

The library's budget of about $1.6 million provides nothing toward conservation, Miller said.

An unlikely possession for a law library, the prints are bound in 80-pound volumes locked in a glass-front cabinet revealing one print by the Annapolis law library's entrance. While that is secure, it is a conservator's nightmare, Kat said.

His estimate does not include a climate-controlled container for the prints, which would be best preserved unbound in cool, damp storage, and Kat said that could cost as much as restoring the prints.

It also doesn't address display costs, such as security and low-level incandescent lighting.

It does, however, include window-mats, which would hide some of the damage.

His report recommends removing the prints from their bindings, eliminating the adhesive and cotton linings that were added in a 1921 rebinding, and then bathing, cleaning, flattening, and repairing the pages before preparing them for storage.

"What I am trying to accomplish here is the best preservation for the prints for the long term. I am not talking about the next 20 years. I am talking about the next 200 or 250 years," Kat said.

He said the job would take about at least two years if the Philadelphia center did it. But, the state would have to put the job out for bid.

Audubon created the prints between 1827 and 1838 from his now-renowned watercolors. The detailed depictions and vivid hues remain captivating despite the damage, some of which is beyond repair. In the 1921 rebinding, plate marks, ornithological names and birds' toes were hacked off.

Why the state subscribed, or why David Ridgely, the first librarian of what began as a state repository for official, valuable and reference material, cared about art or birds, is unknown. But the state paid about $2,000 for the collection a century before the repository Kat's recommendations have not gone to the library's policymaking board, whose members will receive copies before a meeting likely to be held in April. What to do about the "bird books" will be on the agenda.

Chief among the board's questions is, if the committee wants to restore the prints, where will it find a golden egg to pay for the work?

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals and chairman of the library committee, said the group could consider assorted funding mechanisms, including asking the General Assembly next year, applying for grants, and hoping for gifts.

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