The year is 1974, and art collectors are circling like sharks.
They have their eyes on a valuable collection of George Caleb Bingham’s drawings slated to be dispersed and sold off, piece by piece, to fine art collectors scattered around the world.
The art world, always up for gossiping about money, is throwing around sale price predictions, some as high as $4 million.
But to St. Louis attorney Charles Valier, it’s not an art sale in the making--it’s a robbery in progress that’s about to relieve the state of Missouri of some of it’s most treasured historical artifacts.
The Auction Block
It all starts when the St. Louis Mercantile Library, in need of significant repairs, looks inward to see what assets it might part with to raise the cash it needs for the upgrades.
Someone at the Library realizes they have a collection of drawings by Bingham, more than a 100 of them. The Library has owned these since receiving them as a gift from a former mayor of St. Louis, who had acquired them from Bingham himself way back in 1868.
But it’s been awhile since anyone has seen the drawings on display. They’ve been safely hidden away in storage for quite some time.
Now keep in mind that money’s tight in the non-profit art world, and the Library is losing money annually, and needs air conditioning to protect its collection. The Library decides that a valuable collection of drawings not on display — whether also a priceless part of the state’s history or not — is an ideal asset for raising funds.
It's at this point that the Library announces its intentions to put the drawings up for sale.
When Charles Valier reads of the Library’s intention to sell off the drawing he’s not sure it’s such a good idea. Might be good for the Library, but not for his home state of Missouri.
After all, these are more than just valuable sketches made by an important American artist as part of his process for creating some of America’s finest 19th Century artwork—no, these drawings are also irreplaceable pieces of Missouri’s history that were created by one of its most important historical figures, and they are in one collection, one of the largest for an American artist
So Valier talks about the impending sale to a friend and associate, Kit Bond, a collector of Bingham engravings. This was more than idle chit-chat among friends and associates. At that time Bond happened to be the Missouri’s Governor and Valier his Counsel.
As Valier and Governor Christopher S. “Kit” Bond told an audience at the Saint Louis Art Museum in February 2015, they considered the idea that the drawings would live anywhere but in Missouri “a scandal.”
Valier suggests to Bond that he lead a public subscription campaign to buy the drawings, these important artifacts of Missouri’s history that, ideally, should remain in Missouri where most of their related paintings are located. Bond, having recently completed a successful statewide campaign understood how to appeal to the general public and the power of involving citizen contributors.
Working with curator and art expert Nancy Work - who once interviewed another famed Missouri artist and Bingham fan, Thomas Hart Benton - Valier negotiates on behalf of Bond with the Library. Soon the two sides come to an agreement: $1 million for the drawings.
At least Valier and Bond think they have an agreement.
The governing board at the Library has second thoughts about the deal and back out. They don’t want to leave money on the table. They contend it’s their responsibility as stewards of the Library to get as much as they can and, well, they think they can much more than the agreed upon $1 million, maybe four times as much.
There’s much back and forth. Eventually both sides agree to retain two independent appraisers to value the drawings before finally settling on a new price: $1.8 million.
Now all Bond needs to do is actually raise the money. And fast because if he can’t raise the money by the deadline for the sale, July 1, 1976, several east coast art dealers are eager to step in and, rumor has it, offer up to $4 million.
School Children To The Rescue
Bond and Valier can’t go to the state Legislature. Well, they could but they had just succeeded in raising money to save a historic architectural treasure, the Louis Sullivan Wainwright Building in St. Louis. And at that time relations between the Republican Governor Bond and the Democrat-controlled state Legislature weren’t, shall we say, convivial to the point of prying the money loose for something of this nature.
So the answer was in private money. But how to raise enough private money to pay the negotiated price? Valier and Bond decide to take it to the people of Missouri. Specifically, the young people.
They determine to educate Missourians so they will understand the significance of Bingham as “Missouri’s artist.” To do this they decide first to educate the children of Missouri, feeling the children will then educate their parents. They also send the drawings and paintings to seven museums spread across the State.
School children around the state study Bingham and his art through a program put together by volunteers for the Bingham drive. Bingham is integrated into their curriculum and Bond sets aside a week for the schools to concentrate on Bingham. By the ingenuity of the school children they are able to raise the first $40,000 toward the purchase of Bingham’s drawings. A little here, a little there from kids who care a little bit really adds up.
Figuring wisely that no one would want to be shamed by the benevolence of Missouri school children, Bond leverages the school children’s $40,000 by stumping the State to “inspire” individuals and business, as well as the state legislature, to raise $2 million. Over 100,000 Missourians respond to the Governor’s challenge. The extra money going toward purchasing an additional drawing and their care and maintenance.
And that’s how a lawyer, a governor and a bunch of Missouri school children managed to keep Bingham’s drawings at home in Missouri.
After all, our history belongs to us…and it belongs with us.
To learn more about Bingham and for updates about the documentary, The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, due in 2016, please join our mail list.