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Irwin: Art, heirloom, treasure at Christmas
Andy Irwin

OK, y’all. Stay with me. 

My beloved cousin-in-law, Debbie, who lives in Colorado with her husband, my cousin Sid, is one of the best people I know. 

A few months ago Debbie posted the following on Facebook:

“Dear artist friends, I hope I didn't make a mistake to cover over the white cracks in this painting.”

That opening sentence utterly grabbed me; I smiled and winced at the same time. 

Debbie provided before-and-after photos of what was obviously a very old painting, an idyllic farm-scene of a dog guarding farmyard chickens. I pictured Debbie lost in the sweet timelessness of the artistic endeavor – touching up the cracked canvas; mixing the paint to find just the right shades and hues; applying just the right amount of paint to make the cracks disappear until, finally, she could fall into the scene made less illusionary and more real by her efforts.

And then I could imagine her finishing her homemade restoration, stepping back with her wet paintbrush, giving it a look, and going through a shudder-panic of questioning everything. Hence the wince.  

She betrayed yet more dread as she continued her Facebook post. “I was advised not to [touch up the white cracks] because it would destroy the value, but I loved the painting except the cracks.”

It is fitting to note here that Debbie and Sid are humble and devout Sunday school teachers. They both dwell in an intentional world of rectitude and sincerity. Their children and grandchildren dwell in this same place. 

In the post, Debbie told us what she knew of the painting’s history.  It was created in Germany sometime between 1800 to 1825. She said, “It was given to me by a lady, Emma Hainer who received it from her aunt, Mrs. Gore from Germany.” The signature is mostly unreadable. Scheoon? Sceeoc?

What hits me is the conflict revealed here between the monetary value of an object versus what it means to the holder.

In the art-marketing world, the value of a piece would be determined by the fame of the artist, the subject, the artist’s period and the condition. 

And how do I know this? Well, as with many who are my age and education, my training in art investment came through the Parker Brothers board-game, Masterpiece. That game taught us to think of art as a commodity. Whichever player amassed the most cash, won.

My guess is the artist of Debbie’s painting isn’t so famous. (I did a quick internet search.) At that I shrug and say, "So what?" Prior to photography, the world had a good many painters who rendered “realistic” works of simple and profound beauty, works that depict a moment of life that was pleasing or moving to the artist. (Nowadays, one can imagine a back-yard farmer posting a social media photo of their dog loyally guarding the chickens.)

This picture was enough of a treasure to Mrs. Gore that she deemed it to be among the belongings that she brought to these shores. She bestowed it to her beloved niece, Emma, who bestowed it to her beloved young friend, Debbie. 

• • •

As I write this, the shopping-rush day that arrives just before Advent, “Black Friday,” has come and gone, It really bugs me that on the calendar in my computer (on which I utterly depend), “Black Friday” is listed automatically. I can’t even delete it. If I try, I am rebuked by the machine with a pop-up window: 

“You cannot change events in the ‘HOLIDAYS IN THE UNITED STATES’ calendar.”

Black Friday a holiday?! C’MON!

• • •

At one of Jesus of Nazareth’s biggest public rallies, the event known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” after he admonished folks for showing off by appearing all pious when praying or doing acts of charity, he said, “Store not your treasures upon the earth.” This is in Matthew 6. 

I do think about treasures. And stuff we amass. And, of course, the pressure we feel at Christmastime to give and to get. 

When Jesus was 12 days old, the Magi, star-gazing fellows most likely from Persia —– modern-day Iran — bestowed upon the Christ child, three treasures: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These Wise Men were the givers of the first Christmas presents. 

So there’s a balance to strike, isn’t there? Treasures, what they mean. How we interact with them. How we use them. 

Some of our nonfunctional objects give us solace and comfort, or in the case of art, they may give us a profound sense of joy and meaning. Even understanding. 

But the treasures those Three Kings brought … well, what if these fellows were living up to their popular title, what if they truly were wise men? And what if, after stopping by Herod’s palace on their way to Bethlehem, they thought ahead. (Even before the prophetic dream.)

What if the Magi understood that the Holy Family were destined for a journey into another land, a trip that would require a kind of currency, something to trade for hay, food, and lodging?

Because the Angel came to Joseph in the night and told him, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt.”

Joseph had to get Mary and Jesus across the border. 

Maybe the Magi understood that the Holy Family were about to be refugees.  

Peace to you and your House.