By Barbara van Benthem
Love for sale – The story is simple: Lenore Doolan is 26 years old and working for The New York Times as a cake columnist, Harold “Hal” Morris is a globe-trotting photographer in his early 40s. Disguised as Lizzie Borden and Harry Houdini, they met at a Halloween party, fell in love with each other, have a happy time full of romantics, share everyday life in a New York flat – and split up after a little more than three years. And then they do what not only famous people nowadays often do when a change in life arises: They pack their things, give them to an auction house, where a sale is announced:
IMPORTANT ARTIFACTS AND PERSONAL PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF LENORE DOOLAN AND HAROLD MORRIS, INCLUDING BOOKS, STREET FASHION AND JEWELRY
Saturday, 14 February 2009, New York
The catalogue, with two pink poodles on the cover, is published by Strachan & Quinn Auctioneers based in London, New York and Toronto. It contains 332 lots, all carefully described and modestly priced: photographs, a beautiful black gown by John Galliano, first editions, presentation copies, signed letters, ash trays, a typewriter, hockey skates, a quilt, “four wooden birds”, thimbles, clogs, handwritten notes, a “series of photographs of refrigerator interiors”, jewelry, fine art, rare furniture ... Quite interesting, but not as spectacular as the collections of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Elton John, I thought when I opened the catalogue. And suddenly, I wasn’t sure: Was it real?
When Bonhams & Butterfields sold more than 300 items of Truman Capote’s property in 2006, Leanne Shapton bought three of his raincoats. “It was in reading that catalogue that it struck me that it was like reading a kind of autobiography of Capote’s later years,” she said. The idea of an unusual book was born.
Leanne Shapton is a well-known illustrator, author and art director of the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. In her brilliantly inventive new novel, the “auction catalogue” is a literary conceit. Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris aren’t real people (although they might be), Strachan & Quinn is not a real auction house – and the catalogue only looks like a real one. Through all the “ephemera” offered for sale on a fictive 14th February 2009, the love and the life of the New York couple cleverly emerges, from the first date to the final separation, with all the rituals of intimacy, relics and memorabilia that belong to a love story – and to everyday life. The affair starts with lot 1006 “A handwritten notation” on a cocktail napkin: “firstname.lastname@example.org”. And when you come to lot 1253, the end of the story is evident:
“A vintage 1930s leather and oak chair. Good condition, some marking to leather. A note on the back of a receipt for groceries reads: ‘You said you’d be back at 8, you could have called. Have gone to the movies. Here’s your present – Happy Birthday. L. 9:45’”
“We seek the absolute everywhere, and only ever find things.” Novalis’ words, cited on the first page of the book, reveal the deeper sense and – sometimes – highly symbolic character of “normality”. Leanne Shapton invites us to contemplate what is truly valuable, and to think about the art we make of our private lives. Her “auction catalogue” is enormously funny and witty, and it is more than a novel: "Important Artifacts is the rare high-concept book that rises above gimmickry and succeeds, not just as a novel, but as a work of art” (Jennie Yabroff).
A Novelist’s Catalog of Lives on the Block - Randy Kennedy in The New York Times
(Many thanks to Susanne Schulz-Falster for her gorgeous Christmas present.)