Auction house catalogues are multi-faceted publications. Primarily, of course, they’re sales tools, reassuring buyers that something is what it says it is, that it can legally be bought and where to do just that. Yet, they’re so much more. They can be a simple full stop to one of life’s chapters or, alternatively, a celebratory exclamation mark.
An anonymous 1895 house-contents catalogue (of which there are only four known surviving copies) for a Chelsea abode on Tite Street bears secret testament, through a haphazard compilation of loose-lotting, to the Icarus fall of one Mr Oscar Wilde. Conversely, the accompanying volume to Sotheby’s 1996 landmark auction of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis collection proved such an iconic salute to the late first lady’s style it made the New York Times bestseller list. Leanne Shapton is that newspaper’s op-ed art director and she clearly has a keen eye for emotive trans- actions. In her highly original novel, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris . . . she twists the auction house catalogue to her own sad, beautiful ends.
The book chronicles the doomed love affair between two kooky Manhattanites: Lenore, a twenty-something confectionary columnist, and Hal, an older British photographer. Through 332 items, catalogued with full photographic reproduction, description, measurements, dollar estimate and, most importantly, accompanying explanatory notes, we navigate the seven-year trajectory from their meeting to the sale of their shared worldly goods. It is a judicious tale for these straightened days: jettisoning yesterday’s baggage for a buck seems particularly timely. The lots are an eclectic mix, from domestic debris (pepper shakers, homemade strawberry jam) to tender offerings (Lenore’s hand-painted Valentine’s Day menus and snapshots of intimate moments). Cleverly set-directed photographs, with friends of the author acting as the couple, provide a necessary visual refrain.
The insights afforded by the various items vary from the comical (an invitation tells us of Lenore’s National Newspaper Award nomination for her story about blancmange) to the sober (one note informs the ever-absent Hal that Lenore may be pregnant). Their temperaments slowly emerge through the fog of their accumulated ephemera. We learn that our heroine is romantic but practical and our hero is a ponderous commitment-phobe. It’s as if Annie Hall is dating J. Alfred Prufrock.
It’s a very clever conceit and for the most part it works wonderfully. From the ticket stub ferreted away from a first date to a wedding ring, objects signpost our love lives like tors on a moor. For the creation of a coherent narrative, however, it possesses unique problems. The structure, which takes the reader dot-to-dot from desire to disenchantment, demands both patience and almost detective-like doggedness. Shapton plays with the form with differing degrees of success. No auction house would sell printouts of e-mails (how do you value that?), but they’re necessary for character development. Genuine catalogues of collections and house sales take pride in their appreciations of an owner’s vision and taste, yet Shapton doesn’t provide one for her protagonists. This is a shame, as it would have given a firm foundation to the staccato entries that follow.
Recently Lord and Lady Attenborough’s art collection sold at Sotheby’s London at an extraordinary white-glove auction, where every lot sold. Its catalogue fittingly paid tribute to the jolly, inquisitive and rewarding collecting trip the couple continue to enjoy. Understandably, Important Artifacts… doesn’t possess quite that impact. However, for those seeking out a truly novel novel, Shapton’s inventive curio is still worth a bid.