Look Mum, Maybe I do have a Talent

In the last few months I have discovered I have a new skill. Thanks to my copyright work I have learnt that I am creepily good at tracking down artists or their estates; a born detective. I don’t want to call it stalking but effectively, online stalking has been my mode of operation. I scour the web hunting for any snippet of information relating to the artist in question and try to paint a better picture of their life.

Unfortunately I had no budget to operate on so I couldn’t buy copies of wills or death certificates to locate more information. All I had was me and my computer. The more I made like Alice and followed the White Rabbit down numerous rabbit holes, the more useful outlets I found. Eventually I was delving through cemetery records, Facebook profiles, newspaper articles, dealer galleries, art gallery websites, online collections, Wikipedia, Te Ara Encyclopedia online, obituaries, and the physical backs of the artworks in our collection. Unfortunately the Cheshire Cat was not stumbled upon. I feel that he would have provided me with a whole new angle upon the situation, or confused me entirely, as if I was not confused enough following endless Smith surnames.

Alice in Wonderland aside, I was often reaching out to people explaining who I am, what my project was and asking if they are in fact who I think they are. Sometimes I was taking a stab in the dark, however, these stabs in the dark definitely paid off. As weeks passed many of the people I reached out to replied and most of them were correct. They were in fact the artist, who has now relocated to the UK or the children of, or the estate holder for the artist I was investigating.  Suddenly it became very exciting getting emails and Facebook messages. Each time I could see it was a reply from a source I had spent time and energy tracking down I became eager to see if I had solved the case.

Most people who I have struck up random conversation with are interested in my project and are very lovely. If they are able to put me in touch with a better informed person in their family, they do, or if they have the information in their own head they often, without prompt, shared their stories and appropriate contact information with me so I can send the updated copyright agreement to them in due course.

For example, one morning I was at work alone and the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a much older gentleman. Immediately I assumed he was ringing the old library phone number and all he wanted was some books renewed, as this happens to us on our office phone frequently. However, I soon realised he was calling for me thanks to a relation passing on my details. He was ringing about artwork by his father and informed me that he and his brother are the estate holders, but his brother isn’t at all interested in dealing with it, so I was to deal with him. That morning I had a lovely chat on the phone to this 95 year old man who gave me a wonderful insight into the type of person his father was and all about where his works have been exhibited. It is the outcomes like this that really make the work worthwhile.

Sadly, every great project has some difficult parts. In terms of copyright this comes in the form of death. Due to the age of our collection, and a large proportion of it being collected during the 70s, a lot of artists have died recently. Often I think I’m right on track to contact someone just to find out they passed away last year and I just missed them.  Just a few weeks ago one very talented artist, by the name of Llew Summers, passed on. The letter I was creating at the exact same time will now never make it to him. On another instance, I discovered that a copyright permission we hold which was signed in 2012 was probably the last that artist ever signed, as he died just a week later. These discoveries are tough. They gave me constant reality checks and made me go home to my family and tell them how much I love them. What kept me going and positive is knowing that any contact I make with people is for the longevity, exposure and benefit of our collection. The positives are worth it. Hopefully, within the next month, I will be extremely excited to receive the mail, as replies start to come in from the copyright letters I am due to send out. Too bad our mail delivering caretaker is called Pete and not Pat, as in my childish investigative glee I can almost guarantee I will want to sing “Postman Pat, Postman Pat and his black and white cat”.

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar