Rescued Art

Watermelon VendorThe thrift store stood on a pitted boulevard in a gritty part of the city in southwest Connecticut. It is disheartening to witness how closely the wealthy and the low-paid reside in our country. Half a block from the front door of the thrift a Trump tower loomed, with a banner that read: “One bedroom apartments starting at $500,000.”

The thrift offered me a respite from the hustle of city traffic. Out back was a little park with a river and a small flock of geese. Store staff on break sat at a picnic table in the quiet. Such a small quiet, yet secret in a way that made me feel lucky.

Inside, the store was a wonderful ethnic salad of staff and customers. I was one of two whose first language was English. Spanish dominated with a lot of Arabic as well. A staff member, who was sweet as a peach, spoke Spanish to a customer family and then turned to me: “There is more art by the window, sir.” In flawless English and accent. How could she switch so fast and easy? What a talent.

And there by the window was the most diverse, most sophisticated collection of art I have ever seen in any thrift store. The closeness of wealth and low-pay creates a perfect place for us art rescuers. Tenants of Trump only have half a block to walk to abandon their pictures.

One piece attracted me most. It spoke of history at first, much more than beauty. The presentation had been through some very rough years. The frame was badly marred, with sooted glass and torn backing paper. And the oversized black and white photograph itself was clearly old, portraying a group of people from long ago and far away. People who would be foreign to these Arabic and Spanish speakers as well, not just to us mono-lingustic customers.

The photo is focused on a man who, with style and pride, holds up two watermelons in his stall stacked with other artfully displayed melons. He is fronted by three people obviously posing with slices of melon held to their mouths in a way that reveals they are not actually eating. One of them is a young boy with bare feet, patchy pants and a dirty face. He probably received his slice as payment for posing, a real treat for this poor kid.

It was only when I looked at the back of the picture that its exotic aged value revealed itself: “Napoli – Venditore di Cocomeri.” “Stampa in collotipia dulla lastra originale Chauffourier . . .” With help from a Sicilian friend, I found out the meaning: “Naples- Watermelon Seller.” “Collotype print from the original plate (Chauffourier 5424) in custody of Allinari Archives.” This beautiful shot was taken by the famous French photographer Augusto Eugenio Chauffourier in 1900. Now that the frame is restored to its antiqued perfect condition, the glass is free of soot, and the backing paper is no longer torn, this piece is beautiful and historically important. What a shame that those $500,000 apartments stand in the shadow of this artful tower of a thrift store.