It is, I suppose, the very best of times, and the very worst of times. Two worlds live in uneasy juxtaposition, great wealth side-by-side with jarring poverty. On the front page of the newspaper, stories of famine, chaos and corruption. Turn the page, and forget your troubles: why you can purchase a $2,500 handbag from Chanel, or blow almost $1,000 on a pair of designer high heels. And if you are truly wealthy, why you can buy your own truly rare copy of the Declaration of Independence for $1.6 million; there’s a full-page advertisement for it on the back page of one of the newspaper’s sections. "Own This National Treasure," the caption over the ad reads.
Someone at The New York Times has a sense of humor, I suppose. Either that or a deep sense of sadism: the juxtaposition of high-price ads and reports of a world of woe create the dizzying sense of being a passenger in Nero’s chariot. My how the little people suffer.
I don’t hate the Times. My wife and I subscribe to it and read it daily. Try as I might, I don’t see liberal bias screaming from its coverage of the news. But I am apparently tone deaf. This vacation I am trying to make my way through an Ann Coulter book, her latest, Demonic. Her prose are sarcastic, incendiary and evangelistic: no mistaking where she is coming from.. Lefties are idiots; the right is, well, right. She tries to make it look simple, but ends up looking like an angry simpleton. If I had to share a fox hole with either Coulter or an editor at the Times, I’d choose the editor: Coulter’s angry enough to fight all right, but she’ll swing at any shadow.
But the ads in the Times have always thrown me. Years ago, I gave up reading the paper’s Sunday magazine. The articles were interesting enough, but the world reflected in the advertisements -- high-end furniture, expensive clothing, exotic trips -- was a world no one I knew could afford. If they weren’t advertising for people like me, why should I read the paper?
The ad last week for a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence struck me as more than a little over the top. The New York Times store is selling it. It is one of six extant copies of a broadside printed by Ezekiel Russell in Salem, Massachusetts before the Declaration was signed.Four of the copies known to exist are in institutional collections. “It is so rare, even The Library of Congress does not own this printing of the Declaration of Independence,” the Time’s ad notes. You can own it or $1.6 million.
I suppose times are tough at the Times when the paper must resort to selling historic treasures by way of full-page display ads.
The world of rare-book and collectors is usually a little classier than this. Dealers might publish a catalog telling others what they have to sell. But these catalogs go to those known to have an interest in antiquarian items. I recall once leafing through a catalog from a prominent New England rare book dealer. Another rare printing of the Declaration of Independence was offered. “What would you think of my spending eight hundred to purchase a copy of the Declaration of Independence?,” I asked my wife in an idle moment. She murmured an off-handed sort of assent until I told her it was $800,000. When she recovered from the shock, I explained the catalog went to institutions and high-end investors; we merely received a courtesy copy because we own a rare bookstore.
Somehow, the Times ad strikes a nerve. It almost mocks the Declaration, or at least the people who hope to live by its words but who lack an idle million or two to purchase a rare artifact.
“We hold these truths to be Self-evidence, that all men are created equal,” the Declaration reads. Somehow those words ring a little hollow when featured in an advertisement for a rare printing of the document tucked away between stories of a world in chaos. I am trying to image the purchaser of this document sitting at home in his or her lavish study, arranging the movement of funds to buy this piece of history and then arranging to hide it away from the ravages of time. Some people are more equal than others.
I then imagine the Washington Monument sold brick by brick by a government desperate for cash. What would you pay for a piece of it?
But I hear the sound of tinkling glass. I see a hand throwing a rock, or a brick, through the plutocrat’s window, or through the window of a limousine of a powerful bureaucrat. I hear a voice mocking the attempt to purchase a piece of history while denying it any real and enduring meaning, save as a talismanic keepsake.
Yes, by all means cherish history. But selling rare copies of the nation’s treasures to the wealthy amid reports of the suffering of ordinary people is worse than poor taste, it borders on the obscene.