by Sarah Einselen
LOGANSPORT — To untrained eyes, “A Portrait of Oscar Wilde” looks like a world atlas with a purple cover and a matching box.
But the rare book, currently on loan to The Learning Center south of Logansport, is one of only a few known facsimile editions of a set of Oscar Wilde’s manuscripts and jottings.
It will be the featured piece in an upcoming reception at The Learning Center, along with 25 to 30 other exemplars of rare books.
The June 9 reception will kick off a summer gallery showing titled “Rare, unique and deluxe books: An introduction to book collecting.”
The show will run through July 7. Those interested in attending the show, open during the center’s normal Monday through Saturday hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., should call 574-753-5783 for an appointment and directions to the center.
Besides holding an annual educational event, the center also hosts
10 to 25 students and researchers per week.
“Portrait” is scheduled to remain at the center for six weeks. Then it will go to one location on the West Coast and another on the East Coast before its owner, Pamela Ferland, sells it.
Charles Ferland, Pamela’s husband and fellow book collector from Danielson, Conn., admits the couple won’t keep the book because they “can’t afford to. The insurance will be quite high.”
Neither he nor Sam Combs, director of the educational library and digital archive on the old Anoka Road south of Logansport, would disclose the book’s value.
Despite never having met Combs in person, Charles described him as a trusted friend. The Ferlands have donated rare books to Combs’ learning center in the past, but they weren’t as valuable as this one.
This time, the Ferlands shipped the book to Combs only to discover exactly what it was.
Combs spent about a month doing “provenance” work on “Portrait”
— researching the history of that particular volume. He determined that it is a facsimile of several of Wilde’s manuscripts and letters, some in his wife Constance’s handwriting, that once belonged to a wealthy Brazilian woman.
“I’ve seen nine Gutenberg Bibles,” Combs said. “That’s the one experience that thrilled me more than this.”
The original compilation of manuscripts and letters is owned by the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
The Brazilian-born philanthropist, Lucia Moreira Salles, donated the originals to the Morgan in the fall of 2008, according to the website for the library and museum. But before doing so, Combs said, she had several copies made and inserted into volumes alongside transcriptions so Wilde’s handwriting could be deciphered.
She gave those volumes to friends and libraries, as was customary among wealthy book collectors. The purple book that the Ferlands sent Combs appears to be one of them.
Combs thinks around five of the books are in private hands, including Pamela Ferland’s, but he doesn’t know for sure who else has copies. He’s aware of no more than 30 copies.
According to the international WorldCat library database, 20 libraries in the United States, England and Germany hold identical facsimiles of the Wilde letters. The catalog entry for the book states that 525 copies were printed, signed and numbered by Moreira Salles and Wilde scholar Merlin Holland, who wrote the book’s introduction.
The books were printed privately in Verona, Italy, and bound in Milan.
They were finished just before Moreira Salles died in January 2009.
Ferland and his wife, Pamela, noticed the volume at a charity fundraiser in Connecticut last fall. It was on a table set aside for rare books. The Ferlands had to wear white gloves to handle the books there.
“I was attracted by the binding more than anything else,” Charles said. The royal purple fabric covering the hardback book is a rare marker of fine bookbinding. Other indicators of quality — the personalized copyright page and the matching clamshell box it came in — gave him and Pamela clues that the book was more than an interesting find.
“As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘we’ve got to get that book,’” he recalled.
“Pam looked at it, and she knows more about Oscar Wilde than I do, and she said, ‘This is special.’”
• Sarah Einselen is a staff reporter for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.