Pissarro works making news outside art world

Boulevard Monmartre, Spring Morning

A streetscape by Camille Pissarro brought more than $32 million earlier this month, more than four times the previous record for a work by the Danish-French impressionist.

Pissarro’s “Boulevard Monmartre, Spring Morning,” a view of Paris painted in 1897, was sold by Sotheby’s in London.

The oil on canvas was part of industrialist Max Silberberg’s collection. Silberberg was forced by the Nazis to sell his artworks in the 1930s and later died in the Holocaust.

Silberberg’s collection also featured works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and van Gogh and was regarded as one of the best pre-war collections of 19th and 20th Century art in Germany, according to the BBC.

“Boulevard Monmartre, Spring Morning” was returned to Silberberg’s family in 2000. It had never before been sold at auction.

The previous record for a Pissarro painting was set in 2009, when “Le Pont Boieldieu Et La Gare D’Orleans Rouen, Soleil” sold for about $7 million. A quartet of the artist’s works entitled “Les Quatre Saisons” brought more than $14 million in 2007.

The new owner of “Boulevard Monmartre, Spring Morning” requested anonymity.

Another Pissarro painting has also been in the news recently.

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California couple finds fortune in gold coins

saddle ridge hoard

A couple from California’s Sierra Nevada region last spring stumbled across what is believed to be the largest hoard of gold coins ever uncovered in the US, a treasure that will soon be going up for sale.

The pair was walking their dog on their property, located in the same region where the famed 1849 Gold Rush began, when they came across a decaying canister protruding from the ground.

Digging the can out with a stick, they took their find home, pried it open and, to their amazement, found hundreds of $20 gold pieces, all from the 19th century.

When the couple, who have remained anonymous to keep modern-day prospectors from tearing up their property, returned to the site, they located another similar-sized container and six smaller ones, all full of specie.

In all, the pair found 1,427 gold coins.

Nearly all were $20 Double Eagles, while 50 were $10 gold pieces and four were $5 Half Eagles. Most were minted in San Francisco, but one was a $5 gold piece from the mint at Dahlonega, Ga., which only operated from 1838 to 1861.

The coins dated to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order. The oldest coins were in the first can and the “newer” ones were in subsequent cans.

“The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery,” according to The History Blog.

The total face value of the coins is $27,980, but the numismatic value is estimated at more than $10 million.

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Biblio-scofflaw offers up overdue Mea Culpa

calvin and hobbes library book

Every so often, usually during a particularly slow news cycle, one comes across a story of a literary desperado finally returning an overdue library book checked out years, perhaps even decades, earlier.

One such incident occurred last summer, when an anonymous library patron returned “The Real Book About Snakes” to the Champaign County Library in Urbana, Ohio, along with a note of apology and $299.30 in cash to cover the fine.

“Sorry I’ve kept this book so long but I’m a really slow reader!” the culprit wrote in a message to the library. “I’ve enclosed my fine of $299.30 (41 years – 2 cents a day). Once again, my apologies!!”

What makes this example unusual is that the outlaw took it upon himself (anonymous or not, I’m betting the ranch that any book on snakes was checked out by a male patron) to bite the bullet and pay the fine.

Most always, libraries receiving a volume decades past due end up waiving late fees, realizing that fine exceeds the actual cost of the book in question, and also understanding that the return of a work 30, 40 or 50 years past due is more likely to generate good publicity if the library graciously renounces penalties.

That was the case in another example last summer, when the University of Wisconsin’s library received a hardcover copy of “Selected Papers on Philosophy” by William James by mail.

Included with the book was a note indicating that the work had been checked out by one of the writer’s two parents, both of whom had attended the school, although it was unclear which one had borrowed the book on Jan. 13, 1938, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

The book’s return slip indicated that patrons would be levied a fine of two cents a day for each day overdue, but the family didn’t have to pony up any cold hard cash as the library no longer collected fees on overdue books. Were the old policy still in effect, the fine would have totaled more than $550.

All of which leads me to a confession of my own: I, too, am a biblio-scofflaw.

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How ants work together to survive floods

fire ant raft

Fire ants are a major hazard in the Southern US. Whether you stumble onto a colony of these tiny stinging demons or simply stand too near a nest, you’ll likely end up with painful reminders of how appropriately these insects are named.

The mounds – which can approach a density of 1,000 per acre – are usually 1 to 3 inches tall and made of soft dirt, but can sometimes approach a full 12 inches in height. It’s not unusual for a medium-sized nest to hold tens of thousands of ants.

Among environments fire ants like to construct nests is along riverbanks and around ponds. As someone who likes to fish, I’ve discovered many a fire ant nest the hard way.

So, while I have a soft spot for most living things, it is with a child-like glee that, after a day of fishing, I will take occasion to carefully kick ant nests into the water when the opportunity presents itself.

The way I see it, anything that can harm me or my kids – along with any other living creature unfortunate enough to blunder along – is fair game. And if I can help cut down on these invasive pests, even better.

One thing that always caught my attention was how the ants, after being punted into the drink, would cling together. This is no accident, according to a recent study released by scientists from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

When faced with a flood, ants use their own bodies to form a raft and rely on the buoyancy of the brood and the recovery ability of workers to minimize injury or death, according to the study, released earlier this week. In addition, the queen ant is placed in the middle and protected on all sides by the rafting ants.

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Hot Pockets: Now even worse for you

Pity the poor folk whose job it is to market Hot Pockets, those ubiquitous microwaveable turnovers filled with one or more types of cheese, meat, or vegetables.

For years, Hot Pockets were a staple of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s standup routine (see above), in which he effectively ensured that a generation of consumers would associate the food item with indigestion, diarrhea and a variety of other ailments.

There’s likely no amount of money or promotional effort that Nestle, which produces Hot Pockets, could ever come up with to overcome the effectiveness of Gaffigan’s biting ridicule, and now the company is facing another PR nightmare.

Nestle is voluntarily recalling an unspecified number of “Philly Steak” and “Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese” Hot Pockets because they could contain meat that is unfit for human consumption, according to the USDA.

Gaffigan’s gag, of course, is that they were never fit for human consumption in the first place.

Anyhoo, nearly 9 million pounds of beef products were recalled last week by Rancho Feeding Corp. after regulators said it processed diseased and unsound animals without a full inspection, according to the Associated Press.

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Fact or fiction: Veteran forsakes past for family

leonard l. bleeker

Old-time newspapers were notorious for printing articles that were long on fanciful stories but often short on verifiable facts.

As such, many curious stories that appeared in papers a century or more ago have to be read with a skeptical eye. Readers then, as today, would view information in printed form at face value, when in reality it was a fraud, whether purposeful or accidental.

In fairness to the folks of the past, researching the validity of printed information was a good bit harder.

Not only was there no Internet to employ for fact-checking, but books were much scarcer, especially among the lower classes, libraries were an anomaly outside big cities and competition among newspapers often meant that outlandish stories were run “as is” and sometimes even further embellished, to get a leg up on rivals.

So when I came across the following story in the July 26, 1899, edition of the Fairfield News and Herald, a Winnsboro, S.C., newspaper, it both caught my attention and raised my suspicions.

The death of Leonard B. Bleeker aged 72 years which recently occurred at Yates Centre, Kas., has revealed a case of self-sacrifice seldom heard of outside the domain of fiction. Three years ago Bleeker went to that country peddling cheap articles and, too old and weary to proceed farther, a kind hearted farmer took him in and cared for him until he died. To the family which befriended him he told the story of his life, reserving for the grave the specific names of persons and localities. He stated that in 1861 he left a wife and five children in Michigan and answered the first call for volunteers. The fortunes of war were against him and for months he lay a prisoner in Andersonville prison. For some reason he was led to believe that a certain other batch of prisoners would soon be exchanged. Among them was a dying man and the two comrades exchanged names and military designations. The soldier died and the death was reported as that of Leonard B. Bleeker, and is so recorded in the war department. The real Bleeker was released after a time, rejoined his regiment and served until the close of the war without communicating with his family. Then he went back and found his wife married to another man. He ascertained that his children were well cared for and then left the community without revealing his identity. Throughout his life he carefully guarded his secret and since going to Yates Centre, was often urged to apply for a pension, but stoutly refused. Even when near death he would not reveal the location of his former home or permit anyone to communicate with old associate(s). He was a man of more than ordinary education and the truth of his story or the possession of a noble purpose in his long sacrifice cannot be doubted.

Indeed, the entire story seems utterly fanciful to us today. But a few things to consider:

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Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

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