Prestige Spending

Somewhere on my shelves-but where?—is a quotation by Abraham Heschel that I have enjoyed for years. Certain I could never forget it, I did not mark the page in whichever of his books it hides. I have rifled through five texts this morning without finding it. So you will have to trust me when I tell you how Rabbi Heschel characterized the reigning response to visual art: Most people do not see art at all; they see signatures. And—let me add—price tags.

Foraging through pages, I remembered a delicious tidbit about John Canaday, leading art critic forThe New York Times from 1959 to 1976. Canaday liked to tell the story (repeated to me by an editor who had known him) of a woman who once asked for his advice. She belonged to a lunch group who invited the critic, now and again, to talk about cultural stuffs over flamiche aux poireaux and sips of Beaujolais cru . One day, the woman confided that she and husband were redecorating their apartment. This was Manhattan’s high-rent district where art on the walls went without saying. But books! That was the distinguishing thing.

Nothing lends tone to a room better than good titles, especially ones that look well read. But where to buy the right ones?

Canaday gave her the name of a friend, a second-hand bookseller in London. Talks ensued, an order placed. In due time, a shipment arrived. The buyer opened the crate, looked at the invoice and called the seller to complain. After extended conversation, the bookman said: “I think I understand now just what you want. Send them back and I will replace them for you.” Back they went. Many weeks later (Things really were shipped then.) another carton arrived. This time, all was satisfactory.

Canaday relished the punchline: His friend had simply sent the woman back the same shipment but with a new invoice and a significantly higher price.

The moral of Canaday’s exemplum applies . . . well, you finish the sentence.