Valuable treasures unearthed in the University’s Special Collections

Catherine Steele, a senior library assistant in the metadata and discovery services department, is photographed with the book "Mexico: A Study of Two Americas" by Stuart Chase. Steele discovered a hidden drawing by Mexican artist Diego Rivera on the book's front page. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami
By Barbara Gutierrez

Catherine Steele, a senior library assistant in the metadata and discovery services department, is photographed with the book "Mexico: A Study of Two Americas" by Stuart Chase. Steele discovered a hidden drawing by Mexican artist Diego Rivera on the book's front page. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Valuable treasures unearthed in the University’s Special Collections

By Barbara Gutierrez
Among the findings was a sketch in a book at the University of Miami Otto G. Richter Library determined to be a drawing by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Call it beginner’s luck.

Catherine Steele has only been serving as senior library assistant in the Metadata and Discovery Services department of the University of Miami Otto G. Richter Library for three months.

A short time into her tenure, Steele was working on a backlog of books to be catalogued when she ran into a Macmillan book from 1931 reissued by The Literary Guild called “Mexico: A Study of Two Americas,” written by Stuart Chase.

As she opened the front page, her eyes fell upon a sketch of a man wearing a large hat with a cactus and a blazing sun in the background. The signature on the sketch was Diego Rivera.

“I was in disbelief,” she said. “There were a few seconds of staring at the book but not absorbing what I was seeing. It took a few seconds to realize that I was holding something very special, valuable.” 

Rivera was one of the most revered Mexican painters and muralists of the 20th century, and husband to well-known artist Frida Kahlo.

The book was a hidden treasure.

Although Rivera was the official illustrator of the book and his printed 15 illustrations and color frontispiece grace its pages, Steele had unearthed an original sketch done by Rivera on the front page.

“It is completely unique,” said Linde Brocato, librarian associate professor and lead cataloguer for Special Collections books at the library and the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation.  

The book also had an interesting provenance.

It was owned by Andy Warhol, the famous artist, and then sold to Jay Jensen, a University of Miami alumnus and former actor who taught drama at Miami Beach Senior High School for many years. Jensen donated the book to the University.

“The sketch was authenticated by the book seller [Argosy Book Store Inc.], who probably sold the book to Jensen,” Brocato said. “They authenticated the drawing by Rivera, but we have no idea of its monetary value.”

It is believed that Rivera made the sketch during a book-signing event and dedicated it to the original owner of the book, who is unknown.

“We don’t know how often Rivera did book signings or if he did sketches often,” Brocato noted. But it is very likely that Rivera probably signed the book in the United States, she added. It was signed in 1933, and it is well known that Rivera took several trips to the United States between 1930 and 1940.

Several days after finding the Rivera sketch, Steele hit another jackpot. This time it was a green cloth tome of “Leaves of Grass” signed by the author, American poet Walt Whitman, which was published in 1882.

The book contains two, fine black-and-white engraved portraits of the author in its interior pages, one of which is initialed.

Walt Whitman's signature in "Leaves of Grass"
This signature of Walt Whitman was found in the book "Leaves of Grass" author edition from 1882. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

These treasures, and others housed by Special Collections, provide many opportunities for students and scholars to do research and delve deeper into areas of study such as art, history, and literature, Brocato pointed out. “This collection is heavily used for teaching and that is why you want to have these kinds of books.”

There is a special excitement when a user encounters a book like Whitman’s and the one with the Rivera sketch, Brocato explained. “Once you have opened it up there is a physical engagement. It almost jumps out at you.”

This feeling also came over her when she opened another book that was in a backlog and had not been categorized or digitized. A clown face stared at her from a photo book called “The Private World of Pablo Picasso,” published by Ridge Press in 1958. The face seems to have been drawn by Picasso and the inscription read “for Wally Tyler” and was dated 12-7-58.

Picasso drawing
A signed color drawing from Picasso on a page in "The Private World of Pablo Picasso" by David Douglas Duncan. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Tyler, a University alumnus who graduated in 1940, was a good friend of the photographer—David Douglas Duncan, also an alumnus—who took all the pictures in the book and had moved to the south of France, according to Brocato.

Tyler donated the book to the University of Miami. Although the sketch has not been authenticated, it is highly likely that it is a real sketch by Picasso, said Brocato.

Like many valuable artifacts in the collection, the three books are kept in a cooled vault for safekeeping, she said.

Visit https://www.library.miami.edu/specialcollections/ for more information about the University Libraries’ Special Collections.