"Im here about the Rembrandt," said the older man carrying a brown-paper package up to the art gallery's front desk. Directed to a table in the back, he unwrapped his treasure.
The woman who came to greet him was the one who would decipher its value. Her name is Shayla M. Alarie, and she faces someone like this man almost every day in her role as the director of antique and modern prints at Davidson Galleries.
Miranda K. Metcalf is the one at the front desk, but she is not simply the receptionist. She is the director of contemporary prints. Like Alarie, she has a master's degree in art history and handles everything from sales, client relations, and exhibition management to price research, artist research, writing educational materials, PR, authentication, inventory management, and consignment management. They've co-curated the history-spanning new show opening Thursday, Pick Your Poison: Politics in Print.
On this particular day, the man showed Alarie his midsize Rembrandt etching of a man in a hat. He explained that he bought it at a gallery in Canada 30 years ago, where "the guy told me that there are only three or four around."
Alarie said nothing at first.
For whatever reasons, the owners of antique prints frequently are older men. Meanwhile, Alarie and Metcalf are youthful women who are experts in their field and often have to bear bad news.
It's a delicate job, and they're as sly as foxes at it, formidably knowledgeable and unfazeably professional. When a man says something like "Wow, you seem to know your stuff," Alarie responds simply, "You sound surprised."
Alarie grew up in a loving military family, where she learned to be pragmatic and straightforward. By contrast, Metcalf is a self-described bohemian Olympia native. Her version of "you sound surprised" might be an attempt to deploy "loving kindness." "I'm more like namaste, being you is punishment enough" with difficult customers, Metcalf said, "but Shayla won't stand for it. She's like, 'Don't tell me my business, sir.'"
Either way, by the end of the conversations, both Metcalf and Alarie usually earn their customers' respect.
Alarie leaned down to inspect the art.
The man kept talking. She emitted a few rounds of "mm-hmm" and a "that's good." He apologized for wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, explaining that he had grabbed the Rembrandt while running out the door for work at three in the morning and now "it looks like I dress like a pig. Trust me, I don't. My wife would be so embarrassed."
"This does indeed look to me like a second state," Alarie said.
"Right!" he jumped in. "He said there were only two or three of them."
"No, that's not true," she said. "I've had two of these come through the gallery in the six years I've been here."
She fetched a thick book and opened it on the table.
"I think he was trying to say that the plate was printed in three states," she said, explaining it was the same plate but in a vastly different condition after years of use.
She had to repeat the facts several times.
"Did you go to school for this?" he said, eyeing her.
She remained as calm as the 400-year-old man in the hat, who was worth less now than what the man paid 30 years ago.
Because printmaking has such a broad audience, Davidson Galleries, Seattle's leading and oldest print shop, sees "the shrapnel from the rest of the art world," Metcalf said later in an interview with both women at a cafe near the gallery. People come to the gallery who might not go to another gallery their entire lives.
Maybe they have something on the walls they inherited from their mother and want to know more about it. More and more people are driven into Davidson hoping for a windfall in an unstable economy and tightening Social Security.
Alarie and Metcalf still grieve for the man who had accumulated several prints attributed to the Spanish modernist Joan Miró through late-night TV infomercials and planned to use the proceeds from selling them as a bequest to his niece and nephew. They were bogus. To Alarie and Metcalf, it was tragic.
These women face relevant challenges as female professionals in the art world. But they didn't get into this work to fight sexism. Their shared ultimate goal is to help people understand the art of prints. Both love what they do, and both say they hope to stay at Davidson a long time. (Owner Sam Davidson is a confirmed fan.)
"Prints are powerful," is what Davidson told Metcalf when she cried along with a tearful young couple thrilled to buy their first work of art together.
Part of the reason is their accessibility. Printmaking was invented to make art more available to people who wouldn't have dreamed of owning it before. You can find a print for $50 or $50,000 at Davidson.
A good rule of thumb about the value of a print is how close it came to touching "the original matrix"—a plate, stone, or block made by the artist for printing. An original print is "not a painting or a drawing that someone takes a picture of and makes copies," said Alarie. "The confusion between reproduction prints and posters and original prints is something we explain on almost a daily basis."
Another rule: A "certificate of authenticity" can be a red flag rather than a safety measure, because at a reputable gallery, a receipt of sale is proof of value. "Any jackass," said Alarie, "can print out a certificate of authenticity."
Metcalf got her early education in printmaking because her grandmother made prints that hung on the walls in her home when she was a child. But her other love is animals. For her master's thesis, she narrowed in on the sudden appearance in 16th-century wood engravings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of a New World bird only recently introduced to Europe. "I am," Metcalf declared self-mockingly, "the preeminent scholar on 16th-century turkeys in Europe on the West Coast."
Alarie always made art, but only began studying its history in college, when she focused on American artist Anna Lea Merritt, a contemporary of Whistler's. Alarie likes to tell the story about when Whistler derided "Mrs. Merritt's" ugly spectacles at a party, and she retorted that his own spectacles "may be for looks, but mine are for looking."
Metcalf and Alarie have become close friends. They may share a sex and its concerns, but they laugh about their contrasting modes of embodying it. Metcalf is all flowing hair, scarves, and skirts. She's tall. Alarie is cropped hair, glasses, and blazers. She's short.
Alarie happens to have a woman tattooed on her arm who looks a lot like Metcalf. She got the tattoo before they met.
The tattooed woman—flowing hair, sinuous, monumental—is the Lady of Shalott from an 1857 wood engraving by English Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. Poet Lord Tennyson adapted Shalott from the Arthurian legend of Elaine, Lancelot's cursed baby mama. (Yes.) Depicting the dead beauty Shalott became popular with the Pre-Raphaelites, but in Hunt's interpretation, she's explosive, battling a tangle of chain-like vines.
"My thesis ends up being that at least through Hunt's eyes, she didn't love Lancelot," Alarie said. "She wanted to be Lancelot."