A `Thames Valley man' finds rare print by Durer amid mice-eaten clutter

Englishman finds 480-year-old rhinoceros in wooden trunk. Sells it to American buyer for 111,500 ($174,218). British pounds There were no headlines quite as surreal as this, but perhaps there should have been.

The rhino in question was discovered by a man who wishes to remain so anonymous that he asked to be identified by the geographically imprecise phrase ``a Thames Valley man.'' (The valley of the River Thames covers much of southern England.)

Anyway, Mr T. Valley Man had decided it was time he sorted out a dozen trunks full of ``books which no one thought of any interest'' that had been cluttering up his outhouse for 20 years. The books had belonged to a deceased relative. Some of them had been devastated by mildew, and in one trunk mice had made tasteful use of an album of Mozart airs to construct ``two beautiful cup-shaped nests.'' It was under these musical nests that Mr. Man found more than 50 Old Master prints ``wrapped in some rather high-class grease-proof paper inside old marbled folders.'' He took them to auctioneers in Newbury, Berkshire (west of London). Impressed, they took them to Sotheby's in London, which auctioned them on Dec. 1. The total value of the prints was 587,952 British pounds ($918,675).

The rhino? That was one of the three rarest prints in the collection. A woodcut by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, it was first printed in 1515, the year he made a drawing of the animal (now in the British Museum). Durer's print of the rhinoceros became a popular image, and it was reprinted from the original block many times until the 17th century.

There are up to 200 extant impressions of this woodcut in collections worldwide. But this particular impression, experts agree, was exceptional. A curator at the British Museum says ``the reason it is so special is that it is immaculate, and a very early impression.'' The prints have never been pressed in volumes, which would have caused the paper to be flattened. The relief on these prints is unspoiled. And the prints have not been cleaned. Richard Godfrey, Sotheby's Old Master Prints specialist, describes their almost perfect condition as owing to benign neglect.

A strange fact about Durer's image of the rhinoceros is that he had never actually seen an example of the species. He based it on a sketch and a description from a friend. Yet, even until the 18th century when the animal could easily be studied, Durer's conception was so strong that it still influenced artists.

The American buyer of this rare print, like its seller, insists on anonymity. Perhaps he is a Mississippi Valley man.

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