I’ve been totally amazed,” says Wesley Marans of the public response to his photo collection now on display at the Boston Athenaeum. “People react to it like it’s the first time they’ve had ice cream.” The show his fellow Bostonians have been lapping up consists of autographed pictures of famous people. Marans has baseball’s legendary pitcher Walter Johnson in a business suit, a photo he picked up for free because “the dealer thought Johnson was a member of the Chamber of Commerce.” He has gangster Albert Anastasia gussied up like a B-movie leading man, and every President since U.S. Grant.
Marans, a 54-year-old Boston property developer and native of Butte, Mont., has a ready explanation for his show’s popularity, though he does admit initial surprise. “An autographed photo can be like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, shedding light on people and their relationships,” he says. “These pictures tell us how the individuals saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by others.”
The 125 pictures selected for the exhibit are valued at $97,750, “but that’s just the autograph value,” says Marans. There is really no way of knowing the value of his entire collection of more than 5,000 portraits, he maintains, “because there’s no comparable collection anywhere. To most autograph dealers,” he adds, “signed photos are just the tail of the dog, secondary to letters and that sort of thing.”
Marans started his hoard 14 years ago, after becoming enthralled by a friend’s signed picture of Al Capone. A few weeks later he noticed a batch of signed photos in a Beacon Hill bookstore and bought about 60 of them for just a few dollars each. What he describes as his “elevation into the major league of collectors” came in 1971 when Parke-Bernet auctioned some 1,500 pictures owned by a Brooklyn clergyman and Marans plunked down close to $10,000 for 400 of them, including the real Red Baron and Madame Curie.
Like any collector, Marans doesn’t always get what he wants. Lillian Hellman wrote that she couldn’t bring herself to autograph a picture—but did sign the letter. The most he has paid is $1,900, for matching photos of Gilbert and Sullivan. And he won’t buy any Nazis—”a personal thing of mine,” Marans explains—though he made an exception of Rommel, “because he turned against Hitler before the end of the war.” Marans’ wife, Beatrice, and 11-year-old daughter, Beth, share his passion, but only to a degree. “My daughter likes the stuff I have,” he says, “but she was most excited when she got her own autograph from Frank Duffy.” Frank Duffy? “A former utility infielder for the Red Sox,” Marans says ruefully.