A `priceless' vision of the past

An original letter by Prince Cardinal Carlo De Medica, imprints of samurai swords and 17th century pamphlets are only a few of the remarkable pieces in Bill Hutchinson's collection.

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 5:24 p.m.

It's hard to know where to start with Bill Hutchinson's collections, which range from glass bottles and shoes to medieval manuscripts and antique Asian art.

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Bill Hutchinson poses in his northwest Gainesville home with a sample of the unique items he collects, including manuscripts, Asian art and drums.

ROB C. WITZEL/Gainesville Magazine

"I'm a genealogical cul-de-sac," says Hutchinson, who by night is a professional musician and by day can hold glimpses of forgotten customs and cultures in the palms of his hands.

Take his manuscript collection, for instance. In 1970, when he returned to South Florida from a tour of Vietnam, "I was really trying to make sense of the world," he says. After starting a collection of seashells because "they showed me there was an intelligence in the world," Hutchinson met a historical documents dealer who took him on as an apprentice.

Over the years, that experience has led Hutchinson, who also runs the Collectors' Cabinet in Thornebrooke Village and who founded the Theatre of Memory in High Springs, to acquire several dozen manuscripts. They range from a 1637 letter written by Prince Cardinal Carlo de Medici to an 1879 edition of the Book of Samuel, printed in raised letters so it could be read by its owner, a blind woman whose name has been lost.

Included with the book is a letter the woman wrote to her children. Held up to the light, a series of pinholes made by the author illuminates the letters in each of her words. "To me, it's a priceless gem," Hutchinson says, "You cannot get closer to a person who lived long ago than picking up something they wrote."

He is quick to point out that most of his documents - written in exquisitely beautiful handwriting - have no signatures or autographs. Instead they are "autographic," meaning in the hand of the person who wrote it. They are also from a time, Hutchinson adds, when penmanship was taken seriously, because there were no other ways to document personal and historical events.

"It's not like reading or seeing it on TV, [which] gets so far removed. It's a whiff of what it actually was," he says, adding that with these documents, "I'm not getting a whiff, I'm getting it full in the face." Hutchinson's medieval manuscript collection, which includes the Medici letter as well as pages from religious documents and songbooks, was recently exhibited at the Thomas Center as part of an annual colloquium sponsored by UF's Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Dr. Mary Watt, the center's co-director and an assistant professor of romance languages, felt that Hutchinson's collection was the core of the center's conference.

"The letter really has ceased to be a means to communicate," Watt says, adding that Hutchinson's collection reflects a time when letters and other hand-written documents were considered proof of the information they contained. "These letters are not only communication, but artifacts and works of art." Hutchinson's Asian art collection also reflects writing as an art form. His time in Vietnam heightened his interest in Asian art, along with a friendship with UF humanities professor Didier Graeffe, who had traveled extensively in Japan. Adorning the wall of a guest bedroom are floor-to-ceiling scrolls of calligraphy framed by red and gold silk fabric. Translated, Hutchinson says, the scrolls reveal a conversation between Graeffe and a monk who was considered one of Japan's national treasures. In addition to a pair of sandals attached to ice skates and tiny shoes embroidered with pictures of rats (so the child wearing them would not be noticed as precious), Hutchinson also owns two worn pamphlets dating from either the 17th or 18th century that belie their contents. Graeffe's wife, Dr. Lotte Graeffe, titled one of them "secret book of flower arrangement," and it contains 19th-century ink drawings and descriptions.

The second pamphlet is a rare collection of information written on samurai swords. Its author carefully rubbed ink on actual swords and then pressed them onto the pages. "This is a treasure of a collector," Hutchinson says. You might expect that Hutchinson's home would be laden with such riches tucked into every inch of available space, but it is, in fact, just the opposite.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that his most valuable items are securely locked away in an undisclosed location. Another reason is he often collects items and then sells them to institutions that can properly care for them, places like the libraries at the College of William and Mary. His collections come from a variety of sources, including estates, other private collections, flea markets and even eBay. Hutchinson also occasionally travels to Paris and walks along the Seine, perusing used book stalls. The key to an authentic collection, he notes, are each item's provenance, or history. "It's absolutely critical." He also suggests selecting something that really excites you. Then acquire really good examples that are not so expensive, instead of one or two items that are costly but poor examples.

Hutchinson collects for several reasons. His grandmother collected a variety of things, including old Christmas cards. "She saved pieces of the past," he says. He also considers it a profound privilege to be the keeper of items that connect us to earlier times. "I'm really in love with humanity at its best and things that reflect that really get me," he says. "We, young and old, seem to be just walking on the surface without any idea of the profound depths of the human experience."

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