SANTA FE – An oasis of antique maps, prints and paintings greets visitors who climb the staircase to the second floor of this historic West San Francisco Street building.
A rare Republic of Texas map dating to 1842-44 is all squiggly lines abutting the Gulf of Mexico.
Gene Kloss’ ghostly landscapes and churches lure viewers with contrast as sharp as a starlit New Mexico sky. Alfred Morang’s Cézanne-meets-adobe paintings of the Plaza and its buildings rise from the canvas in thick impasto strokes.
Gallery owner William Talbot began selling works like these from his Washington Avenue home 30 years ago, navigating both the booms and busts of a volatile and sometimes vicious art market in a city where galleries open and close like swinging doors.
“I think the survival factor comes down to the fact that failure is not an option for me, period,” he said, sitting at a table in the sunlit public gallery of his 900-square-foot space.
Trained in photogrammetric engineering (it’s the science of mapping from aerial photos) in the Philadelphia area, Talbot spied his first antique map while he was studying in Switzerland.
“I just thought they were beautiful,” he said. “And it’s what came before this modern science I was studying for.
“I think (it’s) the romance of it,” he continued. “You know, the explorers going out. It’s the innate desire for me to see what’s across the country. It’s a going-to-the-moon type of thing. We’re born to explore.”
Talbot returned home determined to embrace the business of antique map dealing, as well as 19th-century Americana, including Audubon’s ornithological prints and American Indian portraits.
At first he hopscotched through jobs ranging from sales to printing to advertising. His career germinated when he began handling the in-house advertising for an antique map dealer. He shifted slowly into sales, attending antique shows across the country. A contact told him about an opening in Santa Fe. He moved in 1985 and established his gallery in 1986.
Business exploded with the crowning of Santa Fe as the rose of the Southwest in 1990.
“It was the times,” he said. “I had an open-door business, I was doing shows; my reputation was getting out there.”
He pulled a 1990 copy of the London Telegraph from a black acid-free print box and turned to an article with a photo of his younger self next to an Audubon print. The story recounts his Everest – he bought a complete set of Audubon’s “The Birds of America” for a client for $11 million, the highest ever paid at the time.
With the 2008 economic crash, he shifted into survival mode. His middle-class customers vanished. Foot traffic virtually disappeared.
“I just got very careful,” Talbot said. “I wasn’t buying anything unless I knew I could sell it or if I had a client. Of course, I was scared and nervous. Frankly, I dipped into my savings. My retirement isn’t quite what it was.
“I think I was lucky also that my clients stuck with me,” he continued. “When I started out, my business was funded by my life-insurance policies.”
Western maps, particularly of Texas, remain his top sellers.
“A lot of my clients are in the oil and gas business,” he explained.
He regularly stages themed print and painting shows such as “Taos Mountain” and “Missions and Moradas.”
Some of his map clients like “the stranger the better,” he said.
“California as an island is the classic example,” he said, referring to a long-held 16th century European perception of the Golden State surrounded by water. It’s one of the most famous cartographic mistakes in history.
An aging woodblock print of two geishas beneath a parasol hangs above Talbot’s desk. He insists the piece by the 18th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro isn’t worth that much.
“It was my dad’s,” he said. “I helped him get it verified and framed. He entrusted me with that job, and I was very proud to make him happy.”