Tuesday, September 1, 2015

All wrapped up

Unwrapped gifts don’t seem like gifts do they? For me it’s the wrapping paper that adds surprise and even a touch of elegance to a gift.

When my older siblings came home to Colombia for Christmas vacation from Massachusetts high schools, they came bearing wrapping paper and small dispensers of scotch tape with Christmas designs.

That thick, richly decorated paper was a luxury and hard to find in Latin America. When this source dried up I found it made more sense to take gifts to stationery stores or “wrapping shops” set up during the holiday season in Bogota. With great skill the gift was wrapped with minimal use of paper, and I was charged only for the materials used.

Later in Mexico, I resorted to using bright-colored tissue paper available at a fraction of a peso per sheet. There’s a danger in that though; ― the least bit of moisture causes the tissue paper to stain whatever it touches.

A few years ago I had a seamstress make a safe, reusable, and quick wrapping solution a set of different sized cloth bags with drawstrings. I give the gift but get the bag back for future use.

I learned to open gifts with great care. First, I slit the scotch tape with a knife and then I spread the wrapping paper out flat for future re-use. Friends laugh at the way I open gifts using the knife from a Swiss Army card I always carry in my pocket.

It’s a good idea to take care of gift-wrapping paper.I’ve heard of cases in which the wrapping paper may be worth more than the gift. The U.S. Treasury sells full sheets of 32 uncut dollar or 2-dollar bills sometimes used as wrapping paper.
But the most valuable of wrapping paper is found in the least likely places.

In 1992, the University of Milan purchased a roll of papyrus that had been used to wrap a mummy in Fayum, Egypt in about 180 BC. On the scroll were 112 brief poems in ancient Greek text. They are attributed to Macedonian epigrammatist Posidippus of Pella (c.310-.c.240 BC). In 2001, the publication of “Milan Papyrus” caused a literary sensation.

To put Posidippus in chronological context, he lived in Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, founder of the Library of Alexandria. Sixty years after Posidippus’ death the scroll was being used to wrap a mummy. It’s possible Posidippus’ own handwriting is on the scroll.

But don’t think re-used and valuable wrapping paper is only something of centuries long past.

In 1990, as executor of Dorothy Cordry’s estate, I was invited to UCLA’s Fowler Museum in preparation for the delivery of her Mexican folk art donation. The procedure is long and involves close scrutiny of donated items. The Fowler is a highly desired destination for private collections. It promises donors that once accepted, donations will be kept and never sold or traded. They don’t make these decisions lightly.

The museum treated me to a behind-the-scenes visit of their archives. Spread on tables was a wide array of Iranian antiquities metal and ceramic vases, plates, bowls. The museum’s most recent acquisition had just arrived from the U.S. State Department.

I wondered aloud, “Why did the State Department give this away?”

“All they wanted was the wrapping paper.” As tension between the United States and Iran increased in 1979, there was a need to surreptitiously remove important documents from the Embassy in Tehran and get them back to Washington. Wadded-up documents were used as stuffing and padding for fragile items of folk art and antiquities they shipped out. It appeared innocuous and was successful. Diplomats used Iranian art, portrayed as souvenirs, to smuggle sensitive documents.

The award-winning movie Argo shows scenes of Embassy staff members hastily shredding remaining documents just before the assault of the Embassy building by Iranian hostage-takers. Press coverage during the hostage crisis documented hostage-takers reassembling the shredded paper.

After seeing the array of Iranian art at The Fowler, I also pictured State Department personnel in Washington ironing and collating wrapping paper that had arrived from the other side of the world. They were probably not nearly as experienced in this art as I am.

I haven’t been back to see the State Department’s donation on display in The Fowler, or if or how it is attributed as the donor. But last week my appetite for Islamic art was whetted by the magnificent exhibit on display in Mexico City’s former San Ildefonso School two blocks north of the National Palace.

The exhibit, “Earthly and Divine: Islamic Arts of the 7th–19th Centuries” on loan from Los Angeles County’s Museum of Art is on display through Oct. 4th.It includes 192 exquisite pieces from as far west as Spain and as far east as Indonesia, with Iran well represented. I could have been back in The Fowler’s archives.

“Earthly and Divine” at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Justo Sierra #16, is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. closed on Mondays through to October 4.

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