Diamant and Bean photographed the collection, drawing by drawing. They hired a conservator to soak each page in a neutralizing bath to stop the acid in the paper from eating it away. Then they slipped the drawings into archival sleeves, stored them in a safe-deposit box and commenced searching for the identity of the artist.

A private detective came up empty. After one phone conversation with the Texas seller, the man disappeared, as Diamant puts it, "into the mists." They consulted with Lyndon Irwin in Nevada. "At first I thought I could get into the state hospital records and find out who was doing drawings or was interested in art," Irwin says. "But even if I got into the records, I thought: Why would the doctor write, 'Likes to draw'?" Finally Diamant contacted the Springfield News-Leader, which published several large reproductions of the drawings and three articles that outlined what little anyone knew about their origin, along with Harris Diamant's e-mail address.

At the same time, Diamant and Bean were preparing to introduce "The Electric Pencil" to the New York art market.

Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Drawing by Edward Deeds.
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.
Courtesy Harris Diamant & Neville Bean
Deeds filled his work with images of his private obsessions — including geography, toy boats, the Civil War and circuses.

"One thing about the art world," Bean explains, "is that critical acclaim or buzz is a strong motivator. People are interested in things other people are buying." Diamant hoped the collection would attract the attention of a major gallery, a name with more recognition and clout than his own.

They created a handsome coffee-table book of the drawings, which they published privately. Diamant hired Lyle Rexer, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and an authority on outsider art, to write the introduction. In February 2011 they set up a booth at the New York Outsider Art Fair.

The booth had a table where interested parties could page through copies of the book. Some visitors wound up poring over it for hours. "People were looking at the drawings and making diagnoses," Bean recalls. "They draw you in. People have such an affinity for them."

Diamant sold several drawings and scored a prominent mention in New York Times art critic Martha Schwendener's account of the fair, which noted, "Some of the most widely admired work here is by the Electric Pencil."

Within weeks the collection had found representation at Hirschl & Adler, a respected uptown gallery that holds a special place in the outsider-art world for being among the first, in the 1970s, to discover and promote the work of Bill Traylor, a former slave whose drawings, created in the early 1940s while he was living on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, are now considered outsider masterpieces that sell for up to six figures.

"I'm very excited," says Tom Parker, who handles the Deeds drawings for Hirschl & Adler. "It's fair to compare him to the greater lights of outsider artists. Artists that are the purest example of art brut [the original French term for outsider art] — Henry Darger or Bill Traylor or Edward Deeds, for example — stand in a group. They were truly working at the margins, truly intuitive. They made complex, beautiful imagery with the tools they had at hand."

And on a winter day in Springfield, Julie Phillips happened to glance at the News-Leader and see her Uncle Edward's drawings. "I was tickled to death that people thought Edward was this amazing breakout artist," she says.

"To know that someone had found the book, and to see the pictures again — it was like a dream come true," marvels Tudie Williams.

Phillips and Williams consulted with their two sisters, who agreed that the drawings were definitely made by Edward Deeds. And then Phillips wrote to Harris Diamant.

Last summer, accompanied by filmmaker Robert Vandeweghe, Diamant and Bean traveled to Missouri to meet Phillips — Williams, who lives in Hawaii, joined in via Skype — and to see where Deeds had lived and worked. (They hope to produce a documentary, a project they're pitching to PBS.)

Next January Hirschl & Adler will show 30 of the drawings. In March a larger selection will travel to the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, the world's premier museum of outsider art. The current asking price for each two-sided page is $16,000.

"One of the biggest mysteries now to be solved is the story of trying to determine the nature of his handicap or disease and his thought process," says Tom Parker, the Hirschl & Adler curator. "What is the subject matter about? Are there clues? Is there an iconography? It's such a wonderful little puzzle to work on." A graduate student intern from Sotheby's has spent several months working on a scholarly article about Edward Deeds' possible influences. (The process, says Parker, involves a lot of Googling.)

Given that Deeds drew so compulsively, Bean says, he likely created many more pictures than the 283 he bound in the book, but she admits there's little chance any others survived.

Phillips and Williams are pleased that the collection found its way to Diamant. "Harris has done such a wonderful job of bringing attention to them and Uncle Edward's plight," Williams says. "I'm thrilled all this has come about."

That said, the art world still remains a bit of a mystery to the Missourians.

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