Of Magic’s thousands of unique illustrations, there exist only eleven ouphe creatures. Pronounced closer to oulph, or alf, or even off, these are a pre-modern creature that effectively means sprite, elf, goblin, pixie and the like from European mythology. Magic has had them on Dominaria, Mirrodin, and in Shadowmoor block.
This article is about Gilder Bairn and the journey the painting undertook.
Painted by Nils Hamm, the German painter that Sam Gaglio highlighted, Gilder Bairn is the first large scale fan favorite artwork. There was an arcana on the character and the sheer amount of additional art made for it is astonishing.
A known associate of mine, Will Larson, told me about this story a while ago and it’s been marinating in his mind for years. I finally asked him to get it all down and he did. As he has sat on it a while, I figured everyone should know utterly how difficult it is to find the Magic painting you want more than anything in your collection.
Personally, I am looking for two pieces - John Avon purple mountain and Cartographer by Donato Giancola. I will eventually find them, I just hope they are able to be moved from their eventual homes. This process of finding your ideal, your best, has been called grail hunting.
Without explaining more, I want you to be introduced to Will and hear his story.
My name is Will Larson and I would like to share with you a story about my purchase of the Magic: The Gathering painting Gilder Bairn by Nils Hamm.
Before that I’ll tell you a little about myself. I first began buying Magic: The Gathering cards as a very young boy and sadly I don’t know exactly, somewhere around 1996 or 1997. I really loved goblin cards. I thought the art was cool and they were funny. I didn’t learn the proper rules until middle school when my friend Jason and his family taught me how to play. My first big event was Pro Tour San Diego 2007. I don’t recall seeing any Magic artists that I can remember. I do remember building my very first competitive deck though, which was reanimator. Sadly later it would be stolen and I would quit Magic for some time.
When I got back into Magic I was purchasing hard to find cards on eBay. One day while looking up cards I needed for a deck I came across some original art. I thus fell into collecting Magic: The Gathering original art randomly via eBay and didn't realize for some time you could contact artists directly. After my first purchase I began to do more research.
I was buying pieces left and right, and at some point through my research I found Ron Spears website and finally worked up the courage to email Ron directly. He was the first Magic: The Gathering artist that I contacted. He was very nice and gave me a list of pieces he had for sale. As I continued to research online I also met a resourceful guy named Josh Krause who had a website. At the time, Original Magic Art, or OMA, was just a splash page. Josh eventually lead me to a forum board at the time hosted by Star City Games called The Mana Drain (TMD) and that's really where this story begins.
Digital fanart by Steve Raffle
I started actively looking for the original artwork to Gilder Bairn by Nils Hamm during my days on TMD in early 2012. To understand why I must delve into the discussions that art collectors kept having at the time: Most of these discussions were about people’s grails.
A grail was a term collectors used to find their ideal piece, that Magic card art illustration that was the most memorable, the story behind a winning game. It was a White whale for many, because art wasn’t easily accessible. I wasn’t sure I had a grail as I loved so many images. I remember my first list of possible grails I posted on TMD was around 35 pieces long. (I still have this list, and all the other people who posted their grails. As I find pieces, I still let people know about them. - Mike)
Then I tried to cut it down by removing the ones I figured I'd never be able to acquire and that still left around half of the list. I loved so many card artworks that it was hard for me to narrow it down to just one. I started by thinking about powerful cards that I may have played with. I think this is pretty normal for people to want to own amazing card art as a grail. But then I also thought about cards that may not be valuable or powerful but had really awesome art. Then I also thought about some of my first cards I treasured or ones I played with that had awesome or fun art.
That is when I started to remember when I played during Lorwyn/Shadowmoor and how unique the images in those sets at the time were to me. I went through some old binders at the time and that is when I remembered the artwork for Gilder Bairn. I'm not sure this qualifies as a grail but I absolutely love Nils’s art and I've collected copies of Gilder Bairn for years. So when I made my list of twenty or so grail pieces Gilder Bairn was listed on the top and although I said the list was in no particular order, I definitely liked Gilder Bairn strongly.
At the same time on the TMD forums people were talking about Nils because he had some original art pieces left. I reached out to try and buy the large recreation of Gilder Bairn that I heard Nils had still, but when I heard the price it was more than I wanted to pay for a recreation. During this time (2011-2012) MtG art wasn't quite as expensive when compared to today's values, and the recreation was priced about the same as two good originals at that time. I also hadn't purchased any recreations so I was unsure of how I felt about them. I ended up passing on the recreation and focused on my goblins collection and other things. I did reach out to Nils to see if he knew who owned the original art but I never heard back from Nils. I don't like to hound artists too much and at this point searching for Gilder Bairn was sidelined for a while.
lil' gilder bairn project, halted because I lost my paintbrush :( pic.twitter.com/F36xfxvdS9— Julien (@gamesbyjulien) January 26, 2017
Fast forward to a few years later. I don't remember what triggered the idea but I emailed Nils again. I was mostly asking him about commissions and artist proofs although I did ask about Gilder Bairn again. This time our conversations lead to me commissioning a few Gilder Bairn artist proofs sketches-one in black and white and one in semi-color. I had become friends with Nils on Facebook and was able to reach out to him quite often. Nils did a fantastic job and I absolutely love both of the artists proofs.
A few months later I also commissioned a painting Nils did of Gilder Bairn and another character Nils designed named Ipko standing together, which I think is quite cute. And we continued to discuss the whereabouts of the original art for Gilder Bairn. Sadly the information was on one of Nils old email accounts that had been lost with all contact information erased...it was another dead end.
Nils and I met in person for the first time in December of 2016 in Tokyo. He was there for GP Chiba and I happened to be there for work at the same time. We met up and had a great time eating in Ikebukuro's sunshine city.
We discussed his lovely art and of course Gilder Bairn came up quite frequently. He still couldn't remember who the owner was but of course promised me if he ever found out any information he would let me know. We met up one more time before we both headed to our home countries and had another nice meal together. I kept in touch with Nils chatting about artwork and other things.
On the day after my birthday in 2016 almost six months later Nils sent me a message he had found his old address book. True to his promise his address book contained the name and address of the original Gilder Bairn owner. I remember waking up and reading that with a sudden excitement. I finally had a lead for the first time in years! Of course the only problem was it would be a long shot to get in touch with the owner. Considering I would have to handwrite a letter to an address that may or may not be viable as many years had passed, the owner could have easily moved by then. But I sat down and handwrote a letter, which I mailed off that same day. Then it was back to the waiting game again.
A month went by with no word. I had included my email address and phone number in my letter. I wasn't sure if I would get any communication but sure enough on July 21st, 2016 in the middle of San Diego Comic Con I received the email from the owner of Gilder Bairn. I was exhausted from walking all day at the con. I hadn't checked my phone for a few hours and I remember walking outside of Hall D to sit down and rest my legs… I was with some friends and my wife. When I checked my emails sure enough there was this email entitled "Gilder Bairn and Magic the Gathering Art." I was really excited and I'm pretty sure I squeaked out loud. The email was quite lengthy and K (as I'll refer to him) the owner had been a long time Magic player. At some point he had moved on though. He had kids and was married but had kept his Magic art despite selling off the majority of his card collection. I remember K saying this about Nils, "his work is hauntingly beautiful and personally I think some of the greatest works of symbolism in the genre since Goya." I was struck how passionate K was about Magic Art, and how similar our reactions were to Nils work and why we loved Gilder Bairn and the sort of haunting cuteness Nils had created.
We traded emails for a few months, trying to figure out if there was a way for me to purchase the piece from K. He loved it but knew I did too. After all, who writes a handwritten letter in 2016? We negotiated well into December and it continued into January of 2017 it had been over six months since the letter. Both of us were busy with family and holidays. I started gearing up for my largest business months of my year as I have a trade show from the middle of January to the middle of February. Nothing happened between that time.
We finally finished negotiating a price in March of 2017. There was only one problem: how to deal with the transaction. K lived in a remote town in the middle of Canada and I was in southern Californian. K didn't have Paypal nor did he have any plans to open a Paypal account, much to my displeasure. We looked into some other services, one K had mentioned I did some research on, but it was only between Canadian banks so that wouldn't work. And to be quite honest with the risk of never seeing the money again through a wire service I didn't feel very comfortable sending such a large sum. Even though I had been chatting to him via email for quite some time. So we were stuck.
As the months went by I couldn't think of a way to deal with the purchase. I start to get the feeling it's unobtainable. Out of desperation I start to research plane tickets to the nearest town to K but even then it would require at least a three hour drive after landing, plus hotel lodging. At that point, the price to obtain the piece was too high. Then at the same time a big MTG art piece came up that I also loved. It distracted me and it wasn't such a pain to deal with. In fact it forced me to sell off Vindicate by Brian Snoddy to pay for the new piece, which still pains me. Letting go of children is never easy. I'll admit for a while I had given up and Gilder Bairn was sidelined again.
My travel schedule for the year slowed down in late September 2017. I started thinking about Gilder Bairn again. I hadn't written K since May so I thought why not, it was September 18th and my show just ended. I reached out again to see if we could reopen our discussion of the purchase.
Five days later I received an email from K that he would indeed be open to selling Gilder Bairn if we could find an amicable way to complete the transaction for both of us thus. It was back to thinking about how to deal with payment. At the same time I had been talking to a Canadian friend of mine John Campbell, whom I met via Facebook through a Magic Commander group and card signing group. We often talked about decklists, card choices, and strategy. I had met John two years before, actually, by purchasing a very large portion of his Kaalia Commander foil signed deck that he was breaking down. We both have an unhealthy addiction to foil signed cards.
John knew I had been after Gilder Bairn because when Nils gave me the address the year before John was the only Canadian I could reach out to for help trying to locate K. To give you a timeline, this is back in between June and July of 2016 after I had written the letter but before I knew if K even still lived at that address. I had reached out to see if John knew K, which he did not. I then also asked John to ask around the LGS to see if anyone knew K. John's research turned up nothing sadly after he even made some phone calls to further away LGS he didn't play at. After that I didn't bother John again with K because of the email I received during San Diego Comic Con.
Back to early October 2017, John and I were up late one night. He works graveyard shift and I am often up late stressed out about work. I joke with John it must be some form of insomnia. This does however work well for us as we are both awake at the same time and are free to chat. At one point when I'm talking to John late at night in one of my lucid, half-asleep, crazed moments I remind him of the Gilder Bairn art and how we had looked for K. I told him I had finally found it but I was having trouble dealing with the transaction. John asked where K lived and I gave him the city name, he said well that's only a few hours away. John said he was willing to meet K if I needed, or he help out anyway he could. This got me really excited. I finally had a way to finish this transaction?! I've never met John in person but John has always been a super guy and we had a pretty solid friendship. I seemed to trust him despite only having had conversations via the internet. I wasn't sure if K would be willing to meet with John, so first I had to start out by emailing K to explain the proposition. A few emails back and forth and all the sudden we had a plan - a solid date for the two to meet, Paypal transaction to John and then cash to K. There was only one problem. I had blown all my disposable income properly on my 3rd anniversary present for my wife. Not to mention property tax was coming up. So I had a date set, and I had the price set a lot faster than anticipated...but I didn't have any liquid cash on hand.
I start to brainstorm what asset or assets I could sell and to whom I could I sell them to. I finally decide to pick a piece out of my Magic art collection that I felt had solid value and I'd be able to move to a friend in 24 hours for the price of Gilder Bairn. After a few quick messages back and forth the sale was taken care of and the payment went off to John. John now had the money in Paypal and he would then withdraw it to his bank and get the cash. Things can never be easy though when it comes to this Gilder Bairn purchase, you should realize by now!
Paypal was withholding the funds for 3-5 business days. That put the clearing date between October 15th-17th. Then John would need to get it withdrawn to his bank account and withdraw the money before October 22nd, the day that had been agreed upon. We kept checking everyday hoping the Paypal would clear on the 15th, but no. The 16th was the same...the 17th no change either funds still held up. At this point I had pretty much given up and figured I'd need to reach out to K and explain the Paypal funds hadn't cleared. We might not make the deadline of the 22nd.
John was just about to head to bed after a long night shift when he figured he should check on the 18th, no update. He woke up around 5:45pm and thankfully the funds cleared. He then withdrew the money immediately to his bank account and messaged me that now we get to do more waiting. Friday morning October 20th I messaged John asking if it had cleared to his bank. John said no it hadn't cleared. During all that I had been communicating between John and K about a possible reschedule for the pick-up. We still had the 21st Saturday but I didn't have much hope. I put John and K directly in touch with each other so they could coordinate timing and a meeting point, in case by a miracle the money cleared on a Saturday and they could still meet up. Sure enough, the Paypal funds were in John’s bank account on Saturday morning and his wife ran to the bank to withdraw the cash. We were on! I couldn't believe it.
On October 22, 2017, I'm flying for work overseas. I land in Chicago at 5pm. John and I had been chatting via wifi on my flight and he was keeping me up to date on the meeting point. I'm pretty excited, as you can imagine. When I land I realize I have to change from concourse B to C it's a bit of a walk and we had landed ten minutes late, so I rush to the gate when I get a message from John that K is 20 mins away. My heart skips a beat as I'm finally letting myself get excited. When I arrive at the gate I see they are already boarding group 1 and I'm in group 2 so I get in line. As I board the plane John tells me he's heading out to the meeting point. Depending on when they meet I'm not sure if I'll see the painting in John’s hands before or after I land. At this point all I can do is wait. Sure enough, about 25 minutes later as I'm sitting on the tarmac, John sends a picture of him and K holding the painting.
I feel like the longest part of this journey to obtain Gilder Bairn is over even though it's not quite finished yet. John completes the transaction and takes the piece home where he keeps it in his safe as I'm traveling for work. Now we would need to figure out shipping from Canada to the US.
I had hoped John would be able to find good packing materials and ship out the painting the next day, that Monday. But that is a lot to ask of a guy who has children and works night shift. We rescheduled the shipping to Thursday. This would hopefully get the painting there by Monday when I arrived back from my trip. John wasn't able to find a masterpak equivalent in Canada but he did a great job packing in a large cardboard box. His wife was able to ship it on her lunch break on October 26. This set the date of arrival for Monday October 30th but I didn't land from my trip until late that night. I had it sent to my office where we have packages delivered daily. It would be safe and my wife could pick it up even though it was her day off. I arrived home jet lagged and tired from my sixteen hours of traveling but I was still jazzed to come home to a package holding Gilder Bairn. I unwrapped it quickly enjoying every second of it. Finally Gilder Bairn was in my hands!!!
The next morning I took Gilder Bairn to my framers and after matting choices and a frame was picked out all that was left was to wait for my framer to finish it up. I picked Gilder Bairn up from the framers the following week and that was the easiest part of the journey.
When you can no longer play Friday Night Magic due to family commitments, life commitments, or you’re simply a senior citizen and can’t drive a car, you should look to art. By owning a Magic painting, it allows you to feel connected to the game on a daily basis, despite not shuffling, working on a sideboard or choosing a new basic to use while drafting.
While the “grail” concept is both celebrated by collectors when they, like Will here, find it, it also creates envy, brings forth incredible entitlement, and even leads to theft. To that point, in our little niche of the Magic community, that of art collectors, grail hunting is not often brought up. It’s more rare to find as most people are searching for the same painting, and sharing your information will get it bought from under your nose. That has happened and will do so again. This makes Will’s story even more bizarre in such a recent memory, a major community beloved artwork changed hands.
As more art exhibitions, art shows, and the like occur, more paintings that are often played in decks, or beloved by Magic’s fans will resurface. The Shinjuku 25th Anniversary Exhibition had quite a few paintings submitted that I could not fit into the show as well. It sure was fun to find one of the GURU lands, that’s for sure.
For the future, I am sure we will see Gilder Bairn again soon. I just need to talk Will into lending it to me for an art show. Let’s try one of those in California soon.