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Was Columbus going bald? Old prints can tell tales

Did Christopher Columbus have a receding hairline?

Was Lady Jane Gray really beautiful?

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How brawny was Montezuma?

If you're interested in knowing, you might get in touch with Jay Jaroslav. He's just acquired a collection of prints - 13,156 of them, all portraits, all done before 1750.

''We're not talking about great works of art,'' admits the youthful Boston dealer, surrounded by boxes of engravings in a basement room of the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company, ''we're talking about communication.''

Although some of the finest engravers are represented in these boxes - he mentions such names as Henry Holland, Robert Nanteuil, and Gerard Edelinck - Mr. Jaroslav recognizes that these prints are more valuable for their historic contribution than for their artistic merit. ''It's a veritable Who's Who in every major European country from 1500 to about 1750,'' he says, adding that such works are useful to researchers because of their ''tremendously rich scholarly information.''

Engraving - the process whereby prints are produced from a surface into which a design has been cut - was especially important before the invention of the camera. Working in such media as dry-point, etching, mezzotint, and aquatint, engravers produced multiple copies that did for illustration what printing did for the written word: allowed it to be communicated widely.

Print collecting was particularly popular in the 19th century, with connoisseurs sometimes amassing collections of 20,000 pieces. But as the great old European estates were broken up around the turn of the century, prints flooded onto a market that had little demand for them.

Jaroslav's collection was assembled by Louis Arthur Holman, a former director of the print department at Goodspeed's, a well-known Boston bookstore. ''He was a scholar and a print connoisseur of the highest level,'' says Jaroslav, who says print collecting has been a passion in his own family for five generations. The prints in his estate - perhaps as many as 250,000 - languished in storage for years, until they came to Jaroslav's attention last year.

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''I had been scrounging the world for high-quality portraits,'' he says, ''because it was an area in which no scholarship had been done for about 50 years.''

As a consultant for art investors, Jaroslav had developed an eye for what he called ''undervalued works of art.'' So when the Holman collection came into view, he took his life's savings, sold his car, and bought an option.

Then he persuaded seven East Coast businessmen to join him in Archival Properties Group - and to conclude the sale, for something under $1 million, last January. He has given himself three years to catalogue and sell the works, which he values at something over $7 million.

How significant is the collection? Connoisseurs are wary about commenting - since anything they say could drive up the prices of prints they themselves might like to buy. The curator of a collection of prints at a major New England institution, who had seen some of the pieces, said that ''If he does have 13,000 engraved portraits, it is an interesting collection - the type of collection one doesn't stumble across these days.'' Such collections, he says, were not unusual at the end of the 19th century, when the ''encyclopedic pursuit of portrait images'' was popular. Nowadays, however, he says that collectors ''find them rather tedious.''

Clifford Ackley of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston agrees. ''I think he has a real passion for the subject,'' he says, ''or else he wouldn't have acquired so many at a time when most people are bored by them.''

So far, says Jaroslav, interest in the collection has come from museums and universities across the country. ''I'm looking to make a reasonable profit and find these things a good home,'' he says, adding ''they deserve it.''

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