Thursday, February 26, 2009

Harbor and Home

Okay, so we plugged Brock Jobe's new book a few days ago, but we finally got our grubby little paws on a copy and holy cow! This is a book you really need on your shelf. It's a great combination of an object-focused catalog AND an object-driven history. That is, Jobe, along with co-authors Gary Sullivan and Jack O'Brien, as well as a slew of contributors, have put forth over 100 objects with detailed information related to form, decoration, construction, provenance, etc. Many have never been seen before by the public in any meaningful way. And the essays for each catalog entry not only discuss each object, but also their makers and users, and then draw connections between the various shops, families, and communities in which these objects played a role. But more than that, the authors also fill in the historical context of this understudied region and are thus able to tell the story of southeastern Massachusetts using these objects not just as props or decoration, but as characters. Bravo!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Starting Small

In our recent column (viewable here), we discussed some of the ways young folks can start collecting without spending a fortune or filling a mansion. It’s all about thinking small! Here are some of our favorite “small” collections:

Silver spoons: Andrew has a strong interest in early Ohio silver, but early (pre-1840) or significant (e.g. larger hollow ware pieces) are rare and expensive. So to satisfy his thirst, Andrew collects spoons. Silver spoons are plentiful and generally very affordable (sometimes under $5, rarely over $100). Additionally, it’s allowing Andrew to build a kind of “encyclopedic” collection of early Ohio silversmith marks (currently nearly 60 and counting).

One of the most interesting (and rarest) is the spoon pictured above. Circa 1795, this spoon is marked “LM.” Though iron-clad proof remains to be found, it is believed that LM stands for Lydia Moulton. Her father, William III, was a member of the Moulton family of silversmiths in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and he, along with his family (including Lydia), were among the earliest settlers in Marietta, Ohio in 1788. If we can document that Lydia was, indeed, the maker of the handful of spoons bearing the “LM” mark, then they would be true rarities—pieces of American silver made by a woman in the 18th century.

Our recent column also mentioned a great collecting idea for those short on funds and space—reference books! The great thing about collecting reference books is that you get to learn, so when you are in a position to start buying the antiques illustrated and discussed in those books, you’ll be a knowledgeable collector. It’s a win-win! Pictured below is a photo of part of our reference library (please note: on the upper shelf, the right-most 12-15” is about all that has been published on early Ohio decorative arts!)

And if you like the idea of collecting reference books, be sure to pick up Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710-1850 by Brock Jobe, Gary Sullivan, and Jack O’Brien. We’re confident that the exhibition will soon be dubbed “landmark” and that the catalog will become a standard and necessary part of any antiques reference library. The exhibition will be at Winterthur from March 21 through May 25, and then it will be at the Nantucket Historical Association through the summer. The profusely illustrated catalog is available at bookstores everywhere, including at Russack and Loto Books, specialists in antiques reference books.

So an antique dealer and a bear walk into a bar...

-Two antique dealers are stranded on an was brisk.

-How do you make a small fortune in the antiques business? Start with a large fortune.

Know any antiques- or collecting-related jokes? Post them in the comments!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

It’s Time to Don Your Tricorn Hat!

Each February we make the pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg for the annual Antiques Forum (thanks, of course, to Garth’s for paying Andrew’s way). For four days, our minds get filled by some of the foremost experts on American decorative arts. And for us, it’s also a kind of “old home” week where we get to reconnect with friends and colleagues, many of whom we met while Andrew was at Winterthur.

This year the topic as “Origins of American Style,” and, as usual, Williamsburg VP Ron Hurst and his crew put together a great itinerary that included talks on everything from 17th-century Dutch interiors to early 19th-century American miniature portraits. Young scholar Nick Vincent (of the Met) gave a great presentation on American pier tables, Brock Jobe gave us a sneak peek at his upcoming book and exhibition Harbor and Home: Furniture of Southeastern Massachusetts, 1710–1850, and the ever-astute Sumpter Priddy discussed the Federal furniture of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria (in a lecture sponsored by

Of course, the lectures are only half the reason to attend Antiques Forum, the other half being the fellowship. We got to reconnect with friends from Forums passed and make some new friends, particularly among the young scholars. One of the social events not to be missed is the annual barbeque at Shield’s Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street sponsored by Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions. Here we dined with Williamsburg furniture curator Tara Chicirda and then had a chance to catch up with Brock Jobe and his wife Barbara (seen here tolerantly posing for a photo with us).

If, by chance, you can’t make it to Forum, you should still make the trip to Williamsburg. Some folks think it’s a bit too “Disney,” but we love it. The houses, the shops, the museums (particularly the fabulous new home of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection), and definitely the food. For you carnivores definitely make a reservation or two at the historic taverns of Williamsburg; and for your veggies, like us, try Food for Thought on Richmond Road, the Blue Talon Bistro in the Market Square area of Williamsburg, and Sal’s by Victor for great pizza and Italian. And if you like breakfast, then don’t pass up Williamsburg’s many pancake houses, including Mama Steve’s, which is the favorite of longtime Winterthur curator Charlie Hummel (who also turned us on to Sal’s - thanks, Charlie!).


The Collyer Brothers

As mentioned in our most recent column (but perhaps more relevant to our "A Field Guide to Collectors" column), the Collyer Brothers are fascinating. They just are. It's one of those tabloid stories that you feel guilty for being intrigued by, but you just can't look away! Homer (1881 to 1947) and Langley Collyer (1885 to 1947) have become synonymous with complusive hoarding, and their Harlem brownstone set a benchmark for filth and disarray that would seem impossible to surpass. Sons of a prominent Manhattan doctor, the boys were both educated at Columbia University and were well-known for their eccentricities early in life. Their father abandoned the family in the late 1910s, and both their father and mother had passed away by 1929.

This is the point at which things really seem to venture off the beaten path. The Collyers moved their inherited possessions into their Harlem home and retreated even further into their odd and reclusive lifestyle. Of course, the attention their behavior drew only created more problems for them, providing fodder for their blossoming paranoia. Rumors about the house and its contents abounded, so of course, it became a target for burglars, thugs and teenage boys trying to prove their bravery. The Collyer brothers responded with the full force of their mental illness, boarding up the house, laying booby traps for potential invaders, and severing virtually all ties with the outside world.

By the end of the 1930s, all utilities to the house had been shut off due to lack of payment, and Homer Collyer had gone blind from health complications. Langley continued to venture all over the city, dragging home junk, often under cover of darkness. Little was seen or heard from them until the local police received an anonymous tip on March 21, 1947 that there was a dead body in the house. The sheer mass of the Collyers' junk stymied the initial efforts of the police to investigate, but eventually, they were able to gain access to a room on the second floor. After two hours of searching, Homer Collyer's body was discovered, but he was clearly not the source of the stench of decomposition, being dead only a few hours.

As impossible as it seems, it took police more than two weeks to locate the body of Langley Collyer in the house, a mere ten feet away from where his brother's body had been discovered. Tragically, Langley had fallen victim to one of his own booby traps, leaving Homer to starve, too blind and incapacitated to escape.

Among the items removed from the Collyer house, aside from mountains of newspapers and books, were fourteen pianos, a Model T chassis, pickled human organs, and the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage. This photograph, from the collection of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia, offers a sense of the sheer volume of "stuff" that had to be cleared away.

For more information, check out Wikipedia's article on the Collyer Brothers and Franz Lidz's New York Times article, "The Paper Chase," from Oct. 26, 2003.