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Collector's Luck

( Originally Published 1919 )



The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure that we all should be happy as kings.

If I were a physician prescribing for the ills of body and mind, I know I should have one sovereign remedy. Even now, as a layman, I present my panacea. If you are dull, if you are unhappy, if you are bored — collect! It gets you out of doors, it gets you out of yourself, and, best of all, if you do it intelligently, you cannot help knowing something more about the world's history and civilization. You are creating a background. These joys have been mine, and I speak as one having authority because, through the width of our countryside, I am now known as one of the "antique ladies." The other is L -, and together, through storm and sunshine, along dusty roads and up unspeakably muddy lanes, from sunrise until there is hardly a light left twinkling in the lonely farmhouses, we have followed and found our treasures. Of course, you do not always have to go so far afield; even in our little country town there are frequently sales, removals, people willing to "part with" some heirloom. There is, for instance, one ancient house that we watch with quickened breath every time we pass by, for local legend says that in it is a walled-up closet of old blue china. Years ago the eccentric owner grew tired of it, and took this unique way of ridding her mind of its presence. Now, some day, that house is going to be torn down and take its eighteenth-century picturesqueness out of the way of village improvement; and then — ! Already our imaginations have purchased countless Staffordshire platters and faintly blue Nankin teacups.

My little country town is also a college town, and, thirty or forty years ago, when old furniture was in complete disrepute, I have no doubt that wonderful "finds" might have been made here. Even now, at students' sales, — apparently it is not seemly for any man to graduate with more than his degree and a few clothes, — I have known two charming little tables, one an inlaid Hepplewhite, the other a rope-carved Empire, to be picked up, the first for a dollar, the second for twenty-five cents. And in earlier generations, when Thomas or Henry came to our "classic college halls," bearing with them all the family's worst furniture: highboys and lowboys, block-front chests and fiddle-back chairs, — really, anything from the attic would do for a boy's room, and the Mid-Victorian plush was safe in the best parlor, — what the Faculty might have found if only they had known!

But to discover heirlooms and want most earnestly to get them isn't always enougb, even though you have a distinct "flair" for such things. Patience also is necessary. Way back on the hills, near blue little sheltered lake, I know where there is a house — a barn, too — cram-jam full of old things: pink lustre, brass, and pewter; carved chairs and a claw-foot sofa hidden from envious eyes deep down in the hay; and on the sitting-room mantelpiece a lovely "proof " Boston Common platter. Cows graze placidly on its blue surface, and, I regret to say, through the open-work of the china edge a white satin ribbon runs neatly and ties on one side in a preposterous rosette! It is the only fitting pendant to its city cousin, the gilded Barye lion, its tail pink-bowed, that I have ever seen. And sell these treasures? Not for anything that the owner has been offered yet; but some day his heirs will, and that is why, like Mrs. Bofkin, we "sit and watch with pious patience." And there is the funniest old lady that we have met on our "antique-ing" trips. She is the possessor of a maple highboy, nothing unusual, lacking brasses, and scrubbed by her with such relentless neatness that the surface is as white as if it had been scraped. She is unpersuadable; her price is " a hundred dollars, no more, no less," and when you hint at its exaggeration she must shakes her head and says, "Well, it can set a while longer. The critter don't eat nothin'!" Nobody will ever be able to buy it for any reasonable. sum; but the experience is valuable discipline to our optimism.

Now, having shown you the far enchantment of our hopes, let me tell you of some of our actual "finds." Unless you have known the stimulating varieties of a rural auction, it may be hard to visualize for you the happy pleasure of it all. Our North Country is so beautiful that to drive through it is a joy all by itself: to see its - rolling foothills, its blue mountain distances, the intervales and rounded knolls that look as if some giant thing, centuries ago, had folded its hands and then lain down to sleep, and the grass had grown green over its clasped fingers. The roads themselves are "dusty with festival"; you follow a procession of all kinds of vehicles, for a country auction is a neighborhood entertainment; everybody goes. It was in must this sort of setting that L bought her ten-cent table.

The wood is old black cherry; the legs are straight and grooved like some of the later Chippendale chairs, and the drop-leaves, when they are raised, make a surface over three feet square. At each end of the central board is an apron carved in cbarming curves, and yet this valuable piece was so dingy with time and disuse — it had apparently been shoved carelessly into an outhouse and left there for generations — that nobody wanted it, and L 's ten-cent bid was left undisputed. It is in the process of renovation, and, alas, I cannot show it to you now, but it is another proof of my theory of buying by line.

Here I want to present and insist upon another auction theory of mine —never offend the auctioneer! He is a sensitive soul, full of the pride of his profession, and, if you irritate him, by some subtle psychological process, he will make the crowd go on bidding. I don't know quite how he does it; I am merely aware that, because of my flattering deference, an excellently engraved warming-pan was dropped for $1.20 into my waiting hands. Moreover, a friendly auctioneer will always send you advance notices of his auctions; no small assistance to the collector who depends upon scattering village sales.

In just the same way it pays to be friendly to the gathering auction crowd. Not only the reward of virtue but of "Collector's Luck" will be yours. The people will tell you of bargains, they may even sell you some of their own possessions. This is how L____ got one of her finest pieces, a beautifully in-laid Hepplewhite card-table, for fifteen dollars. It is mahogany and its marquetry is so delicate and di-verse that, if you saw it in a city shop instead of way back on an almost forsaken hillside, you would completely distrust its genuineness. The Sheffield cake-basket standing on it is another token of our auction energy, for it is in very good condition and was bid in for only two dollars.

I long for — and lack — time and space to describe more minutely all our captured dreams: L —'s walnut early Georgian mirror, bought in a little Vermont village for five dollars and probably English; my black cherry Chippendale chair — the back is especially lovely — that cost me, in a little city shop, fourteen dollars; G —'s dignified Sheraton bureau (on page 5), — fifteen was its price, — the type just merging into the Empire feeling, and showing wonderful woodmarking; and H —'s entrancing helmet creamer — well, this I'll have to stop and tell you about.

We had walked, H and I, a pleasant pair of miles to the little "store" of a man who joined the trades of harness-maker and mockey and antique dealer all in one personality. Sometimes you found treasures there, and why, knowing this, I stopped at his gate to look back I have never known, except that the world was so very lovely. Nature had sat at ease in her fields that day and splashed her hillside canvasses with lavish color; and while I, luckless, gazed it the crimsons and golds, H walked in and bought the helmet creamer with its quaint blue and gilt bands for thirty-five cents. Then I said severely, quoting my Emerson, "H , `Things are of the snake ! "" I shouldn't have minded twenty-five cents or fifty, but, somehow, thirty-five seems so improbable! In this game of mine hesitation means nearly always being lost, you know. Frankly, I believe in "Collector's Luck" very strongly, but one way of my belief is that you must never neglect an opportunity, that every clue is worth following, every auction worth attending for the sake of the possible prize that may be there. A certain energy of pursuit is necessary. That accounts for one of the finest sofas I have ever seen coming back into the possession of the original owners. It is over seven feet long, and very wide, with high, curving back and gracious arms, of a type usually called Chippendale, — the legs are straight and slightly grooved and quite unlike the later Sheraton, — and it probably dates somewhere in the second. half of the eighteenth century. But for all its loveliness it fell upon evil Victorian days, and was given away to the local hospital. There it stayed, at one end of the upper corridor, covered with a concealing linen slip, and sat upon by countless unsuspecting collectors, — I, myself, was one of them, — until it grew rickety and was thrust away out of sight in one corner of the attic. My friend, who had always longed for it and laid plans for its capture, had no further need to think of herself as a potential Indian giver; she asked if she might buy back her father's gift, and the hospital authorities presented her with it, freely. Now it stands before her drawing-room fire, the earnest of her constant, unfailing hope that some day it would be hers.

Next comes my most amazing "luck" story, and, logically, I should save its dramatic thrill for a fitting climax, but I can't wait. It really is L —'s tale, but I always have the fun of telling it because she is modest. I want you all to take Frances Morse's "Furniture of. the Olden Time" — I feel as if I were a school-teacher. Look at the illustration opposite carefully, for this is the table I am going to talk about, and, besides, it is the most beautiful piece of Empire furniture that I have ever seen. Neither my photograph nor that in the book does mustice to the excellence of the carving. Some time ago L showed this picture to our favorite dealer, and-said, "I want you to get me a table like this some day." He promised — he is always obliging — but I don't think he thought it a probable purchase, for such tables are rare. Months later he telephoned that he had found one that he thought very similar in design and asked her to come down and see it; but it was not until they had examined it together and looked over the bill of sale, dated at Worcester and signed Mrs. John Smith, — you will notice that Frances Morse's text describes this table as owned by John Smith, Esq., of Worcester, — that they discovered it to be the identical table I had pointed out in the book. Wasn't that an extraordinary coincidence? Our dealer had found it quite by chance, while hunting up a sideboard, and had bought it from the widow of its former owner. It really makes me think that, if people will just want anything in the world enough and in the right way, they will surely get it. I am wishing all of you limitless faith!

And I am wishing you, also, infinite sympathy. These moyous quests of mine are not always gayly colored, you see, for they are woven out of the fabric of life itself. An auction can be very pathetic; the breaking up, the final wrecking of the home that has sheltered generations, where little children have lived and played and laughed, must of itself be sad; sad in the symbol of change, at least. And, sometimes, the people are so very, very poor; old bent women and stooped old men; for years they have struggled with farm-lands barren as their lives, and hoped so to keep things together! I am thinking of two such cases now. Once again I wish myself rich that I might buy the old place back for them, and give them a Ford and a Victrola and all the things they've wanted and never got. And, then, magically, the pattern of my imagination changes to a happier color, and I remember the tale of the friend of a friend, an "antique" emotionalist like myself. I hope most earnestly to meet her some day; we would have so much in common. Now, not knowing her, I still can tell the story with admiring freedom. My friend's friend had gone to a hillside farmhouse in search of a platter famous throughout the neighbor-hood. It proved even lovelier than she had expected: its blue the deep, intense tone that old Staffordshire alone possesses. Her whole collecting heart went out to it, and her modest tentative offer soon reached immoderation. But still the owner refused to sell it. At last, in desperation, the friend of my friend said, "Have I nothing to offer that would induce you to let me have it?"

Immediately the reply came, "Yes, ma'am, that skirt you've got on now."

"It's yours," answered my friend's friend, promptly stepping out of it. And she always adds when she tells the story, "And my good-fortune stayed with me for I had on a black taffeta petticoat!"



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