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Collector's Luck In The City

( Originally Published 1919 )

I am writing this because so many of you reproach me, gently it is true, but, none the less, reproach it is and nothing else. "Of course," you say, "you live in the country and it is easy for you to find these lovely old things in garrets and attics and at the wayside collector's shrine of auctions. But we who live in the city, what are we to do about it?" Now I am glad that I live in the country; I am a converted cockney, and I would not for one moment dispute the happiness of my antique pursuits here among the hills. But the real truth of the matter is that the better bargains are in the city. You must, of course, know how to look for them and where, and, equally, there is such a thing as "flair," and some people have it and so are blessedly fortunate.

Any city, particularly one along the, eastern coast, is full of small, inexpensive old-furniture shops, and places where second-hand goods are sold, and little auction rooms — even big auction rooms on a rainy day or at an off season — hold many genuine bar-gains, things that you might seek for years in the country and never find. Then, too, a city dealer is apt to have a fairer valuation of his wares than many a farmer in the country, who often has an unshaken idea that every old thing is very valuable, and that "people of means" — a favorite expression hereabouts — are willing to pay any price. To twice-tell a tale, there is my little old lady out on the hills, who still believes in her mistaken mine of wealth, that ancient, unpolished highboy. And once I hurried off without my lunch to see a treasure of an old desk, and found a rickety, miggly soft-wood thing, painted a bright red, with one twisted willow-pull still on it, so broken that it was fit for nothing else than the wood-pile, and all the modest owner wanted was seventy-five dollars!

I could go on unendingly: the old "flow blue" that a farmer declared was over two hundred and fifty years old —had, in fact, "come over in the May-flower"; that time in the unsuspecting days of my youth, when an honest husbandman sold me a quite modern Windsor chair for more than it had cost when it left its recent furniture-shop home; an uninteresting, scrolled, scrawled, late-Empire sofa for which a countrywoman wanted, as I remember the price, something like its weight in gold. I won't pursue the theme, for, after all, this chapter deals with what you can get in the city rather tban what you can't buy in the country.

Two other reasons there are why old furniture is easier to find in cities than in rural districts: East-ern cities, that is, for the Atlantic coast was settled at least a century before the inland country where I live began to be colonized. So, naturally, the older things must must be in the cities, you see. That 's my first reason, and a logical second is that for years, small dealers, journeying middlemen of the trade, have pretty well combed out the countryside, and added its largess to the treasures already in town. Really, I find a third, which is that there are so many more homes in the city to be broken up; so many more people to move away; and sell the furniture that they do not wish to take with them into their lives beyond. A lot of people, you know, don't like old things: luck for you and me.

I have chosen the Sheraton chair opposite to illustrate this very point. It is a late Sheraton, the type that is almost Empire, that influence showing in the massive band at the top, the carved acanthus leaves and rosettes, and in the heavier legs, no longer the slender fluting seen in Sheraton's earlier types. The wood is teak, such a tender amber-brown in tone; the slip seat a very fine meshed cane. And the family legend says that it was brought over to this country in one of the last of the old sailing-vessels of commerce. Six chairs and a sofa made tip the set, and when my sister rather indirectly heard that there was some old furniture for sale at this Boston house, — the family were moving to the far `West, — site found three of the chairs and the sofa ready to be hers. Two of the chairs she bought — a friend, the other — for fifteen dollars apiece, and I cannot help commending her noble, disinterested action in regard to the sofa. It was a lovely piece, better even than the chairs, she tells me; she could have bought it for sixty-five dollars, a mere nothing as to value; instead, she persuaded the owner to take it West with her, and to keep such a beautiful heirloom in the family. Could old-furniture forbearance go further?

The maple chair on the opposite page is much earlier, — eighteenth century, perhaps about 1760 or 1770,-just a "middling" chair of maple, with a rush-scat and the elaborated splat-back which the Dutch influence brought in and with which Chippendale wrought such wonders. It came originally from Newburyport, — a fact that endeared it to me, be-cause half of my ancestry comes from that small, very New England town, while the other half is fiercely Southern, — and I bought it for twelve dollars in one of the smaller, less-considered Charles Street shops, where I have, nevertheless, found many bargains. It did n't have a seat then.

The lower one, is even older, although the splat-back is very similar in type; for the base shows the seventeenth-century baluster turning and the Spanish foot that Catharine of Portugal introduced into England. It was bought in a Boston suburb for eighteen dollars. It had been literally thrown upon a cruel world, for the last of the family that had owned it had died a short time before, and all their household goods had been taken over by a second-hand dealer.

But chairs are not the only things one can find. There are tables, and would n't you have liked to pick up the graceful mahogany. tip-table I am showing you? It is a type that belongs to the late eighteenth century, a type usually called Hepplewhite because it has the delicate spade-feet which this cabinet-maker used so much. The wood is full of fire, with beautiful marking in the tipping-top, and, just. as it is, old brass snap and all, it was found by M--- , in Boston, for ten dollars. Long years ago it was brought from England to this country, and stayed quietly in one home, until the household was broken up and the furniture sold. The present owner heard of it just at the fortunate, psychological moment.

And I am almost equally fond of her old dining-table. You sec how wide the centre-board is, — surely the tree was more than a century in growing! — but, alas, that you cannot behold the beautiful, polished depth of the mahogany! Full Empire it is; the base indicates that, with its central pedestal, the carved acanthus leaves, and the hand-engraved claw-feet of brass. I have so many pleasant associations with its intimate hospitality that maybe I'd like it even if it were not so good; but its excellence makes a double motive of appreciation. This was bought in a large manufacturing city of northern Massachusetts for just forty-eight dollars. Have you ever tried to see how far that amount would go in modern furniture— for instance, in that delightful has seen which were in their original condition have, between the plate of glass and the thin wooden back, strips of Chinese paper; the painting on the glass is done in the same manner and in the same peculiar colors as those that, were made in China. The frame also indicates its Eastern origin, not being in a form used in Europe at that time."

This one is in perfect condition, in the old box, with the old nails holding it in place; it might, except for a certain mellowness that the detaining hand of Time always gives, have must come from Canton or Shanghai. I wonder where its first American home was? M found it in a small second-hand shop on an eighteenth-century Boston court, not so very far, really, from the old Boston "Measuring Stone," and its price was ten dollars and a half. When I look at it I think of the trite worth of a dealer's heart, for a dealer, who is a collector as well, directed her to this treasure instead of buying it for himself. But then he is a most unusual man; once he offered me what I believe was a McIntyre mantel, part of the dilapidated beauty of an old Lynn house, —and certainly its graceful carving justified my belief, — for fifteen dollars. Only the knowledge that my house was already full of mantels that Webster must have leaned against, or looked at, anyhow, kept me from buying it on the spot.

It is lustre. however, that proves more than any other thing the value of city collecting. In the first place, you rarely find complete sets in the country, nowadays, and, if you do, the owner appraises them far out of all proportion to their real worth. I know where there is one such set. It is averagely attractive, nothing more, and I doubt if the good woman would sell it for a hundred and fifty dollars. On the other hand, in a fairly expensive city shop, I have had the opportunity to buy a set of pink lustre, quite as complete and infinitely more charming, for seventy-five dollars. And I can't forget the long, long trip a friend and I took one autumn afternoon through a russet-brown country that was getting ready for its winter sleep. I could go on poetically about the farmhouse we visited and the farmer him-self, for his eyes were as blue as the fairy-flax, and his hair certainly as yellow as the corn-stubble in his fields beyond. And I am sure that his heart was utterly guileless; he must did n't know. I say this still, even when I recall the little, worthless lustre pitcher that looked as if it had come straight from a. five-and-ten-cent store; and was so very bad that actually you could n't tell whether it was old or new.

"It's a real museum piece," he announced proudly.

"What do you think it is worth?" I asked in idle curiosity, for nothing could have induced the to buy it, and I can only thank my Guardian Angel that I had put, it back safely on the table before he replied, "Twenty-five dollars." Sheer surprise would have made me drop it, I know. Now, of all these lovely pitchers (see page 172), all bought in Boston, not one cost even half that amount, and they are all genuine and valuable as well as beautiful. I like best the little one at the left; gold lustre with an under-flush of pink, and raised figures in a creamy white. I think it must be Wedgwood, not only because he first made this sort of lustre, but because the designs are pure eighteenth-century classicism, and the little grape-and-vine relief pattern at the top precisely like a set I have in blue and white that is authentically marked Wedgwood. Another chosen one is the creamer at the other side, for the shape really is unusually graceful and the vivid yellow band so very attractive with its brightly colored flower decoration.

I have tried to save my best city-collecting tale for the last. A friend of mine who lives in an apartment house was moving in just as the people above were moving out. As they left, one of the family said to her, "We've dumped some old furniture in the cellar. We don't want it, but if it's any use to you, keep it by all means." When my lucky friend looked, she found a very good stenciled rocker, and a gilt Empire mirror with a delightful painted picture at the top.

All of these things, really, can happen to you, people of little faith, who live in the city. I speak with deep feeling, for only to-day I have been offered a very modest four-slat chair for the unblushing price of fifty dollars. That was here in. the hills, in the tiniest village! A few weeks ago in Philadelphia I bought a five-slat beauty, with well-turned stretchers, ball-feet, and the old rush-seat, for fifteen. Of course, you 've got to know the game: what to buy and where to go to get it; and it's always going to be a case of Caveat emptor. But this is a collecting rule that proves equally true, in city and country alike.

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