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And The Moral

( Originally Published 1938 )

YES, as I wrote Louise, I have always maintained that collecting is the one respectable form of gambling. I do not know a more pleasurable diversion, nor one more innocent honest praise, that assuredly you cannot give to roulette or chemin-de-fer. You start out into a glorious, empty, crowded day — empty of obligations and crowded with possibilities — and you may find everything, and you may come home with nothing at all. Moreover, what good does a gambler get of his gold, once he has gained it? Back on the green table it goes, I fancy. Or it can just buy other things, no gambler being miser enough to hoard it and delight in fingering its silken, gilded surfaces. Besides, money — unless it be of ancient coinage, pieces of eight and deniers of silver, and then it 's a different story — is all so tragically alike. And the collector's rewards vary so joyously: each object holds a precious memory. Still, after all, I suspect that most collectors are at once gambler and miser — a fortunate combination, since first they worship the goddess Chance, and next, like contented children, they play with their happy discoveries.

Or, if you prefer, collecting is comparable to the thrill of pirate gold and buried treasure. And I'm sure that the buccaneers of old romance brought back with them something besides mere sacks of doubloons; I'm very sure they had memories as well of "green days and forests and blue days and sea." So I too, whenever I polish my silvery pressed-glass cup and saucer, remember the ancient, tranquil Square of the Archbishopric, and the tall towers of my beloved St.-Gatien, where the rooks flew cawing, to and fro, and the bells rang out those swift spring hours. And my lacquered boite a th้ is a magic box, a Pandora's box, but full of jolly imps. Open it, and out fly all the blithe and vagabondish days we spent at the Rag Fair, coming home so dusty and disheveled and laden down with newspaper-wrapped bundles that everybody in the M้tro smiled and knew where we'd been. And if ever I were in danger of forgetting Paris,— which I am not and shall never be! — I should put on my eglomise locket, and the small black-and-gold lady would bring back that July weather when the city lay shimmering in the heat, and bright flowers bloomed in the almost deserted Luxembourg Gardens, and I stole out in the cool of the morning to buy her at the little shop on the rue de Tournon. "Ah, qu'ils etaient beaux, les jours de France!" I love every single thing I brought with me to America, but infinitely more I value the memories my silhouettes and candlesticks and glass evoke. And that 's what collecting can do for you.

But burning incense at the shrine of Chance and rejoicing in your dear antiquities are not the only necessities for successful collecting; to them you must add the attributes which Balzac declares are so essential: "les jambes du cerf, le temps des flaneurs, et la patience de l'Israelite." Always an amateur of elusive beauty, Balzac knew how much persistent endurance accomplishes, and Le Cousin Pons is incomparably the greatest collecting-novel ever written.

Another bit of advice to the American collector. I have invariably found my compatriots either absurdly afraid of being swindled, or, like the White Queen, determined to "believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Those of you who have read that delightful Collector's Whatnot will not need a warning to avoid the pewter plates embellished with salamanders or porcupines or ermines. Yet I've known guileless ladies who bought them for a few francs in the fond delusion that they had acquired rarities dating back to the time of the early Renaissance — the climax of impossibility at any hour of the day ! And, as a further counsel, I should pass by miniatures unless I bought them at a good price, and at a shop reliable enough to be willing to give a written guaranty of their genuineness. You see, there are too many to be probable; on my prowls I saw such quantities of slim blue ladies and powdered-haired gentlemen that I felt as if all the young artists in the Latin Quarter must be turning a dishonest penny by reviving the eighteenth century. Faience will prove another stumbling-block. There is a factory which makes reproductions of Strasbourg, Rouen, Nevers — oh, all the old potteries are rep-resented. They are made in strict honesty, and they are sold for precisely what they are at a shop on the Boulevard de l'Op้ra; but some antiquity-dealers are less scrupulous, and you will often find these pretty colored plates and platters and vases offered for sale as authentic pieces of old faience.

Still, in collecting, is n't it always a matter of letting the buyer beware? The lover of the past must be astute in any country, even in New England where, nowadays, nice old ladies are bringing from their capacious cupboards cleverly "faked" Benjamin Franklin cup-plates and selling them as their grand-mothers' wedding glass! On the whole I have found French dealers quite as honest as American. And almost invariably more courteous. They are so anxious to please, so very welcoming, while here — to be candid — I encounter what Mr. Flandrau calls the manner of "dethroned empresses." I think I 'd recommend a residence in France as an improvement to anybody's manners!

May I tell you a tale that is the blending of both honesty and courtesy? One June morning, toward the end of my stay in Tours, I stepped from the glaring blue of the rue de la Scellerie into the colored dusk of a small and charming magasin d'antiquit้s.

There were pleasant bon jour, Madame's; we commiserated each other on the deplorable heat; and then I asked if she had any mirrors. She had but one, it appeared — a lovely Louis Quinze piece with suave gilt carvings, repaired a little; she meticulously pointed out the places where new wood had been inset. But when I asked the price, she told me it was not for sale; that, early in the war, an American soldier had asked her to save it for him and paid a generous deposit upon it. Years had passed, and he had never come back to claim it, but still she was holding it for him. It would have been so easy for her to forget, — he may never return, you know, — but I truly think that this engaging mirror, despite its many admirers, is going to go on waiting, waiting for him to come.

Of course it is an advantage being an American. Not only because the French are so adorably kind to you, — an admirable trait in itself, — but I mean the pure financial consideration a collector must have for her pocketbook. It is always possible, without lacking tact, to ask for a receipted bill declaring the value and the age of the purchase — the greatest help in time of need, when you arrive at the customs house. Though if you buy as I did,— at the fairs and along the quais, — it will be wisdom to carry with you a number of the stamps which must be attached to these so necessary documents. The little marchands are too poor to have them, and besides, their gains are too small for anybody to want to cut them down further.

Naturally, everything over a century old comes in duty free, but a receipted bill often saves an argument, and an argument. when you are hurrying to catch a train, and your purse is very, very flat, is a thing to be avoided if you can do it. Oftentimes my friends behave as if I had employed some sort of white magic in getting as much through the customs as I did. Let me tell you a secret. I had a hundred dollars' exemption ! And so will you! And a hundred dollars goes a long way in France in buying antiquities; all the treasures that I brought back cost only a little more than fifty dollars. National points of view differ, and age, like everything else, is relative; there were times in France when I felt that only King Dagobert's chair was considered respectably old! Now candlesticks, for instance; why — candlesticks that we pay ridiculous prices for here are as simple primroses on the river's brim to any Frenchwoman. Which kindly scorn is an enormous help to modest collections on this side of the water. But if I were buying largely, purchasing expensive and grandiloquent pieces of furniture, I 'd not only get my receipted bills, but I 'd take those bills, and go to my consul, and get an official declaration — a troublesome thing, I am told, although persistence will accomplish it. And then, the time you spend in France will undoubtedly be saved in America, a very agreeable fact to contemplate.

Ah, I so much envy you who are going awhile to the pleasant land of France. But it 's the nicest sort of envy; not in the least the breaking-the-tenth-commandment kind. I really do wish you all the luck I had — and more, too. If you collect the right way, you will gather such marvels for rainy days at home: beauty and ancient legends and endearing kindness, far more valuable than just the things themselves. So, my dear buccaneers of modern romance, dig up your pirate gold, and no one will rejoice more than I; not a glint of your gay adventuring will I covet. But I shall refuse to admit you to my Band of Chosen Collectors if you return with empty hearts and hands.


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