Colonial Finds In Unexpected Places
( Originally Published 1907 )
MANY has been the odd bit of information given by the old Austrian, he who fought at Solferino, but none so strange as what came one day in response to a comment that he never handled silver.
He could not afford it, it would lock up too much money, he said; and then an oddly benign look came into his eyes. "I will tell you where to go" ; and he gave an address in the heart of the busiest section of the East Side, a part of New York where an important shop of that kind would not be looked for. It was, he added, little known as a silver headquarters, except to the trade.
The place proved to be a sort of clearing house for silver for the pawnshops of New York. In a long glass case were bundles upon bundles of thin old spoons and rat-tailed spoons, and queer punch ladles and huge foreign forks. On the wall, behind glass doors, were shelves upon which larger pieces were stored. And there, in a row, were four pieces of early Georgian silver, with ebony handles.
They were fine and low, and plain except for a band of little oval panels in relief. Every line in them was a delight. They showed a row of hall-marks sufficient to fascinate any collector.
We were offered them by weight-Georgian silver by weight!-and for less than silverware of modern workmanship would command on Broadway; only eighty-five dollars. The hall-marks were copied for the pleasure of looking them up in Cripps; but it was necessary to think over the price a little, and they were gone on our return. Old treasure must be snapped at in such a place; not dawdled over as when one buys in fine surroundings at fine prices.
The clerk seemed to share our disappointment. Most of their customers, he said, were dealers. He had sold the Georgian silver to a little shop off Fifth Avenue.
He also added that his stock was low-this in spite of full cases!- for eight thousand dollars' worth of old silver had just been sent to New Or-leans to stock up the antique shops for the Mardi Gras crowds of strangers.
Delicious, this! and explanatory too, for we have seen "old New Orleans silver" which the owners had purchased in that city and "knew to be French" in spite of hall-marks which they ought to have known were English.
Always is the pleasure of a find increased by the fillip of unanticipation. As when we found, one day, quite by accident, that in another part of the East Side is located a company that makes a specialty of tearing down old buildings, and offers for sale wreckage of every conceivable kind, including-what a chance for the possessor of some old house which needs restoration! -mantels and chimney-pieces, fluted pillars, mahogany doors, and fanlights.
One day, the janitor of our apartment house, mending something about the lock of an inside room, remarked that we seemed to have considerable old-time furniture. "Down in the basement," he went on, "there is an old-fashioned looking table that my wife wants me to split up and throw in the furnace. It 's only in the way. I don't know anything about it, but it has lion's feet and eagle's wings. I 'll sell it to you for a dollar if you want it."
This was one of those chances that are not to be neglected. Of course, the table might be worth nothing at all except for its otherwise predestined fate of firewood; but almost anything in furniture is worth the chance of a dollar.
"I 'll take it; just fetch it up, please."
And in a few minutes it was in the room; an Empire table, with a swing-and-fold top thirty-six inches by thirty-six, and with splendid claw feet and wings. It is of superb San Domingo, with an upright pillar showing remarkable fire and glow. And offered and bought and delivered for just one dollar! It needed somewhat of polishing-but what of that! Since then, we have been offered fifty dollars for it, by a dealer who held the money temptingly. But we considered that, although we might have other opportunities of getting fifty dollars, we might never again have the chance of getting such a superb old table in the very heart of New York City.
A friend had often heard her mother tell, with regret, of old pieces of furniture which had been practically or literally given away, many years before, and at length she began to think seriously of it all. She learned into what household most of the things had gone; she knew that they went not as precious bits but as cast-offs; and, visiting there, she learned that the people would be keenly gratified to receive new pieces of modern make in place of the now battered antiques. An arrangement was thereupon made, highly satisfactory to both!
That was in Ohio. Now, here is an incident from New York. The granddaughter of one of the early vice-presidents felt a strong desire to recover some of the ancient family furniture, which, before she was born, had been scattered at a public sale, on the removal of her grandfather from one city to another. She made careful inquiry but could only find trace of a certain set of three tables, which had been purchased by a family whose address she learned. She went there, although it involved something of a journey. She found the descendant of the purchaser using the tables. The case was explained; the granddaughter said that she would dearly like to possess some of the furniture which had belonged to her distinguished ancestor, but that she did not wish, of course, to take away anything which the present possessor particularly prized. Whereupon the three tables were sold to her, with ready cheerfulness, for precisely the sum which, according to an old family record, had been paid for them so long before.
The finding of brass or iron treasure on a farm junk pile, or forgotten upon a high ledge in a barn, can scarcely be classed among the unexpected, for the experienced collector comes to consider such places as natural nooks for forgotten door-handles, cranes, and odds and ends.
But when a friend of ours, in Ohio, discovered a fine bit of pewter, a platter, of English make, so little thought of that it had become the dinner dish of a wheezy pug, that may fairly be ranked among the unexpected.
We ourselves had an interesting experience along to some extent similar lines. An ancient handicraftsman, in ancient Padua, was eating his dinner, in a corner of his very dark little shop, from a really good pewter plate with a beaded edge. He wanted but a trifle for it, and it became ours, and is one of the pieces of pewter upon the long shelf above the eight-foot fireplace, maintaining its claim to distinction as a piece of old Italian make and as coming direct to our hands from the hands of an old man in one of the most fascinating of all cities.
One of the strangest experiences was that of a friend in a charming region of New York State.
Upon inheriting a beautiful old house, long ante-dating the Revolution, he looked through it, and, getting to the garret, saw that it was pretty well filled with apparent rubbish which he ordered to be cleaned out. He had not, at that time, acquired a taste for antique shapes; he was, on the contrary, well satisfied with what is colloquially known, in New York City, as the style of Louis Fourteenth Street.
His old servant, inherited with the estate,. and holding great respect for the family and its traditions, respectfully hinted that there were old pieces of furniture among the apparent trash. But the new owner was indifferently inexorable, and the garret was emptied.
But mark the sequel. Years passed. The liking for the antique came upon our friend. He saw a great light, so to speak. He loathed what he had once loved and loved that to which he had once been indifferent. He determined to set about making his home the visible sign of the inward grace that had newly come to him. And he lamented in sackcloth and ashes that the family pieces he had once had in his very possession were no longer there to form the nucleus of the collection that he was now bent upon securing.
The faithful old servitor heard his master expressing vain regrets. His dark face glowed with happiness. His old eyes sparkled. He led his wondering employer to the loft above the wood-house, and there most of the treasures still were! Moth and rust had not corrupted nor had thieves stolen. They had been kept all those years, through the dumb faithfulness of the old servant. And the tale has been told us in that very house, and in the midst of the things thus strangely preserved:
An acquaintance owns a fine old pair of brass and-irons; and she loves to tell how she became the possessor of them. She had, for years, longed to visit her early home in the Western Reserve, and at length was able to do so. She went to the old house; she roamed through the rooms which she had not seen for thirty years but which were still strongly fixed in her memory. At night, she sat in front of where a fireplace had been-where, indeed, it still was, but boarded in with a heavy frame.
She told of a splendid pair of andirons, "rights and lefts," of brass, which had been used in that fireplace in her girlhood. They had gone, so the people told her; everything of that sort had been cleared away long ago. Yes; it was too bad; for if they had known that anybody cared for that sort of thing-But everything had gone. And, to give ocular evidence of the changed aspect of the denuded fireplace, the heavy frame was moved aside-and there, seeing the light of day for the first time in a quarter of a century, were the andirons!
A friend-the same one that took the pewter platter from the lunching dog-thought that she would like to secure some old sporting prints from an aunt in the country. So thitherward she went, armed with a bundle of towels of fine linen on the chance that a trade might be welcome.
But, alas! the prints had disappeared years ago. The original frames had been preserved, but not the pictures. Within the frame had been placed prize oleographs from one of the popular religious week-lies.
She was disappointed; but she gave the linen towels, just the same, mentioning, with a laugh, to her aunt, what she had had in mind to propose. The aunt was full of regrets. She was so sorry that the pictures had gone. She could not even remember what had been done with them. But she insisted that her niece should at least take the frames! This was embarrassing, but unavoidable; and then, at home, the sporting prints were found, for they had never been removed and were merely covered by the oleographs!
We know of a fine old silver spoon which was dug up, one day, in a garden patch! And, more unexpected than that, was the discovery by ourselves, one day in a boarding house in New York, of a charming Sheraton table. We were placed, on entering the dining room, at a little individual table at one side, where were the only unoccupied seats. The table was covered with a table-cloth which hung nearly to the floor. Something about the oval shape, and the proportions of the top, attracted us; and one of us reached under and felt the leg. It was slender and square and delicately grooved! After dinner, an examination was made, and the table was found to be a delightful example of old-fashioned Sheraton. Its oval shape came from two tiny leaves. A drawer, with original brasses, was at either end. The proprietor of the house had no idea that the table was anything more than ordinary, and it had been picked up just to be used as a handy table for a small space.
"What do you think Mrs. W- has in the storage bin in the cellar!" exclaimed our across-the-hall neighbor, one day, in New York. "She 's got a silver salver as large as a table-top!"
Having an acquaintance with Mrs. W-, we spoke 'of the tray, mentioning our interest in old-fashioned things.
It was an heirloom; almost all that had been saved from the dispersion of the family effects at her girlhood home in Tennessee. It was a salver of enormous size; a really superb piece. It was of Sheffield plate, with a border of grapevine leaves, and stood on tiny low feet, just enough to raise it from the table-top or sideboard to avoid marking the woodwork if a hot dish or teapot were upon it. A strange thing, and a strange history, for the cellar of a New York apartment house!
In a Western city, one Sunday afternoon, passing the shop of a carpenter, a glimpse was accidentally caught of what seemed to be a fine old table. It was small, but the corner of it that was visible pointed to age and workmanship. It being Sunday, no one was there ; but a visit the next day showed that the table was indeed old, and it now has a place among our honored belongings, after being discovered by such a mere chance in a Western carpenter shop, where it would certainly not have been looked for.
And this is remindful of an important hint; some-thing that all good collectors ought to know. That is, that the shop of the village undertaker, in many an Eastern town, and especially where the undertaker is a cabinet-maker as well, is a place never to be neglected in a local search.
It comes about most naturally. Often, a death means the breaking up of a household and the dispersion of the household belongings. And in such a case, who but the undertaker has the first chance!
And too, when there is but little ready money, which is often the case where there has been a death in a village family, the undertaker is willing to take his pay in furniture. Especially, as we have noted, if he be a cabinet-maker as well!
A friend, admiring the great sofa that we obtained in a Pennsylvania town, begged us to accompany him on a trip there. He wanted a sofa, too. We said that the person from whom we had bought ours was selling nothing more, and that, anyhow, he had no other large sofa. But our friend was persistent. In such a town as we described, so he declared, there must be another fine sofa ready to be secured! And, unwilling to cool such enthusiastic faith, we went with him.
This time, we led the way to the undertaker, for in other towns we had come to know the invaluable secret of what a country undertaker is apt to have.
Nor did he disappoint us. He cogitated. He grew grave. There had been a death, he said, in his solemn voice ; and if we would but wait an hour till he could see- ? There was certainly a sofa-"And the bereaved" (he mumbled, respectfully, as he spoke this last word) "might possibly-" And shortly we had the satisfaction of seeing him set out.
Within the hour he returned. His progress up the village street had all the effect of a triumph. It was raining, but he heeded not. He had often driven in the rain. His long and ancient coat, folded discreetly about him but drooping from the wet, his rusty, high hat, his long black wagon and his sedately stepping old black horse, all gave dignity and solemnity to his progress.
And placed crosswise on the wagon, and reaching far out on either side, was an ancient claw-foot sofa, proudly sweeping the width of the narrow street!