The Field In New York And Vicinity
( Originally Published 1907 )
NEW YORK, the exponent of the present, the representative of the modern, the strenuous city of the twentieth century, in which no crime is so serious as being of the past, would scarcely be looked upon as a place for the collector of the antique. Yet in New York City there is much that is old, and in its near vicinity there is even more. There are, too, in New York, as residents or transients, more people seeking for the old than seek for it in any other of our cities, and therefore the demand is met with a supply, even if the supply is far from being in every case all that it might be.
So eager is the desire to tear down old-time buildings, that it is difficult to imagine things of the past in the spick-span structures that have arisen in their place; and it was a keen pleasure to find unexpectedly in one of the newest of apartment houses, a really astonishing collection, brought to New York by the descendants of an old family coming here from the South, and consisting of portraits, old letters from presidents and generals, jewels of the wife of an officer of Washington, old mahogany, even a painting by that remarkable artist, of almost a century ago, Chester Harding, who, from being a painter of houses became a maker of portraits and in the very beginning of his career went to Paris-but it was Paris in Kentucky!-for his artistic experience, and then painted the great folk of the earth.
There is a splendid collection of antique furniture in the Van Cortlandt mansion house, in charge of one of the patriotic societies; and it points the possibilities of what may be in this great city, that the finest sofa there was donated by a sergeant of the New York police force.
One comes to know of many a beautiful piece in private ownership and to divine that there must be in all a vast number; and, wherever things are, the collector who has faith and experience knows that possibilities of securing them must from time to time arise.
Of course, there are great shops where antiques, or alleged antiques, are sold, but, for ourselves, we came to prefer the pleasure of dropping in upon a curious old Austrian, who keeps a little shop in rather a shabby part of the city. A man of curious personal history he; twenty-one years he served in the Austrian army, and fourteen of those years was stationed as a soldier in Venice. He and his four brothers were in the crushing defeat of Solferino; and, of the five, only he escaped with life.
His shop, as one would expect, is like a shop in a quiet street of a foreign town. He always has about the same row of dusty pewter mugs and jugs, the same stand of arms, the same group of fire-irons and brasses . and samovars, the same dusty old bronze lamps and hot-water dishes; but somewhere in that shop is always a bit of treasure. Perhaps it is a helmet coal-scuttle, perhaps a silver candlestick, perhaps a pewter tankard, a brass fender, a tall clock, a Sheffield tray, an old mirror frame.
His is not the smart shop of big prices. His is that happy find-a "shabby shop"!
His prices have gone up somewhat with the passing of the years. He will tell you that things are harder to get than they used to be before the growth of interest in antiques, and that now "when I go to an auction on Long Island I can hardly get through the crowd of carriages at the door." Naturally enough, the helmet coal-scuttle, in brass, for two dollars, is now but a memory of six years ago; now, at eight dollars each, they stay with him but a day. But there are other things on which prices have not proportionately changed.
To the favored few he gives the key to his cabinet of small and precious things; gives it and turns away to leave one in peace to look over the seals and miniatures and ivory-bound prayer-books and tortoise-shell snuff-boxes of generations ago. It is a fetching process, this exploration; it seldom fails of the resultant "How much?"-and then there will be two or three things set together and the old Austrian will teeter up and down on his toes and say, "So much for the lot!"
A type, this, of an interesting class of dealer that is supposed never to have existed in this country or else to have passed away; and yet he and such as he, although in limited number, may be unearthed.
In the neighborhood of New York there are many small towns where treasures of old furniture can still be found. What used to be the most promising of these towns is on Long Island, within pleasant trolleying distance of the city, and a shop there should be described, on account of its being typical of a class.
An old man, himself a lover of the antique, bought and stored a prodigious number of old tables and chairs, bureaus and desks, andirons and fenders and candlesticks. His was distinctly one of the "shabby shops,"to use again a term beloved of the collector. No cabinet-maker's strategy improved his pieces, no smell of linseed oil or shellac marked efforts to brighten their dinginess. There were the dust and the smell and the breakages that go with so many of the things of long ago.
The owner of this great collection spent his time in looking for more. Although his stock filled an old-fashioned country store, and three barns and an attic, there was not room for all his acquisitions, and we have seen a bandy-legged claw-and-ball table be-side the hencoop, exposed to the weather, and several old sofas, of no mean design, with only tarpaulin to cover their gray hairs.
With what eagerness, on our first visit, we mounted the store porch and approached the door. It was locked. We shook it and peered in. Against the window frame hung several brown silver salvers. They were dull and unpolished, but fine. Old candle-sticks, broken blue teapots, and the odds and ends of years of gathering filled the rest of the window. After peering for many minutes a man showed himself, who, spearing us with his single eye, suspiciously demanded to know if we wanted anything in particular.
What we wanted was to see the dealer, of whom we had heard, and then under his guidance to see his stock. So the first inquiry was for the dealer.
"He 's over in Connecticut, to a sale."
We naturally wanted to see the stock anyhow, having trolleyed out there for no other purpose. But the one-eyed seemed to resent any idea of looking at the stock and was even disinclined to accept a hint as to opening the door. No museum attendant, after the closing hour, could have been more disobliging than was this supposed-to-be clerk in the middle of the afternoon.
"Well, have you any open-work brass fenders?"
He grudgingly opened the door. We entered. But there was barely room to move. Back to back there were chests of drawers and shabby high-boys, there were sofas rampant, there were beds with testers and beds with low posts jostling one another, and there were chaotic masses of work-tables, candle-stands and mirror frames. On the walls, upon pegs, hung innumerable chairs. In the corners were piles of things randomly heaped, good, bad and indifferent merged indistinguishably.
Our eyes grew accustomed to the dim light that filtered in through dirty windows, and, although the one-eyed could not at once discover where any brass fenders were lost, we saw an inlaid dressing glass which greatly pleased us. But the man took a queerer turn and said that he didn't know what to charge, and, anyway, Mr. H- didn't care particularly about selling that.
So it was with many another thing; and the random prices he now and then consented to give seemed to have little connection with the value of the articles, and we left him to lock up and returned to the city.
On the occasion of another trip, a year later, we found the old man who was the collector of this great mass of treasure. And we discovered his secret. He really did not want to sell! He wanted to gather in. A Sheraton sofa was picked out-but he did not want it to leave his sight. He evaded putting a price on it. He showed a poor and featureless one and offered that instead. He had little to say and little to sell. He was a veritable miser of old furniture!
He died, not long after this, and his heirs showed clearly that they were not of his way of thinking. For all the shabby old treasures were sent to Fifth Avenue, and during six days rapid selling, following wide advertising, they were auctioned to make a New York holiday. They were sold in their shabby, unrepaired condition, so that the buyers could see precisely what they were getting, but there was the proviso that every article should be put in perfect condition, and be properly polished, before delivery.
This occurred but recently, and is another example of twentieth-century opportunities.
In contrast to that man of Long Island is one whose place is near the Kill van Kull. This man's establishment has a widespread area of back rooms behind the store front, but the stock is so variable that there may not be a single piece worth buying or there may be a dozen choice bits.
We have never seen the owner at his shop. He spends his time in trips that take him not only to near-by points but even as far as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
His wife meets customers; and though she does not seem to know a Chippendale from a Jacobean by name, she knows them in value, and her "Them 's seven dollars," or "Them 's one dollar" covers the ground.
When, perhaps in Westchester or in some New Jersey village, this man finds a Heppelwhite side-board or a slant-top secretary, he sends word to a few of his customers-clients is perhaps a good word and they are in his shop when the crated piece appears. He takes it as a compliment to his shrewdness when his shop is empty of all but the trash that seems bound to accumulate about every antique dealer, no matter what his knowledge.
We came to know the dealer personally in a curious way. One morning, some men were heard, within the portico of our home, apparently fumbling at the knocker on the front door. Then came a voice: "I '11 give you three dollars for one like that." It was clearly a case of one man offering another a price for a knocker like our treasure from Quebec, with the added implication, in the absence of knowledge of identity and purpose, that a price was put upon that particular knocker!
Now, that was not a thing to be taken lightly; and so there was the prompt overhauling of two forms disappearing down the village street.
Then, for the first time, was met the owner of the Kill van Kull shop! With a local guide he was covering the neighborhood, seeking what old pieces of furniture he could, financially speaking, devour, and in all honesty of purpose he had been explaining to his guide that knockers such as ours are always desirable.
He came back to the old brick building and, entering, his eyes at once glanced upon a treasure which erstwhile had stood in his own rambling establishment. He recognized it at once, for thus it is with the enthusiastic vendor of treasures. Then he looked at our other things, and, moved thereto by fellow feeling (for this class of dealer is always a lover of furniture at heart, and not a salesman), he launched into curious details of what his trips had taught him, especially in regard to our particular countryside; telling of here a cupboard, there a chest of drawers, there an old clock, which he had been on the trail of and in hopes of getting but which we might secure even if he did not. His familiarity with roads and houses was astonishing. He had unearthed curious secrets of garret and cellar, and frankly talked of them. And from him we learned to realize more fully, not only what treasures the perseverance and ingratiating ways of such men secure, but also that there are country dwellers who, ready enough to sell to the amateur, will not sell to the professional dealer.
By way of contrast there has sprung up in the immediate vicinity of New York, within driving or easy automobiling distance of the city, a new type of shop, fascinating in appearance, where the wares are spread through sundry rooms, with an air of furnishing rather than of display, and where, in the midst of a glow of polished mahogany and Sheffield plate, luncheon and tea are served, so that while you eat you are tempted. The opportunity for talk while tea is sipped leads to many a purchase, large and small, and a most delightful sort of shopkeeping is thus carried on. As to reliability and genuineness, it is merely as it is everywhere else-that is, the judgment of the buyer himself must always in the last resort be relied upon to pick the true from the false, if any should be false.
On the Jersey side of the Hudson, less than twenty miles from New York City, we called on an aged couple on the day of the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding. And their house is one of the many re-minders that much of the antique is still to be found.
But, alas! their sitting room that day displayed an incongruous sight. For in a semi-circle were ten armchairs of painfully modern construction, sent in as anniversary gifts by relatives, and these chairs had displaced the charming old furniture that the couple loved. But elsewhere in the house there were still the treasured old articles.
After a while, we strolled out into the garden, and we all sat down beside an overgrown mass of fragrant box under the shadow of an ancient well-sweep, where moss pinks were growing in fragrant beds. And the dear old lady gave us strawberries and cream in delightful old saucers of lustre-ware, and the pitcher and bowl were of lustre-ware as well. Somehow, it was all like a leaf out of the past; the fine old faces, in an environment still older.
It is one thing to state, in broad generalization, that within the immediate vicinity of New York there are countless articles of old furniture; it is an-other to tell definitely what some particular locality can show, so that the collector may be stimulated to new efforts and a deeper enthusiasm.
And so, selecting one single village, we took its furniture census.
The village is less than two hours by rail from New York, it is a village of ancestry, of the leaven of the Colonies and the Revolution. It is, too, a village in whose vicinity, upon little lanes and crossroads, still dwell colored folk, lineal descendants of those slaves of New York who were not freed until three-quarters of a century ago.
The village has more old furniture than some; it has less than others; it may therefore well stand as an example of what still exists in some of the towns not far from the metropolis.
For sale? Most fortunately, no! For if the old-time treasures were all upon the market the field would all too soon be exhausted. And yet, by chance or mischance, almost anything is apt some time to be obtainable. The piece which cannot, today, be purchased at any price, may be for sale tomorrow. And when such things are for sale, it would please those who have long treasured them to know that they are to pass into the hands of such as shall long treasure them in turn.
Here, literally enumerated, naught to exaggerate nor aught to set down excessively, is what is in that town.
Beginning on the outskirts of the village, there is a rambling old house, connected with the literary history of a bygone generation, and in this house there are silver candlesticks and two silver candelabra, a Chippendale chair, a set of fine old Canton china, and two good corner-cupboards built into a wainscoted wall.
Next comes a still more ancient house : a pictureesquely low-eaved cottage, sheltered under the shoulder of a hill; and here are an Empire sofa, an old settee, rush-seated and slender-spoked, blue coverlets, and, chief pride of the cottage, a fine armchair that was made more than a century and a half ago.
Another house; and here are a grandfather's clock, old silver, Windsor chairs, and a Heppelwhite side-board sadly broken but with all the fragments care-fully kept with intent to repair.
Continuing, we reach a house whose stately charm, antedating the Revolution, lies in gambrel roof, and small-paned windows, and felicitous chimneys, and white paint, and perfect proportion of parts, and magnificent encompassing trees. And it holds wealth of the old-fashioned, to match such an exterior-chests of drawers, innumerable tables, a tall clock, a wardrobe with bonnet-top, a cabinet, a side-board and many chairs. On the door is an old brass knocker.
The setting down of these literal facts must seem like a fairy tale to those who believe that almost all old-fashioned furniture has been seized upon.
In another house there is a really splendid chest of drawers, there are old brass fenders, blue and white coverlets, blue Spode, a particularly beautiful pair of brass tongs, a grandfather's clock, a brass knocker, an old tip-table; and, until recently, there lay, for-gotten and neglected, in the wagon-shed, a fine old sofa, which needed but renovation to make it an ornament to any house.
Chippendale chairs, Windsor chairs, an Empire sideboard with pillars and claws, a mirror-such is the treasure of another house; and, continuing the furniture census, we next note a little old dwelling, inhabited by an aged widow, where there are a full tea-set of beautiful Lowestoft, a pair of andirons, and a tall clock.
Across the street from this house is one in which are an old Dutch wardrobe, paneled, of oak, a four-post bed, a rare mantel clock in brass and mahogany, a lustre pitcher, a chest of drawers, a bookcase with paneled glass, and a brass knocker.
A little down the street, and there stands a house wherein is a fine old set of drawers. Until a few years ago the house was furnished from top to bottom with things ancient, most of which were widely scattered at an auction following the owner's death.
Another house, and we find an old mirror; in another, a Sheraton desk; another, cranes and pothooks.
Then a house where, until recently, there were a number of splint-bottom and Windsor chairs, which some one from New York, finding that the owner would sell, purchased for twenty-five cents apiece.
Another house shows a brass door-knocker; an-other has a candlestand and a fine desk. And then comes one, lived in by a venerable man, whose taste, running to the modern, has filled his old white house with furniture of, the latest design, while his attic is crowded with old-fashioned pieces which he will not even think of parting with and which he rarely permits any one to see, he being over ninety and not much liking to be disturbed. A brass knocker on the side door, the fifth thus far in this little village, is the only sign, below the garret, that the building holds anything of old-time note.
Another house, and there is a rare set of three dining-tables, rope-legged, and of mahogany; there is a brass fender; there is an old-fashioned dressing-glass and table; there are old blue dishes; there is an old traveling-case, of mahogany and brass, with its bottles and drinking-glasses.
Another house has an old and desirable sideboard, which a dealer's recent offer of fifty dollars did not tempt the owner to part with, and a brass knocker. In another there is a mirror of mahogany, with ormolu mounting. Another has a Sheraton table, a bandy-legged table, a knocker, and chairs and candle-sticks. In the next a banjo clock had just been sold. In another are a Chippendale chair, a mirror with acorn drops, old-time silhouettes, a mahogany dining-table, and tea-tables of ancient make.
Almost through the little village now, we come to a house in which are an unusually beautiful chest of drawers of Empire design, a Lowestoft cream-jug, rush-bottomed chairs of very graceful pattern, and very fine andirons.
On the farther edge of the village is a house in which are two sideboards, one Sheraton and one Empire, an Empire cheval glass, a diamond-paned secretary, andirons, tip-tables, two chests of drawers, and eight old decanters of cut glass!
Near by is a house with a brass knocker, and a French bed that has roll ends. Then a house in which is a great four-post Empire bed, a set of Sheffield-plate silver in fascinating shapes, and an Empire clock.
And in the immediate vicinity of the village there is a house in which are a beautiful specimen of five-slat chair, a Continental mirror, old andirons and candlesticks; and another house wherein are an Empire table, with pillars elaborately ornamented, a swell-front cabinet, and a tea-table.
Confident though we were, from past experiences, that we should find many a specimen of the old, the total of the enumeration amazed us. It is putting it moderately to say that in that one little village there is enough to stock a museum. And there is many an-other village with treasure equal or superior.
It is not only the big but the little, not only the piece of fine furniture but the piece of what may be called kitchen furniture, which one may unexpectedly find.
On a Westchester road, at a long distance from any other house, we once came across one of those pathetic marks of where a habitation had been-a line of stone foundation and a few scattered bricks. Fire had utterly destroyed the house; no attempt had been made to rebuild; the ruins had been overhauled with care, and then vines had grown clusteringly over the burnt stone and brick.
There, unearthed by some chance, by the sliding of some pile of ashes, lay a huge iron gipsy kettle with three legs. Picturesque in shape it was and of unusual size. There was nobody of whom to buy it, it was as deserted and lost as if it were in mid-ocean, and so it went along with us. It was red with rust, but a coat of dead black transformed it into a most satisfactory wood-box, to stand beside one of our fire-places in which the andirons are of iron-the wood-box in the adjoining room, where the fireplace fittings are of brass, being a large brass kettle, even larger than the iron one just described, which a farmer's wife gladly disposed of to us in exchange for a preserving kettle of modern make purchased for her at the village store; for there are many who are quite ready to give the ancient in exchange for the new.
In one particular, the vicinity of New York, especially here and there on Long Island, and a little in the Hudson River region and in near-by parts of Westchester County, is different from the rest of the United States in that it shows more of the Dutch influence. And this means not only Dutch ideas and peculiarities, as, the Dutch paneled armoires and heavy cupboards, and the blue tiles, with Scripture subjects, around fireplaces, and similar things to go with the old Dutch "stoops," but the influence of the Orient; for the Dutch, great traders that they were, brought home with them from the East, along with the spices and silks for which they more specifically sailed, specimens of ebony furniture, of teakwood, of sandalwood, of wicker, and the grotesque designs of the Chinese.
The quest of old-time furniture leads one into many a strange and interesting place. But never was there a more picturesque experience encountered by furniture-lovers than befell us in the hilly region north of New York City.
At the foot of a long, steep road, a road at whose summit had taken place one of the noted tragedies of the Revolution, stood an old broad-fronted house. It was on the verge of becoming decrepit. One end had noticeably sagged, and there was a tottering noddingness about the entire structure. On the door was a fine old brass eagle knocker, and, wishing to make some inquiry about the roads, it was gently touched-gently, because of the peacefulness of the ancient house" and of the environing hills, glorified by a sun-bright haze.
And as the knock at the door of an ancient castle might be expected to draw forth an armored custodian, so this knock summoned a fitting warder.
An old, old man, stepping out of the dim past into that old doorway, appeared there. He was straight and slender and tall. His hair was iron-gray and his black tie was worn like an old-time stock. His tail-coat hung in full folds about his shrunken form. A distinguished-looking man he was, and he gave the wished-for information in a soft and gentle voice, and with the manner of old-fashioned courtesy.
Asked if his house were a house of history : "Not exactly," he replied; "and yet, many a man of history, many an officer, has eaten and slept here. This was an inn long before the Revolution and during that war, and this road was one of the principal high-ways between New York and Connecticut. But won't you come in, both of you?" his glance taking in the waiting figure in the carriage.
We entered the hall: a hall of considerable dignity. An old-fashioned lantern hung from the centre, and a stairway swept upward with low and easy steps. Political woodcuts of the past were lined along the side of the hall, and an ancient clock ticked steadily as it had ticked there for decades.
In every room was some treasure. But, best of all, in a broad, low room directly off the hall, there was a carved mantel of wood and there was a rarely beautiful Heppelwhite chair with characteristic shield-back of fine mahogany. This chair, not strong structurally, was very heavy when lifted, showing the density of West Indian mahogany. There was a Sheraton side-table with wings and reeded legs; in a cupboard in the chimney-corner there were bits of china which he lovingly took up and told about; and there was a Chippendale table, than which we have never seen one more beautiful, with cabriole legs, and claw-and-ball feet, and elaborate workmanship in every detail; the edges were carved and the sides were carved and the bends of the cabriole legs were carved.
He fondled the old things caressingly, and spoke gently of the past. "I am ninety-three years old," he said quietly.
In a corner beyond the marvelous table stood an old octagonal mahogany music-stand, and on the table lay a flute. We knew at once that it could be only his. And could any musical instrument be more fitting!
His eyes lingered lovingly upon it. At a hint that it would be a pleasure to hear him, he took it up. Then his blue eyes grew brighter, his face lighted up anew, and he played old tunes, ballads of the long ago, with a soft shrilling of the notes, al-most as if a ghost were playing in a dream.