I recently came across an interesting article, "Antiques: It Could Be More About the Story," in the September, 2013 issue of the local Rockport Observer. For anyone who has a love of antique stores, collecting, or simply an appreciation of family heirlooms, this may be of interest to you. I have visited his store in Rocky River, and he always has an interesting collection of antiques. Wanted to share the article below....
Antiques: It Could Be More About the Story
The Eponymous Antique Shop Owner
by Mitchell Sotka
A Pair of Ebeji Carved Wood Figures, Nigeria. These pieces are created to represent a child or children who have passed away. These figures - from the collection of that special West Side couple - would be washed and cared for in honor of the lost children.
Someone may come into my shop and want me to buy her grandmother’s favorite antique vase. Like every other antique, that vase comes with a story. These stories come in handy, as the folks that purchase a treasure love to know the story behind it. A vase may be practical or pretty, but the story makes it come alive! Stories, nostalgia or history - the items we cherish in our homes evoke something in us all. When we are buying a piece to place in my shop, the owners of a treasure want us to know its history. They want their love of an object to continue for the next owner. We listen and smile - and we do not forget the stories. The buyer of a piece will want to know some of the facts and history that go with it. Antique objects were once wedding gifts, souvenirs or just practical purchases. The story may help a buyer connect and identify with a piece.
As the collector of a large volume of stories, the pedigrees and the provenances of many items, I can remember certain stories better than others. Sometimes I am moved more by the story than by the object. One such story came from a wonderful West Side couple. I met with them a decade ago to help them decide how, where and when to part with their many collections. This mild-mannered couple had an interesting story in “fiction” alone. However, the real story came to light after the husband passed away; it added an extraordinary dimension to an already-interesting story.
The fictional story was that of an older couple contemplating selling off the beloved objects they had collected while living abroad. These items included a pre-Columbian piece from a stay in Panama; Ebeji figures from a stint in Africa; and Santo figures from their days in the Philippines. These exotic destinations were dotted with river villages where the villagers needed small outboard motors. That was his job. He sold motors to these remote villages. The couple fell in love with the culture and purchased treasures in each of their stops. Eventually, the years of traveling took a toll. They packed up and moved backed to the states, settling in the Cleveland area.
After our first meeting, the decision to sell was put on hold for about a year. Then the husband died, and that became the signal to start selling the major stash of treasures. I met with the wife at the same great wooden dining table that we had sat around when her husband was alive. I should note that the “living room” was the center of this home. It had no sofa, just a large Spanish Colonial table from the Philippines with various chairs pulled up to it. The living room was a personal meeting hall, a place to read the Times, discuss politics, and where we met over the next seven years.
I began to talk about what made the most sense to sell first. Before we got down to business, however, the wife said she needed to share something with me, so she told me a story. She loved her husband, was proud of him and enjoyed the life they shared. And then came the secret: Her husband - with whom she had traveled the world to the remotest river towns - had been a special agent for the United States Government! Wow! That is a story to be marked down in the books!
During that meeting and subsequent meetings around that great table, I learned more about their life. Not only was I honored to have someone let me into their personal realm, but I was also fascinated by the story of how the collections evolved. As I spent the next several years selling items from the collections, I was able to tell others a little more about how the pieces came to be in my Rocky River shop. So when these objects are displayed in a home, the new owner or caretaker can pass along this story to friends and family. Thus, the history of the pieces continues, including the lives of this surprising couple.
Pass That History On
Antique dealers are not the only ones with stories to share. How about telling the history of your family heirlooms to the next generation or owner? Even if your aunt Millie was not a government agent in a far-off land, the history of a piece can be just as special. Every antique has a story, one worthy of being told. As an heirloom moves farther down the family chain, its story can be lost or misconstrued. I encourage people to retain those family stories.
How can you pass this type of information down to the next generation? Simply write it down on an index card and attach the card to the reverse of the painting or place it in a dresser drawer. I prefer a hand-written note to a computer printout; the note becomes as special as the piece. You could also create a binder with one page representing one piece. The page could include a picture of the piece, the story, and any old family pictures that help convey the story.
There is another way to help keep facts and stories alive for generations no matter where an item ends up. The January issue of the Antique Trader contained a report on History Publishing, a company that facilitates the documentation of stories. This company helps people document information on their homes and belongings. If you go to Houstory.com, you will see the process is rather easy. You need to purchase a few labels that can be attached to an item and then register that item with the company’s database. No matter where an heirloom ends up, your story can be read by future generations.
Whatever the method you choose to remember the set of glasses you inherited from your uncle Mike or the linen keepsake tablecloth from your granny, make sure you place your own mark on an antique by sharing your story. Moreover, if the item was purchased in a shop, help keep its past alive and ask about the previous owner. You may be surprised by what you learn.
- by Mitchell Sotka
- by Mitchell Sotka