All right, I have a confession to make. I hope this doesn’t lose me any followers, or make me any (new) enemies, or whatever, but it’s time to come clean.
I am an antiques-freak. There! I said it!
I’m sorry, Wonder Woman. But it’s true.
Before you run away screaming, just bear in mind that today’s post won’t waffle on about dust or weird old furniture or odd-looking experts in handknitted jumpers. I’m just going to talk about one thing I saw on an antiques programme last night. I swear.
You’re back? Good. I’ll try to make this quick.
Right. Luckily (for me) my husband is also a bit of an antiques enthusiast. By this I don’t mean we go around car boot sales (or yard sales, I suppose, for those who have no idea what a ‘car boot’ is), or secondhand shops or antiques dealers picking up ‘key pieces’ for our big ol’ mansion; I mean, we like to watch antiques programmes on TV. Also, luckily for us, the BBC is full of antiques programmes, so we generally have something to watch. It seems our neighbours in the United Kingdom are as weird as my husband and I, so that’s nice.
Last night, we watched a programme wherein the owners of the antiques bring in something for a valuation and appraisal by the expert presenters, with a view to selling it no matter what the value. It’s not like most antiques shows, where the owner wants to know about the object’s provenance, or the story behind it, and the value is a secondary concern – this particular show is dedicated to selling people’s antiques. The viewers watch it for the stories and the background to the items (as well as marvelling at the prices the objects fetch, I suppose.) I was particularly struck by one man’s story – he brought in a beautiful antique box, made of a rare and lovely hardwood. The box had been in his family since the time of his grandmother, and had come from India originally. The outside of it was beautiful enough, but when the lid was lifted and the inside was revealed, the true beauty of the object became apparent. The interior was covered with mother-of-pearl and enamel inlay, with what looked like lots of separate compartments, and the inside of the lid was decorated beautifully.
But then, the antiques dealer lifted out the whole inner tray (the part that had looked like lots of separate compartments), to reveal a further layer to the box. In the bottom were letters, mementos, family artefacts and (most touchingly) a pair of baby booties from the 1870s, which probably belonged to his great-grandmother and may have been worn by his grandmother as a child. ‘Oh, look!’ said the dealer. ‘Isn’t all this wonderful!‘ ‘I didn’t even know it was there,’ replied the owner, completely unimpressed. ‘I never looked inside the box.’ The dealer expressed his amazement at this, and asked the man if he wanted to keep the box now, to go through it for family heirlooms, but he pretty much said ‘No, I don’t care about any of it. Just get rid of it.’
I was flabbergasted.
The box now belonged to the man’s daughter, he explained, who wanted to sell it to help pay for her honeymoon. Having been on a honeymoon relatively recently, I can appreciate how expensive they are and how you usually want to spend as much as you possibly can to make it the best holiday you’ve ever had – but still. If it was me, and I was faced with the choice of having a box full of my great-great-grandmother’s treasures, and a holiday, I know I’d choose the treasures. I’m a bit of a hoarder, though – I find it hard enough to chuck away my own ‘treasures’, so the thoughts of chucking away someone else’s would be anathema to me. I couldn’t part with something if I felt it had been important to someone like a long-dead relative, or if it was part of the story of my family.
A few years ago, while working as a bookseller, the shop I worked for received a shipment of books from an elderly lady’s estate. Her sons had sold off her library and we were lucky enough to be able to buy some of it. In the midst of the books (most of which were dusty old paperbacks about Corgis, beach-combing and gardening, along with approximately two tons of romance novels), I found three handwritten books of poetry. I asked my manager if I could have them, and he was only too glad to be rid of them. They’d been written in the mid-nineteenth century by the deceased lady’s aunt (or possibly great-aunt), and some of them were beautiful works of art. I read one poem which made me cry, about a young child who was suffering some terrible pain and who was not likely to live, and how difficult it was for her parents to watch her suffer knowing that she may never open her eyes again. I hoped it wasn’t written ‘from life’, but thought it probably had been. Some of them weren’t so good, but there were some really excellent pieces of work in those books. The author had kept some newspaper clippings of her published pieces, too, and those were wonderful to see.
Anyway, the point of this anecdote is to say – shouldn’t we treasure these things from the past? Does anyone agree with my (perhaps overly-sentimental) viewpoint that things like this are important, and worth taking care of? The man on the TV programme last night did sell the box, contents included, and it went for a huge sum – far more than it had been estimated to fetch. I wondered if that was because of the treasures it contained, and I wondered why they weren’t more precious to him.
But then, I suppose we should also treasure the fact that everyone is different, too. If everyone was like me, there’d be no empty surface space on the planet, and nothing (particularly books!) would ever get thrown away.
Wow. This is a post close to my collecting heart. Very close. I watch the same type of programs you mentioned but with that kind of compassion for objects, I’m amazed you don’t go to markets and car boot sales. I am frighteningly sentimental, not just for my own families’ objects but for others.
I stood and listened once as a lady spoke affectionately of a necklace handed down to the eldest girl for the last four generations. Then I realised that she was the stall holder and was selling the necklace to the woman she was speaking to. I jumped to the necklace’s rescue. “That’s a beautiful story, why are you selling it?”
The warmth in her face vanished in a shrug – neither of her daughters wanted it. She said they’d just sell it when she died, so why not sell it now?
When I rummage through boxes of old books, I always check the inside cover for a book plate for evidence of the book’s travels. Once, I found a school prize book. It was from a country school where a good friend of mine grew up, the surname was her maiden name and I wondered if it was from her family. I did a little research and it was her grandfathers. My friend presented the book her elderly father and I think everyone cried. Later my friend asked me with almost disbelief how something so precious ended up at a market. I realised then how strange sentiment can sometimes be – to her grandfather, it was only a school book.
I know I’m overly sentimental. I think of the people who lost all that they had in the recent Australian bushfires and I wonder how I would cope with that kind of loss. I often wonder too that when I’ve lived my time on Earth where my objects will end up, will they find someone who loves them as much as I have loved them. Time will tell.
I was sitting in my living room looking at my book collection only the other day asking myself the same question. ‘Where will all these treasured pages be in sixty or seventy years’ time, when I’m long gone?’ I hope they’ll be treasured by someone else, and not mouldering in a landfill. I guess all I can do is watch over them as carefully as I can while I can, eh?
This story was heartbreaking. I also cling to old stuff and mementos, and although I do try to keep my memento box relatively clean, and throw away at least some of the stuff I have collected over years, the box still gets bigger and bigger with each year.