Ralph Gardner Jr: My Grandparents, The Forgers
Last week I opened a drawer in the antique high boy in our front hall and found photographs I’d never seen before. They were of my father’s family, and they dated back to the 19th century.
If this were any other house and any other family the discovery might come as a revelation.
But ours isn’t like any other house. At least any other house that isn’t inhabited by hoarders.
I realize that’s a rather large claim to make, so let me offer an example. And if you think this also describes your home then I offer my profuse apologies.
Have you ever opened up a drawer and found it filled with cherub heads?
I thought not.
And I could name a dozen other curious objects taking up space.
There’s actually a rather straightforward explanation for this accumulation of stuff that possesses no obvious purpose.
My grandparents manufactured antiques.
You heard me. I bet you didn’t know antiques could be made. You probably thought they had to pass through history to qualify as heirlooms.
How foolish of you.
Allow me to take a step back and explain how my ancestors came to be in the forgery business.
My grandfather had a metalworking shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Among other things he manufactured lampshades – at least the infrastructure over which the fabric is draped.
When he and my grandmother retired to the Hudson Valley in the early Sixties, my grandfather brought one of the massive machines with him and set it up in a shed attached to the house.
They never consulted me so I don’t know when the aha moment occurred. But at some point they apparently realized that by combining a marble base, chandelier crystals, ormolu, occasionally decals, and a glass globe or lampshade they could create an object that vastly, or somewhat, exceeded the sum of its parts.
And they sold these objects d’art, as it were, at country auctions to which I sometimes accompanied them.
My grandmother was stone deaf and rather shy to boot. Yet she stood above the crowd hawking her creations. And when all superlatives had been exhausted, the auctioneer, standing at her side would add, “And it rings like a bell.”
The lamps didn’t make them rich. But it supplemented their retirement savings. And perhaps most important, it gave them something to occupy themselves in their later years, and something to do together.
My grandfather attended to the hard work of building the lamps and electrifying them. My grandmother employed her artistic talents to making them attractive and desirable.
We still have several examples of their labor.
I don’t know if that’s because they saved their best, most successful masterpieces for themselves. Or because they were mistakes that failed to sell.
It can be hard to tell the difference.
We also have legitimate antiques. The fakes blend in nicely with them. Or rather the real ones lend the fakes the veneer of authenticity.
It’s also possible that we’ve just grown blind to their bizarreness in the same way that the paintings that decorate one’s walls become invisible over time.
But that doesn’t completely solve the mystery of why, after all these years, we’re still opening drawers and finding unusual things, some of which obviously have nothing to do with making antiques.
I’ll give you an example: an ivory tusk – perhaps from a boar; it’s too small to have belonged to an elephant – discovered recently fit snugly into a silver holder embellished with Arabic script.
Or stick pins. One day I decided to see how many of them I could collect just searching through random drawers. I came up with thirty, some embellished with precious or at least semi-precious stones. And assembled them in kaleidoscopic splendor in a pincushion on our organ.
I have no idea where the organ came from either. And anybody capable of recalling its provenance is long gone.
An organ might qualify as an enhancement to any 19th century home. But how about the donation I made recently to the Columbia County Historical Society.
Two books found in our basement, each as big and thick as a side table, bursting with prescriptions, dating to the 1880’s from a pharmacy in Philmont, New York.
To the best of my knowledge, my grandparents were never in pharmaceuticals.
And then there were the family photos. I’m not talking about our family photos, mentioned above. These ones belonged to a different family.
They were formal portraits – from newborns to adults – taken by a photo studio in San Francisco. And since they shared the name Whittier – they were annotated on back -- I decided to see whether I could track their descendants down through the Internet and return them.
I succeeded, discovering along the way that they were members of a wealthy Bay Area family that had been California’s largest paint supplier in the 1800’s.
What my grandparents were doing with them is anybody’s guess.
My hunch, based on accompanying my grandparents to those country auctions, is that they couldn’t resist the dollar box.
For those unfamiliar with this auction institution, one dollar bought you a potpourri of stuff, some of it more desirable than the rest.
I doubt any of it has much value – unless someone on eBay is desperate for a cherub head.
But they have an intangible worth. The house continues to surprise, the bright spirit of discovery runs through its ancient marrow, and my grandparents continue to live and breath through all the stuff they left behind.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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