Why do we collect what we collect? And how do we know if we’re collecting truly valuable things? In this eighth episode of Curious Objects, host Benjamin Miller speaks with Judy Loto, executive director of the Antiques Dealers’ Association and someone he calls an “antiques evangelist.” Loto is keyed in to the affinities that exist between the materials of the past and life as we lead it today, and performs the work of connecting the two through her involvement at the ADA and the Portsmouth Historical Society, not to mention at her own bookselling business, Russack and Loto Books. She’s brought with her an antique powder horn that belonged to a mysterious “Charles White.” It’s a very personal piece—the first object she ever collected—and Loto describes the process that led to her acquiring it. As she explains, book research plays a crucial role in any practical collecting strategy, but handling pieces is still paramount.
Judy Loto: For every object that we can’t save—that gets destroyed somewhere or gets thrown away or gets burned or gets sold or gets torn apart—the ones that we can preserve, that help speak to who we were as a nation, are helping us one step at a time maintain the memory of why we are the way we are, who we are, and our place in the world.
Benjamin Miller: Hello, welcome back to another episode of Curious Objects & the stories behind them, brought to you, as always, by The Magazine ANTIQUES. I’m your host, Ben Miller, and my guest today is a woman I’ve been really excited to have on the podcast for some time now. Her name is Judy Loto. You just heard her talking at the start of the episode and so you probably already have a sense of just how passionate she is about antiques. Judy is as keyed into the American antiques scene as anyone, and she’s really driven by a deep commitment to the objects and to what they mean for us and for our culture and for our understanding of our own history. So Judy is a dealer in her own right, but she also runs a large trade organization—the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America—and she’s heavily involved in [the Portsmouth] Historical Society. But I think . . . more than any of those individual occupations, it’s fair to call her an “antiques evangelist.” She’s motivated by a desire to bring a love and understanding and passion for antiques to everyone in the world. That’s obviously something that I’m very interested in doing as well, and I think some of you are interested in that idea also, so I really think that you’re going to enjoy the conversation that we had. Judy has insights into a lot of different aspects of the world of antiques and collecting, she has some good tips for collectors, and we couldn’t very well call ourselves antiques dealers if we didn’t fit in a couple of fun stories. So, before we dive in, I do want to say a quick word of thanks to our sponsor, America’s oldest auction house, Freeman’s. Located in Center City, Philadelphia, Freeman’s has been telling the stories of curious objects and collections since 1805. Today, Freeman’s believes in a unique standard of one-on-one service, and their tradition of excellence has benefitted generations of private collectors, institutions, advisors, estates, and museums. After a successful spring season led by the sale of a $6 million single-owner collection, Freeman’s is currently inviting consignments for their fall and winter auctions. Head to www.freemansauction.com to learn more.
Now, without further ado, Judy Loto:
Benjamin Miller: Judy Loto, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast!
Judy Loto: Hi, how are you?
Benjamin Miller: I’m doing well. How are you?
Judy Loto: Not bad, not bad. Enjoying spring up here in New Hampshire.
Benjamin Miller: Now, I want to talk to you about a lot of different things because you’re a woman of many occupations and many talents. But I think if listeners know you they probably know you from the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America. You’re the executive director there.
Judy Loto: I am.
Benjamin Miller: So you run the ADA. You organize an antiques show with the ADA. You are also the director of development for Discover Portsmouth and you’re a dealer in your own right. And you have a family with two daughters and I’m wondering what you do with all your free time.
Judy Loto: I garden and I cook and I hike, actually, if you’d like to know. Not much free time out here but I do try and, you know . . . life is . . . life is a blessing.
Benjamin Miller: I know there are some . . . there are some antiques in your family . . . I should say, there was an antique dealer in your family but it was not an automatic thing for you to end up as a dealer and as someone who is so involved in the fabric of antiques in this country. How did that come about?
Judy Loto: As usual, in a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of way. It’s never a direct path. Although I had a lot of influences growing up. So, my grandmother and my mother both loved antiques and my father loved history so, the house that I grew up in was an authentic reproduction of the seventeenth century massachusetts house, the Parson Capen House. My parents also were disinclined to take my sister and [me] to amusement parks and were much more inclined to take us to Sturbridge Village, Strawberry Banke, [Colonial] Williamsburg, and places like that. And later in life—
Benjamin Miller: See, now, that’s familiar to me.
Judy Loto: Right?
Benjamin Miller: I was dragged around to all the museums when I would have rather been doing almost anything else in the world. So, the premise of this podcast is to talk about curious objects and so for each episode there’s a focal point which is a particular piece that has some dimension or multiple dimensions of interest around it. And for this episode with you you’ve suggested an object that’s a little bit interesting and sort of out of the norm because it’s not a piece that’s in the area that you specialize in. It’s not a piece that you have in your inventory that you’re looking to sell, but it is a piece that tells a bit of a personal story about you.
Judy Loto: One of the advantages to spending a lot of time with a lot of antique dealers is you get to see a lot of wonderful things. And one day . . . it was a Hartford, Connecticut Spring Antiques Show. I was chatting with a friend of mine, Brian Cullity—who is a well-known dealer and a former museum curator in his own right—about an object that he had in his booth and it was a powder horn, a flattened powder horn. And I’ve always admired powder horns. I think that their decoration is wonderful, their purpose . . .
Benjamin Miller: What were they used for and what does one look like?
Judy Loto: So, they were used for storing black powder for . . . well, for weaponry. I mean if you’re looking . . . it was prior to modern firearms. So, you would have had to pack a charge, pack powder, and pack shot in before firing a weapon . . . firing a gun. So this was an effective way to keep your powder dry. And it used a sheep’s horn or a ram’s horn. These horns are hollow on the inside and waterproof, so they’re made of keratin, I believe. So it’s not ivory, it’s not bone. You can heat it, you can shape it. It’s kind of like fingernails—
Benjamin Miller: And you can decorate it.
Judy Loto: And you can decorate it, exactly. So the one that he had that I admired so much—I loved it because I thought the decorations were very different than anything I had seen. It’s got chamfered edges and it’s got a date, 1816. But there are wonderful designs on it, there’s actually a paddle boat with an American flag carved into the top. There is a wonderful gambrel-roofed house with two chimneys and it wasn’t . . . I think what drew me to this was the engraving on this is not rote engraving. It’s not something that’s . . . everything looks the same. This house is a pretty specific house, the chimneys are two different sizes. They . . . they . . . it shows where the chimneys go down and that sort of attic section and how one of them goes sort of around a window. There’s two L’s off the house. There are little Windsor chairs that are engraved into each of the L’s and in the second floor as well. There’s just—
Benjamin Miller: So it’s a very personal piece.
Judy Loto: Yes it is. Yep. And it’s even signed, it says “the property of Charles White.”
Benjamin Miller: Charles White! And do you have any idea who Charles White was?
Judy Loto: Well, so, yeah, I’ve done a little poking around and I haven’t gotten anything definitive but it’s an ongoing . . . it’s an ongoing search. Which, of course, is one of the things that I love about the object, because it doesn’t have all of the answers. It leaves some room for question and research and trying to figure out the mystery.
Benjamin Miller: And so this was—as you said—this was one of the first antiques that you came into possession of by your own effort. Why was this the first? Why wasn’t it a Windsor chair or a piece of needlework or something else entirely? Why do you think it was this?
Judy Loto: Well, so that’s a great question. Although I enjoy so many of the larger objects out there they . . . I don’t always have a place for them. They need to be things that I feel like I can live with in my own home. And that means something that can tolerate the evidence of children and two dogs and a cat. And for me it was . . . I loved the date. I loved the name on this. I loved the mystery to be solved. The engraving was terrific because there were some things on there that implied a different region. I thought I might be able to use those regional images and pin down a little bit better where this might have come from. It was expensive for me at the time and yet not as expensive as some of the other lovely things that are out there on the floor of these wonderful antique shows. And, honestly, it talked to me in a way that other things did not at that time. So it was a stretch for me to pay for it. I was able to convince Brian to let me pay for it in a couple of installments, so that helped me purchase it and . . . which was very kind of him to do. And at the end of the day it was small enough to be part of my home and be enjoyed all of the time but without being run over by all of the activity in my home.
Benjamin Miller: That’s very important.
Judy Loto: Well, it is! It’s great because I can have it out where I can see it and enjoy it and I don’t . . . for me—my collection—I have just a few wonderful things for me. My collection is not seven powder horns. For me, there is something about the object and it’s a very eclectic mix that calls me in some way. I have a wonderful painted trunk that I purchased from another set of dealers up in Maine, Jewett-Berdan, that is a classic domed-top painted trunk. But instead of your painting by hand or instead of your design—the sort of design work that many of them have—this one was stencilled. And I had never seen one that was stencilled before and I thought the colors were amazing. So I tend to like things that appeal to interests of mine and or are slightly off the beaten path so that they have a little mystery that needs to be solved.
Benjamin Miller: I’m starting to think you’re just a collector of misfits.
Judy Loto: Well, and that is . . . you could make that argument. You could make that argument. To me . . . to me, these objects tie me back, in a way. It’s like my opportunity to hold in my own hands a teeny little piece of history that affected the lives of people before me and helps remind me that as I go forward perhaps there’s something in my life that will interest someone else a hundred years from now. It sounds ridiculous to think that a powder horn or a silver spoon or a piece of furniture can help build that understanding, but I really firmly believe that it can. You know, it’s like the parable of the starfish: all these starfish have washed up on the shore, why bother saving that one? You’re never going to be able to make a dent, you’re never going to be able to save all of them, but I’ve made a difference to that one.
Benjamin Miller: Well put.
On that note, let’s take a quick break. I want to take a moment to thank you all for listening and to thank those of you who have gotten in touch with me. I’ve gotten some really helpful feedback and some good suggestions for people to interview for future episodes. I really appreciate that and I’d love to get more of it. So, feel free to reach out on email at email@example.com, and don’t forget to subscribe and rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you are listening right now. That really helps to get the word out to a wider audience and brings more people in to listen to these great stories. You can always see pictures of the objects that we’re talking about online at themagazineantiques.com/podcast. I know it can sometimes be difficult to picture exactly what’s being described, so I really encourage you to go to the website and see for yourself.
Once again, our sponsor for this episode is Freeman’s. Freeman’s is America’s oldest auction house. Located in Center City, Philadelphia, Freeman’s has been telling the stories of curious objects and collections since 1805. With international experience and comprehensive knowledge of market conditions, the specialists at Freeman’s work closely with consignors and collectors to offer unparalleled assistance in the sale and purchase of fine art, furniture, decorative arts, jewelry, books, and more. Freeman’s is currently inviting consignments for their fall and winter auctions, in such categories as Asian Arts, Fine Jewelry, Books, Maps and Manuscripts, Americana, British and European Furniture and Decorative Arts, as well as twentieth century Design, and American Art and Pennsylvania Impressionists. Ready to consign? Visit Freeman’s online at www.freemansauction.com to learn more.
So, with a big thank you to Freeman’s, let’s get back to Judy Loto.
Benjamin Miller: I want to ask . . . I want to get into the subject of learning about objects and the process by which you or I or anyone else can dive in—maybe to an area where we’re unfamiliar, maybe to an area where we are familiar—and figure out what we can learn and what we’d like to learn and what would really enhance our understanding and enjoyment of an object. For me, you know, I’m a silver dealer and everything that I know about silver I learned on the job. It was essentially an apprenticeship for me so, I just learned by looking at object after object after object and making guesses about them and getting it all wrong over and over again and gradually starting to get a thing right here or there. It’s a slow process. But, you know, that’s my effort to learn about just one area and even after years of work and of study I feel that there is so much I don’t know. You know, I have a memory from early in my antique . . . my professional antique days which has haunted me. And I want your take on this. So I, you know, I went up to an estate sale because our firm had had been tipped off to the fact that the sale was going to include a piece of very rare early American silver and we wanted to buy it. So I went up. I, I . . . this was a little estate in the middle of the woods up in the Hudson Valley. And I drove through the night because I had to be there at 3:00 in the morning to be first in line to run into the house as soon as they opened the door so that I could make sure that I got to this piece before anybody else did. So, you know, I slept for two hours in the car and then I stood in line for six hours and it was really . . .
Judy Loto: Classic?
Benjamin Miller: It was punishing! Yeah I didn’t know really what I was getting myself into. I was just a few months into the job at this point. And everything went smoothly, I went in, I got I got the piece, I took a look around the house to see if there was anything else that might be of interest, and then I left, feeling very pleased with myself for having acquired this this rare and important thing. Well, later that day I got a call from a fellow who I had met there he said, “Ben,” he said, “Did you happen to see that mahogany sideboard in the living room?” And I said, “Well, yeah. Now that you mention it I think I do remember that.” And he said, “Did you know that there was a fellow there at the sale who walked in, bought that sideboard, and walked out and he is a dealer in early American furniture and particularly specializing in Duncan Phyfe?” And he said, “That sideboard was a mint-condition Duncan Phyfe sideboard with the original bill of sale in one of the drawers.”
Judy Loto: Wow.
Benjamin Miller: So this is a, you know . . . God only knows what it’s worth—a third of a million dollars? I don’t know. But it was a lot of money and it made me think, you know, I walked right past it and I had no idea. And so suddenly I didn’t feel quite so pleased about how my day had gone but it made me wonder, you know . . . I mean it gave me this craving . . . it was . . . I think it was an important experience for me because early in my antiques career it gave me the sense that knowledge is power.
Judy Loto: Yes, yes, like so many things in life, knowledge is power.
Benjamin Miller: Yeah, well, exactly. Exactly. But I think it’s also overwhelming to realize there’s so many different types of objects out there, there’s so much knowledge that I would need to acquire to be prepared to do that across a variety of different fields. And so I’m wondering, you know, does it pay to learn a little bit about everything? You know, or by contrast, you know, is a little knowledge a dangerous thing? Can you talk yourself into thinking you know more about something than you really do and get yourself into trouble that way? What’s your, what’s your take on that?
Judy Loto: Well, you know what? I think that your . . . I think that your story is very typical of people who are starting out in the business. It takes a long time to learn about American decorative arts in general. I was very fortunate in that I had astounding teachers who had touched thousands of objects and were able to pass along their information in incredibly focused ways. And I was working with a collection that had been created, been put together by Henry Francis du Pont, one of the largest and most prolific collectors of American decorative arts out there. So, it gave students in that program an opportunity to look at many, many, many things—many examples—all at once. And not just the examples, but to look at . . . to learn about how they were created and how that tradition had passed down and to look at the examples themselves and then to be able to discern from there the sort of “good, better, best,” if I can borrow a phrase from Albert Sack of those objects—
Benjamin Miller: I have to say, you know, having walked through that house I would think the, you know, the two or three years of your program would hardly be enough to scratch the surface of what’s there.
Judy Loto: Well, and that’s true. Having said that, as a book dealer for many years, I can tell you that the more you look at, the more you touch, the more objects you can get your hands on, the more people you can talk to who are educated in their fields, and, frankly, the more books that you read on the subject, the faster you’re going to gain that knowledge and in a broad sense too you’re going to learn about style periods, and style periods, for instance, span all different kinds of material, not just silver, not just furniture. There’s a lot of carry over, there there’s a lot of horizontal understanding that happens.
Benjamin Miller: So, how how much of this kind of connoisseurial knowledge is written in books vs. how much is locked up in the minds of dealers and curators and collectors who maybe pass it on through oral tradition?
Judy Loto: Ah, well, I’d say, probably, in my opinion, 50/50. You are going to absolutely find people out there who do not have the opportunity or the benefit of living here on the eastern seaboard for instance where history is so steeped in almost everything we do and see and we’re surrounded by so many examples of wonderful dealers and antique shows and such museums. So you will absolutely find what I would I like to refer to as “armchair authorities” who live in other parts of the country who have never seen these things but for whatever reason have developed a love of them and have read every book on the subject. So, that makes them steeped in a certain level of knowledge—academic knowledge—about something, but they’ve never been able to hold the material in their hands. And I can’t tell you how many dealers out there who have picked up maybe two books in their life—really haven’t read much—but they’ve held everything. They have gone out of their way to seek out examples in museums and stores and collections and whatever, you know, what have you. And they are phenomenally knowledgeable in a different way. It’s really hard to say which one is better. From a, from a decorative arts standpoint I can tell you that the argument is going to be that the person who handles the objects is going to know more in general because they’re going to understand the nuances that make something fantastic in a way that an armchair scholar cannot. But the armchair scholar is going to be likely steeped in a broader history and understand why, the “why” of the objects in a way that the person handling them might not. You know, for every object that was created there’s a why. It had a purpose. These objects had a purpose. There was a context. There’s a reason that it was created the way it was and designed the way it is and used the way it was supposed to be used, and the armchair, the armchair connoiseur is going to know that information more thoroughly than someone who’s handled the objects, generally. So, ideally, you’ve got . . . the best, the best dealers, the best collectors, the best curators are the ones who have made an effort to handle the objects and learn about the context as well. It gives them a much, much broader picture.
Benjamin Miller: So you’re telling me I just have to do everything?
Judy Loto: Sadly, I think your education is going to be ongoing for many years yet and the library you will just have to build so that, you know, you’re . . . you have to come to terms with the fact that your home will be filled with furniture made of stacked books.
Benjamin Miller: It’s a different kind of antique chair. What’s an interesting approach that you’ve seen a dealer use . . . or an organisation or an institution use to try to build a bridge to new collectors?
Judy Loto: Well, um.
Benjamin Miller: Or you could also give me the other side of that which is, What is an embarrassing and cringe-worthy effort that you’ve seen to try and, you know, reach out to young collectors?
Judy Loto: So, I think I think that’s a great question and it’s sort of two, two different . . . there’s two different answers there. I think that one of the best and easiest ways to reach out to new collectors, if one is playing a very long game in the field, is to make sure that we bring history and the objects of history, effectively, to our children, to youth. I think that all of us with a vested interest in making sure that our history is not lost or forgotten need to put together a concerted effort to do the same with history and with decorative arts. And that is museums, it is collectors, it is dealers, it is auction houses, it is everybody who wants the world to understand that if you don’t understand where you’ve been you can’t possibly move forward with an educated eye. Right? I think in museums we have to remember that it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is if it’s behind glass, if it’s behind plexi, if it’s behind walls and stanchions and barriers and there are guards the public is going to feel a real serious level of disconnect. It’s going to be too special, too fancy, too . . . “something” for them to feel a personal connection to. And that’s a problem. And I get why we have those security measures, but the disconnect that the public feels is one that has really long-term ramifications. I think—
Benjamin Miller: It’s one of the really interesting differences between museums and shops . . . is that, you know, the shop is, in a sense . . . it’s more cloistered—not everybody gets to see everything or certainly own everything. But, on the other hand, you can walk into our shop and pick up a fifteenth century spoon and hold it in your hand. And that’s a really awesome experience.
Judy Loto: Yep, and that’s the Catch-22, isn’t it? Because museums can take almost anything and bring a . . . put a spotlight on it and bring it to life right. Put it on a pedestal, put a wonderful label with a spotlight on it, and draw attention to it in a way that someone might not have paid attention otherwise. So it is, it is a tough . . . it’s a tough thing that both museums and dealers have to figure out how to deal with: how to bring things to light and yet how to keep them safe. You know, how to help people have a personal collection . . . or connection, excuse me, with things, and yet how to educate in a way that doesn’t diminish the object itself so that we can continue to tell its story for a long time to come.
Benjamin Miller: What’s a book that you would recommend for listeners that’s just like a super fun read about some subset of the world of antiques?
Judy Loto: Well, so I have I have a couple. One of the . . . still today finest books that was ever put out there on how to take a look at objects is . . . was the very, very famous Albert Sack did a book called the Fine Points of Furniture, affectionately known by everybody as Good, Better, Best. But the premise of the book was really terrific. I think that it took objects and it showed people how to look at them in ways that broke it down. It was really, really not intimidating. You looked at three objects. This one was good. This one’s better and this one’s the best example. And the pictures were terrific and there was a wonderful, really sort of brief description on what the difference was and what made something better or best. So you, as the person, could be like, “Oh, OK, I totally get it!” So, before, so, this looked to me like like three clocks. Right. And these all look like tall case clocks, grandfather clocks. One of them looks just as interesting as the other. But this really put those examples next to each other and really laid out why one was better than the other. And for me, of course, one of my absolute favorite books that really got me into decorative arts in the context was Our Own Snug Fireside by Jane Nylander.
Benjamin Miller: I don’t know this one.
Judy Loto: Yeah, it’s really good. Well, I love, again, the context of the objects, not just learning about the connoisseurship, not just looking at how they’re made or what it is they say about who used them or owned them but how those objects were used in daily life. Because to me, that’s the thread that really keeps me connected to the past even today. And I said it earlier, we’ve all, we’ve all got to eat, we all sleep, we all sit, we all entertain ourselves, we all have places we have to store things in and so did people one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago and I presume we’re going to need those same things in the future. So Our Own Snug Fireside really focused on images of the New England home.
Benjamin Miller: Before I let you go I just want to ask if you have any other stories that you’d like to tell? Any fun experiences any any horror stories?
Judy Loto: People collect things that I, frankly, didn’t even know existed.
Benjamin Miller: Oh, really?
Judy Loto: Oh gosh. Absolutely.
Benjamin Miller: What’s the weirdest thing you saw someone collecting?
Judy Loto: One of the funniest collections that I ever saw was a collection of ladies shoe heels.
Benjamin Miller: Not the whole shoe?
Judy Loto: Nope, just the heels.
Benjamin Miller: That sounds like a sexual fetish.
Judy Loto: Erm!
Benjamin Miller: I’m sorry, I forgot this was a strictly academic interest.
Judy Loto: This is a PG show, right?
Benjamin Miller: So far it has been.
Judy Loto: So, it was this wonderful collection and these collectors had built this special display case into a wall and had, you know, had the ability to turn these lights on, and it was these these shelves of heels for women’s shoes. And I was a little blown away that such a thing could even exist and asked questions about it. And, of course, I am by no means an authority but the explanation was essentially that in the mid- to late-nineteenth century to early twentieth century very, very high-end shoes were made by hand. They were made to order and heels were their own . . . so the heels were made separately. And they were stacked wood and cork and they were wrapped and decorated. So women, and I—as with all fashion things I assume that this trend started in France—in Paris, women would purchase the heels and then have the shoes made, you know, to incorporate the heels. Yeah. And these heels would blow your mind. They were gorgeous! I mean, just gorgeous! The shape, the design. They were sexy, they were svelte, they were sparkly or subtle or, you know . . . the craftsmanship that went into these women’s shoe heels would blow your socks off.
Benjamin Miller: No kidding. Well, I think I’ll leave it there. Judy Loto, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Judy Loto: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
Benjamin Miller: Alright. That about wraps things up for the day. Thanks again for listening. I really hope you took something away from that. As always, don’t forget to subscribe, tell your friends, spread the word, and get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s episode was produced and edited by Sammy Dalati, our music is by Trap Rabbit, and I’m your host, Ben Miller.
Judith Livingston Loto is the director of development for the Portsmouth Historical Society, which administers Discover Portsmouth and the John Paul Jones House Museum And Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. A graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Livingston Loto was awarded her Master of Arts from the University of Delaware and the prestigious Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. She has worked in museum administration, education, and collections management for more than twenty-five years, and has held positions at Strawbery Banke Museum and Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire, and the Litchfield History Museums in Connecticut. She is the owner of Russack and Loto Books, a business dedicated to providing collectors, curators and enthusiasts with out-of-print reference books about antiques and decorative arts. She has also served as the board president and later the executive director of the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America, which represents more than one hundred of the nation’s top dealers in Americana and related decorative arts. Today, Loto uses her breadth of experience in the field and her passion for the importance of history in education to inspire others to support nonprofits dedicated to the education in, and accessibility to, history, arts, and culture.