Not long ago someone asked me how I became interested in antiques and I didn’t have a ready answer. I may as well have been asked: “How did you become interested in breathing?” That’s an exaggeration, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by history as it is embodied in the art and objects of the past. Back in my childhood, was there one moment, one work of art, one artifact that sparked that fascination? I thought about it.
The first thing that came to mind was the Vermeer that hung on the wall of our living room. I was mesmerized by that picture—the rich blues, the chalky white. And it prompted so many questions: Was that woman bald under the scarf she wore? What’s that box on the floor? Who on earth would eat that stale-looking bread? Only, sad to say, years later, when I was perhaps eleven years old and saw a photo of The Milkmaid in a reference book—long after my parents, by then able to afford to put something nicer on the walls, had chucked the thing—did I finally realize we’d owned a reproduction.
So that wasn’t it. Maybe it was the bison.
My mother comes from a small town in upstate New York in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and we visited it often. Relatives on her mother’s side owned the hotel—a large, venerable place made of stone, built in the early nineteenth century. It was an institution in the region. The guest register held signatures from statesmen and dignitaries who ran the gamut from Ulysses S. Grant and William Jennings Bryan to Norman Thomas.
The hotel had a huge barroom with worn wooden plank floors. There were mural panels depicting historical events that took place in the area, such as the mustering of the town’s Civil War regiment, and there were hunting trophies on the wall—several deer heads, the head of a moose. And there was a bison head. The surely apocryphal story was that it was the last of its breed in the state; shot by the man who built the hotel. The bison head was hung low enough that I could reach up to stroke and tug its shaggy beard. I still remember its texture, and more: the wise and weary gaze of the bison’s glass eyes. It was the embodiment of the ancient.
But the bison also made me sad. So having now pondered the question I think I can say that the person responsible for my interest is John Paul Jones.
As I have mentioned before, I am from Annapolis, Maryland. It was an excellent place to grow up, and one of the chief reasons was access to the United States Naval Academy. So long as we didn’t run wild, and observed their customs and rituals—for example, all foot and vehicle traffic came to a halt when the American flag was raised or lowered—the Academy brass left us kids to our own devices. There were plenty of ways to have fun on the beaux arts campus. I learned to ice skate and shoot pool in Dahlgren Hall. But there were also dark, mysterious places that had a strange allure. One was Jones’s crypt beneath the mighty copper-domed chapel.
I would stop by from time to time. The space is cool, and quiet, and dimly lit. Jones rests in—now that I refresh my memory with photos—a spectacularly ugly marble-and-bronze sarcophagus. Perhaps it added a touch of the macabre to the atmosphere. The crypt seemed to have few visitors; it was almost always empty, in my experience. But there was one afternoon when I arrived to find a tour under way. A guide was speaking to a small group. Maybe he was a docent, maybe just some history buff—but, man, could that guy tell a story. He described how Jones outfoxed the British, sailing around Scotland to enter the North Sea on a raiding mission. When he got to the battle of the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, I almost felt as if I were on the quarterdeck of the American ship, amid the cannon smoke, broken spars, and tattered ropes, hearing Jones shouting defiance: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Or maybe it was something else that kindled my love of history. What matters are the memories. For here is the thing about antiques: they have stories to tell. And when you handle an old piece of silver, run your fingers over the knots in a schoolgirl sampler, or rub your palm along the edge of a Newport tavern table, you make its story a part of your own.