Not for sale: An exquisitely made collection of miniature furniture

The balance of the collection was in the shop that spring when the artist Nelson C. White (1900–1989) walked in for a visit. A painter of the Old Lyme school, White was a frequent visitor, and had acquired a number of antiques from the Liverants. He fell in love with the Keeler collection, possibly because Keeler had been a patron of the Old Lyme artists and had even traded dental services for paintings. “It is possible that Nelson knew Dr. Keeler and knew of the collection,” Arthur suggests. “In any case, he had to have them. Nelson was a flamboyant character, a scholar as well as an artist. His enthusiasm probably came from a personal association in addition to his genuine appreciation.”

Zeke, however, had trouble letting go of these treasures. He sold them to White on the condition that they would stay in the Liverant shop for the summer. White agreed and Zeke had his cabinetmaker, Konstantin Haliw, build display shelves for the two front windows of the shop. “I was a junior in high school when my father purchased the collection,” Arthur recalls. “They drew a great response. People would stand out there looking in with their noses pressed against the glass. It became a tourist event.” 

At summer’s end, Zeke delivered the collection to White as agreed. The White family kept it intact, except for Zeke’s two pieces, until September 2002. Then the phone rang again at the Liverant shop. This time, it was Arthur’s turn to write a check. He brought the collection to Colchester for a second time. Shortly thereafter he considered bringing the miniatures to the Philadelphia Antiques Show. Doing so involved a special dispensation from the show committee, since the collection is more recent than objects typically permitted in the show. The committee was enthusiastic, believing that the furniture would generate considerable excitement. As the date of the opening drew near, however, Arthur had second thoughts.

“I remembered the collection so well,” he says. “When we had an opportunity to buy it back it was very exciting, and then when I had the opportunity to study the pieces and show them to clients, customers, and friends, everybody just swooned over it.” He began to see that the miniatures also offered a great way to show clients another way to appreciate American furniture. “I quickly realized that there was always an opportunity to sell them, but once they were gone, there probably wouldn’t be an opportunity to get them back a third time. To be honest, I just couldn’t part with them.”

Looking at these forty-five Lilliputian masterpieces, one cannot help imagining the dentist and patron of the arts hunched over his workbench, turning a spindle on a tiny lathe, or drilling a different sort of cavity with his dental tools. Keeler may have misjudged a little girl’s taste. His scholarship and artistry, however, remain impeccable.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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