Happy birthday, Curious Objects! In this special anniversary episode, we take a look back at the work we’ve done in these last twelve months. If you haven’t listened to the episodes in full, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you have (or even if you haven’t), then check out this compilation of our favorite bits.
Benjamin Miller:Welcome back to a special episode of Curious Objects. If you’re a regular listener, you already know that I’m Ben Miller, and that this podcast is brought to you by The Magazine ANTIQUES. And we are celebrating right now, because we’ve arrived at the first anniversary of the podcast!
We’ve decided to treat this as an occasion for a little retrospection–this is, after all, a podcast about antiques–and give you a compilation of some of the more interesting moments from the last year of Curious Objects. It’s been fun for me to listen back through and hear the progression–starting with the technology . . . the audio quality was pretty rough at the beginning! If you are a regular listener, you’ve heard some of these moments before. But time has passed, and maybe you’ve forgotten about the stagecoach that ran over a violin, or the bracelet that Diana Vreeland wore. Here’s a free tip about learning about antiques: revisit what you already know. The tenth or hundredth time you look at an object may be the time that you make a new discovery about it.
I’m also treating this as an occasion to express my gratitude: first and foremost, to all of you listening, and also to the good people at the magazine antiques, especially my stalwart, often beleaguered editor, Sammy Dalati, for bringing this effort to fruition. And, although you hear from them every episode, I do want to say a sincere thank you to all our sponsors for supporting this effort to bring the good news about antiques to more people around the world. Listeners: make their support worthwhile! There’s a reason I’m not advertising mattresses and razors–I really believe in what our advertisers are doing.
Remember that you can get in touch with me directly by emailing email@example.com or finding me on Instagram @objectiveinterest. I love hearing from you! And pictures are always available at themagazineantiques.com/podcast.
One year down, and we are just getting started. I’ll repeat my plea like a broken record: rate us on Apple podcasts or whatever app you’re using to listen and leave a review! It’s the simplest, most effective way to help us get the word out.
Ever wondered about the history of the Madonna and Child in fine art, or about the macabre illustrator that inspired Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket? Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction house, tells the stories of these and other curious objects. Discover Pennsylvania’s craft legacy, go behind the scenes at auctions and exhibitions, and uncover your passion for collecting. Head to freemansauction.com to sign up for their newsletter and get these stories and more delivered straight to your inbox.
Winterthur presents the fifty-fifth annual Delaware Antiques Show, November 9 through 11 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington, Delaware. Featuring sixty-two dealers in American antiques and decorative arts, including furniture, paintings, rugs, ceramics, silver, jewelry, and more. Plus, special lectures, and an opening night party. Delaware Antiques Show details and tickets are available at winterthur.org.
Dealer Michael Pashby on the secret history of the Windsor chair
Benjamin Miller: Now, we’re going to run through these in chronological order, starting with Michael Pashby. This is the first interview I ever did for Curious Objects, and at the time that we recorded this I didn’t know what the podcast was going to be called or where it was going to be published or whether it was even going to be published at all. So, I was very grateful to Michael for being willing to take a little bit of a risk with me and dive into this experiment. Now, when we sat down to try to decide which object to talk about in this pilot episode, I thought “what better place to start than with arguably the most fundamental object in the decorative arts world, the chair?”
. . . And for the benefit of our listeners who unfortunately can’t see us through this microphone, could you give a physical description of that chair?
Michael Pashby: Well, it’s what one would normally understand as a Windsor chair. It’s got four legs, obviously, but these are particularly well-splayed legs, so it gives it stability. It has spindles to the back, a hooped back, a curved arm, a flat, curved seat—shaped seat—and it’s got a very interesting stretcher to the base which is a very shallow curve to the stretcher with supports going to the rear legs. And all of the legs have got very, very fine turning to them. But this one is made of indigenous woods, it’s made of beech, ash—primarily of ash. And ash was a very good wood to be steamed and turned, and the seat is, interestingly, is of Sycamore which would indicate that the chair actually had been painted at some stage. Because if it was a much higher quality piece it would have either been elm to the seat, or cherry, something that was more expensive. So, it’s a standard Windsor chair. A Windsor chair is a very interesting thing because most of them are not from Windsor. This type of chair was made in the area of the Thames Valley. The market town of the Thames Valley was Windsor, and chairs were moved to other parts of the country through the market town. And because it was on the Thames they could be shipped to any part of London or elsewhere in the country.
Benjamin Miller: So, the name “Windsor” actually relates to their commercial distribution rather than the actual point of origin.
Michael Pashby: And I think people at the time said, “oh the chairs from Windsor,” and over time chairs which were made in Wales or in the north of England all became known—because of the distinctive look of these chairs—they all became known as Windsor chairs. Now what’s interesting about this chair is it’s made by Gillows.
“It’s a middle-class piece of furniture. It’s not an important piece of furniture. . . . But it has a fascinating history.”
Michael Pashby: They are a fascinating company! When I started to look into them . . . they were a company that started around 1730
Michael Pashby: What we have found out since doing some research on these is that Gillows, because they were such a entrepreneurial type of company . . . when you’re sending ships to the Caribbean to buy wood, you don’t want to send an empty ship to the Caribbean. You’re sending things in that ship, unloading, and then bringing the wood back. What Gillows did was they shipped furniture. They were a major supplier to South America and North America through the Caribbean. Gillows used their bases in the Caribbean mainly in, I believe, in Jamaica. And there are invoices in their records showing that they sent a lot of Windsor chairs to the Caribbean. Now when they sent those, rather sensibly they didn’t send them as chairs, they sent them in component pieces. They had the pieces turned, they didn’t paint them because if you painted it, it would get chipped. They sent them down and the furniture was like the old Ikea then, I suppose. They were sent down and they were assembled in the Caribbean, and then they used agents in South America and the southern states to sell the furniture on. What I find interesting is that when these would have been painted, either they would have been stained or they would have been painted in green, or some other color (red, white), and one must assume that plenty of these can be found somewhere in America. They haven’t been, because I don’t think people know that these chairs are here, and they must be assumed—because of their rather odd shape as well—they may well be assumed to be American—
Benjamin Miller: American made . . .
Michael Pashby: American made.
Benjamin Miller: Interesting.
Michael Pashby: Particularly if they are painted. Because people wouldn’t necessarily look at the woods. They look at the paint.
Michael Pashby: It was the Ikea of the 1790s and it was also a normal piece of furniture. It was just . . . and would people have kept these? Probably not. They may have been handed down, but they weren’t of any . . . they weren’t a great cabinet, they weren’t a great chest of drawers, dining table. It was an ordinary country piece of furniture. A middle-class piece of furniture is no an important piece of furniture, but it has a fascinating history and it’s so distinctive . . .
Hirschl & Adler’s Stuart Feld on an early American linen press
Benjamin Miller: The second episode of Curious Objects we entitled “Expert in Everything.” Now, that may sound like an ambitious moniker, but it may be the only way to describe the guest for this episode, Stuart Feld, the president of Hirschl & Adler, the New York–based firm. We spoke about an early nineteenth century Boston linen press. Stuart and his firm handle a huge range of material, from furniture to paintings to silver to sculpture, from the early nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, so this is just one little peak into Stuart Feld’s world.
. . . Tell me a little bit about this object. We’re sitting in front of it right now, and it’s, I have to say, a very imposing, almost regal sort of a piece. Can you give a physical description for our listeners?
Stuart Feld: it is a linen press. It was used to store perhaps household linens, perhaps actually clothes. Clothes were oftentimes folded and put into a linen press rather than hung up in a closet as we do today. The piece is made entirely of mahogany and parts of it are quite simple, but it has a very, very elaborate entablature with typical Boston carvings of anthemia, lotus leaves, and scrolls. All of these elements appear and reappear on Boston neoclassical furniture. Unlike much furniture made in New York, which often has lots of ormolu and other decoration, much Boston furniture simply relies upon a beautiful selection of woods, a very careful selection of woods, for its principal aesthetic motif. Here you can see in the doors, matched pairs of mahogany veneers, and the same thing up above and down below. And this piece represents one of a couple of most beautiful, most important, best of Boston neoclassical pieces of case furniture. The doors in the top open to a series of slides and then there are two small drawers over two long drawers in the base below.
Benjamin Miller: And the corners here are defined by columns.
Stuart Feld: And there are columns both above and below, really columnettes. And the piece retains its original turned mahogany knobs. And I mention those because that is very, very typical of a Boston aesthetic of this period. For years, pieces that came down to us with their original wooden knobs had the knobs taken off and shiny brass knobs were put on to tart up the piece a bit. This piece retains its original knobs, and to the extent that we’ve ever acquired a piece that had its knobs removed, we tend to find a set of old knobs or have a set made in order to restore it to its original appearance. Happily, that wasn’t necessary in this piece.
“The form, the monumental scale, the extraordinary selection of woods—all of these come together in a piece that thus deserves the name of masterpiece”
Benjamin Miller: How many comparable pieces would you say there are in the world, linen presses from Boston in the 1820s? Is this a singularity or are there a handful?
Stuart Feld: There are certainly other linen presses and armoires, but I think it’s generally acknowledged that this is one of the two finest ones. The other one is in a New York private collection. It was made for David Sears who lived in a very grand house designed by Alexander Parris on Beacon Street on Beacon Hill. And that is in the other Boston taste and is very richly ornamented with many pieces of . . . many ormolu mounts.
Benjamin Miller: So, what separates this piece from other pieces made in Boston at the time? What are the unique characters?
Stuart Feld: The combination of the form, the monumental scale, the extraordinary selection of woods, all of these add up to what we call quality. And they all come together in a piece that thus deserves the name of masterpiece.
Wartski expert Katherine Purcell on a René Lalique art nouveau necklace
Benjamin Miller: By the third episode, I started to finally have a little bit of an idea of what I was doing. My guest I was very excited about was Katherine Purcell, of the London firm Wartski, and you can imagine my crushing disappointment when after our interview I discovered that there were crippling sound-quality problems with the recording. Not to be deterred, when Katherine was next in New York, we sat down in person, where nothing could possibly go wrong. I had gotten a new set of microphones (I hope you’ll appreciate the improvement in sound quality). And I’ll tell you what I’ve often said about Katherine, which is that I would gladly listen to her reading the Yellow Pages. But, as it happens, she is also one of the world’s top experts in French art nouveau jewelry. So, here is Catherine Purcell, speaking about one of the most wonderful pieces of René Lalique jewelry that I have ever seen.
Katherine Purcell: It takes the form of a pendant on a long chain. The pendant itself is centered with a female bust portrait of a young woman. Most striking is the fact that she is enveloped in branches supporting pinecones and needles. The pendant is suspended with three pearls, and the chain work echoes the motifs, also bearing pine cones and needles, interspersed with pearls. The piece doesn’t have a single gemstone in it. It is entirely decorated with enamel in terms of the female portrait. The enamel is principally in dusky shades of blue to grey, and her hair is very dark, almost black in color, and the pine cones themselves are of enamel which has been etched to give them volume. The branches so envelop her as to almost reveal her face amidst the branches. She’s actually clasping one of the branches in her hand. So that is the first appearance of the piece, if you like.
Benjamin Miller: Who was the woman?
Katherine Purcell: Well, that is the key question because I’ve discovered that the woman in question was actually his muse. Her name was Augustine-Alice Ledru. at the base of the pendant, the actual little cutout form from which the center pearl is suspended, is actually a cutout heart, and I’d actually never seen this feature in a jewel by René Lalique before. It led me to think that there must be some kind of romantic association between him and the sitter if you like. And I started to read further accounts of female figures in his jewels, and it turned out that Augustine-Alice did feature in a number of his works of that period. They met in her father’s studio because her father was actually the bronze foundry maker to René Lalique’s bronze works. And at the time that this particular pendant was carried out, they had not yet married. They actually met in 1890 but married in 1902.
“The pendant is suspended with three pearls, and the chain work echoes the motifs, also bearing pine cones and needles, interspersed with pearls.”
Katherine Purcell: … So, this is an incredibly personal jewel. And it’s by no means incidental that the motifs in the jewel are actually fir cones and pearls, because pinecones, in the language of botany, stands for eternity, and the pearl, because Venus was born from a pearl, symbolizes love.
Benjamin Miller: Of course.
Katherine Purcell: So, you already have eternal love in this jewel. But the heart, notwithstanding, rather charmingly . . . as you turn the jewel over you actually find a mirror image of the jewel in chased-engraved form. Which is very typical of René Lalique’s attention to detail. The ability, and, in fact, the priority he gives to all aspects of his jewels, whether, for example, making a piece from plique-à-jour enamel but actually designing it as a choker so only the wearer would know that it carries his great sophistication of plique-à-jour enamel which is immediately lost when you wear it right against the skin.
Benjamin Miller: Sure.
Katherine Purcell: So, in the same way, only the wearer would have known, in this particular instance, that the jewel was so elaborately finished on the reverse.
Historic Preservationist Wade Lege on Living in a Collection
Benjamin Miller: Up to this point, all of my interviews had been with antique dealers, and I was interested in broadening the scope of the podcast. Now, I had noticed an article in The Magazine ANTIQUES from a little while back that had really fascinated me about a man in Louisiana named Wade Lege. Wade is a do-it-yourself collector, restorer . . . a man who’s concerned not with making money off the antiques business but with surrounding himself with objects that are full of importance, beauty, and significance to him. For this episode, the “curious object” was Wade’s entire house.
Wade Lege: It’s basically three rooms across the front—and the house is fifty feet wide, approximately—three equal-sized rooms. And then behind those three rooms are three additional rooms and then you have a, you know, basically a porch that spans the distance in front of the house. But then there’s also a porch in the back of the house. And these porches all fall under the same hip roof. And there are no extensions but on the rear porch you have a room on each end of the porch, or gallery, and those were called cabinets and they are just small rooms. Today, we use these cabinet rooms as bathrooms. Well, when the house was built, not to say they weren’t used as a bathroom, it could have been, you know, chambers and commodes in there, but typically there was a place away from the house for those uses. So, these cabinet rooms, I believe, were just, you know, originally maybe storage rooms.
Benjamin Miller: This is a house that is actually not in its original location anymore. Is that correct?
Wade Lege: Not at all, no. The house was built closer to New Orleans and it was a river roadhouse, meaning it was built along the Mississippi River, and by a family who made money farming sugarcane. … it was originally raised seven/eight feet off the ground for reasons of flood control issues. You know, back in the nineteenth century there were no levees, there was no flood control whatsoever.… So, in the 19—I guess—30s the Corps of Engineers decided to increase the size of the levees in that part of the world and they began moving some of these houses.… And that was the case with this house, and the original footprint of this house is actually underwater inside the levee.
“The Corps of Engineers decided to increase the size of the levees in that part of the world and they began moving some of these houses. . . . The original footprint of this house is actually underwater inside the levee.”
Benjamin Miller: Do you know the family who built it?
Wade Lege: I have a photographic—dated 1899, I believe—and it is a photograph of the family members, and, oddly enough, they’re standing at the Mississippi and the Mississippi has floating ice in it. Evidently there was a strong freeze that year and these family members—looks like some brothers and sisters or maybe a man and his wife . . . They almost look stranded but as I’m understanding they’re standing on there—at the Mississippi—on their property.
The house is pretty cool in the fact that the original plaster was still on the walls in the house. Now, this plaster was covered over with board and it was, I guess, sheet rock applied to these boards. … And it was in terrible condition, I mean, you can imagine these boards being nailed to plaster being moved, when the Corps moved it, it was moved—could have been moved by animals, mules or, you know, the horses. It’s not always . . . they weren’t always moved by machinery.
Benjamin Miller: And how do you restore that?
Wade Lege: You have a decision to make: You can you can live with it as it is, you can attempt to skim coat over it, which would essentially remove all the color; or you could take it down and start from scratch. And I chose to take it down and start from scratch.
Benjamin Miller: I see.
Wade Lege: Anyways, I was lucky to have enough people to help, and we took this broken plaster down and I kept many samples, obviously, in my hope, and I actually did one room in the yellow and that room is in the, was published in the magazine. And it came out great!
Benjamin Miller: And you’ve actually learned quite a bit about nineteenth century construction methods, right?
Wade Lege: Oh, you know, suddenly, you know, I was in that reality is what it was. It wasn’t anything else but that. I didn’t think about what I was going to do, necessarily. I just saw an opportunity to buy the house, and then when I was able to make a deal to move it, I already had the land, and I thought, you know, here’s my chance if I want it. I thought, “this is pretty cool!”
Benjamin Miller: Ever wondered about the history of tea in China and Japan, or what was revealed in never before seen photographs of a Russian empress in exile? Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction house, tells the stories of these and other curious objects. Discover how Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic stayed in Philadelphia, the science behind colored diamonds, and much more on their website freemansauction.com. From modern masters to French furniture, Freeman’s takes you behind the scenes at auctions and exhibitions, delivering the latest in art market news, events, and stories. Subscribe to their biweekly magazine, and get it sent straight to your inbox. Visit Freeman’s at freemansauction.com to learn more.
What are you doing the weekend of November 9 through 11? Here’s an idea: Come see me at the Delaware Antiques Show, presented by Winterthur. This will be their fifty-fifth annual show, and this year it will include sixty-two dealers in American antiques and decorative arts. The firm where I work, Shrubsole, is exhibiting there, as we have for many years. It’s one of the highlights of the year in the antiques world, and I am excited to be going back. There’s a who’s who opening night party and lectures by designer Charlotte Moss and by some current fellows at the Winterthur graduate program. Delaware Antique Show details and tickets are available at winterthur.org, or even by calling them, so, quick, grab your pen. The number is 800-448-3883.
A conversation with luthier Paul Becker
Benjamin Miller: By now I was starting to feel really enthusiastic about the podcast and the kinds of stories that could be told through it, and so I decided to branch out even farther. For this episode, I actually went to Chicago to talk with a man who handles a different kind of antiques. These are collectibles, but they’re also functional. In fact, they’re serious workhorses. I’m talking about violins. This is Paul Becker of Carl Becker and Son.
. . . This is an Amati?
Paul Becker: That’s right. It’s a violin that’s made in 1620.
Benjamin Miller: 1620. Yeah, yeah.
Paul Becker: He was the son of Andre Amati, who was the grandfather of violins.
Benjamin Miller: Right, because the modern violin really was just coming into being around this time.
Paul Becker: That’s right. So, these are the earliest examples of the modern violin. This instrument is made by Antonio and Hieronymus which are the sons of Andre.
Benjamin Miller: Ok. And Andre is the one you’re referring to as the grandfather of the violin?
Paul Becker: Exactly. He worked in Brescia and was thought to work for Gasparo da Salò. He made the first violin-size instruments; before that he was making violas. Violas are actually before violins.
Benjamin Miller: When you say viola, are you talking about a viola da gamba or what kind of instrument are you describing?
Paul Becker: Well, yes. A lute was one . . . which our name comes from: luthiers.
Benjamin Miller: Ah, right. I never put that together.
Paul Becker: Yeah. So, a lute is the predecessor to the viol, “viola,” if you will. And from there came the violin by Andre Amati and then came his two sons Antonio and Hieronymus who made these instruments. The one I hold in my hand is one that traveled to Russia and was played there for most of its life.
Benjamin Miller: Really?
Paul Becker: Yep, and it has a great deal of its originality . . . original in all its parts.
Benjamin Miller: Does that include the neck?
Paul Becker: The neck is replaced because it was a baroque style neck.
Benjamin Miller: Which are shorter . . .
Paul Becker: Yep . . . so they’re shorter and steeper angle. And, as a result, it had a different projection to its sound. And we call that a modern setup which is basically something that started in 1780 . . . [laughter] a modern violin.
Benjamin Miller: “Modern” being a relative term.
Paul Becker: So, this was a baroque set up though. It had traveled to Russia and was involved, very interestingly, in a stage coach accident where it had run over the case and put a series of . . .
Benjamin Miller: A stagecoach ran over the violin case?
Paul Becker: A stagecoach ran over the violin case and broke the instrument into smithereens on the lower end. And so, it went through a huge restoration job.
“it looks like an old piece of furniture or like a really excellent piece of seventeenth century furniture . . . the patina, the colors. It’s wonderful just as a visual object.”
Benjamin Miller: What are we talking about here?
Paul Becker: I can show . . .
Benjamin Miller: Wow.
Paul Becker: . . . cracks ran across right here. And it has a series on the top that match the back. Otherwise it survived quite well, so it has this light track of cracks from a stagecoach.
Ben Miller: You know, it’s funny, I mean, we sometimes have, you know, in the silver trade . . . of course, you see damaged pieces all the time that have been repaired and usually that detracts from the value, but sometimes if the damage has a story behind it—like the tankard that had a hole shot through it by a musket ball during the Revolutionary War—you know that actually can add value to the piece. I don’t know in this case if . . .
Paul Becker: It doesn’t add value, but it does add a neat story. I don’t have any other instruments that were run over by a stagecoach.
Benjamin Miller: Really? This is the only one?
Paul Becker: This is the only one I know of. So, it’s great, I love saying it, and the instrument’s gone through a tremendous restoration.
Benjamin Miller: And so, the restoration was done skillfully, I assume.
Paul Becker: It was done in Russia.
Benjamin Miller: And how long ago was that done do you think?
Paul Becker: That was done, I believe, in the late 1800s.
Benjamin Miller: Oh right.
Benjamin Miller: I mean it looks like an old piece of furniture or like a really excellent piece of seventeenth century furniture . . . the patina, the colors. It’s wonderful just as a visual object.
Paul Becker: Right, I mean it’s got a tremendous amount of original varnish and the finish has really survived.
ADA executive director Judy Loto and Her Entrancingly Engraved Powder Horn
Benjamin Miller: No antiques podcast would be complete without a conversation with Judy Livingston Loto, the executive director of the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America. She is also a dealer in her own right in books about antiques—she is kind of a meta dealer, not to mention the development director for the Portsmouth Historical Society. Judy is one of the most effective antiques evangelists I know, and we talked about an object that has some personal significance for her.
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 t heir 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—
“These objects give me the opportunity to hold in my own hands teeny little pieces of history that affected the lives of people before me. They help remind me that perhaps there’s something in my life that will interest someone else a hundred years from now.”
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?
Judy Loto: Well, so that’s a great question. I loved the date. I loved the name on this. I loved the mystery to be solved. 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. 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.
David Webb archivist Levi Higgs and the company’s storied Zebra bracelet
Benjamin Miller: Ok, the stereotype of an antiques dealer: small mom and pop shop family business. Let’s face it, older straight white man. Well, my next interview was going to be an exception to many of those rules: Levi Higgs, the archivist and social media manager at the great New York jewelry firm David Webb. Levi introduced us to a, shall we say, sexier side of the antiques world. To be fair, this piece isn’t even an antique.
. . . So, tell me about this piece and describe it for our listeners.
Levi Higgs: Yeah, it’s the David Webb Zebra bracelet. It’s our most iconic animal bracelet. So, it came out of the workshop in 1963. That’s when it was originally designed and that’s when it came to fruition as well. Sometimes things—
Benjamin Miller: So, they’d been working for fifteen years or so.
Levi Higgs: Right, right. And, you know, through the fifties we see a lot of really sort of not surprising jewelry, jewelry that fits in with a lot of other jewelry at that time—the sort of gold and diamond “ladies-who-lunch” jewelry. That’s what I always call it. Maybe that’s not the best way to call it, but that’s what I call it.
Benjamin Miller: I’m thinking Mad Men.
Levi Higgs: Mm-hm.
“I think a lot about authenticity. And I know that that’s sort of a social media buzzword, but I think it couldn’t be more important to think about the objects that we’re surrounding ourselves with, to think about the craftsmanship and the history and the story.”
Benjamin Miller: So, I’m interested in the role and the importance of animals in David Webb jewelry design. Because, you know, as far as David Webb jewelry is [concerned]—to the extent that it’s recognized in the world—I think animals are really the iconic—
Levi Higgs: Totally.
Benjamin Miller: —form. And this also, in my mind, this comes back to this idea of what distinguished David Webb as a designer from one of his contemporaries. So, we’re talking about this Zebra bracelet, but there are a lot of other animals that he used—
Levi Higgs: Certainly.
Benjamin Miller: —as inspiration too. So, why animals? What drew David Webb to animals?
Levi Higgs: It’s a good question. We… In our archive we have a whole shelf of reference books and sort of inspirational material that David Webb had. When he passed away it was part of the company’s records, so, whenever we’re giving tours we always talk about “this David Webb’s reference library.” And in the reference library is this great book called The Big Book of Wild Animals, and it was published in 1954 and has these amazing illustrations. It’s a super iconic book from the fifties. Obviously, it wasn’t a children’s book that David Webb had when he was a child. He was an adult man when he had this book, but he’s, you know, looking at it and there’s a tremendously great page of zebras and giraffes running together in the savannah. And a lot of his animals are sort of African mammals, like big jungle cats and the giraffes and the zebras and elephants.
Benjamin Miller: And it’s interesting. I mean, he was living and working very close not just to the Natural History Museum in New York but also the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Levi Higgs: Yes, and we’ve heard it told that he went there once a week and was constantly looking at things that inspired.
Benjamin Miller: So, this in fact has been worn by, or, I should say, Zebra bracelets by David Webb have been worn by some pretty exciting people.
Levi Higgs: So some of our favorites to talk about, of course, you know, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Doris Duke. . . . I mean, pretty much any prominent name in the twentieth century… My favorite one that I always liked to talk about and share is Diana Vreeland. She was gifted one in the sixties right when she went to Vogue in 1963 and we had this amazing cover of Vogue that came out in 1964 that has an Irving Penn photograph as the cover, and there’s a woman holding her hand sort of to her face; she’s got a zebra ring on that goes perfectly in line with this bracelet. She’s got black and white eyeshadow on and the typography on them. . . . The word “Vogue” is black and white. So it’s just, zoom, this moment of everything coming together: the typography and this cultural moment of the black and white graphic pattern, everything. … It’s probably our most popular animal design that we’ve produced over the years.
Kevin Brown and His Qing-era Map of China
Benjamin Miller: The first person I ever worked for in the antiques world before I made my way into antiques silver and jewelry was actually a maps dealer, Kevin Brown of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps. Kevin has an impressively wide-ranging inventory, and he suggested that we talk about this fabulous early nineteenth century Chinese map, which is less of a map of geography, more of a map of politics and economics.
Kevin Brown: It’s about fifty-five by ninety-eight inches. This is an expansive map. It was issued in 1811 in China and. It’s meant to cover an entire wall or, as it may have appeared in China, on a screen. It is often called “printed in negative,” although that is not precisely true. It’s not a printing. It’s a rubbing, which is a Chinese process, very traditional. Large pieces of cloth in strips will be laid down on a stone block and it’d be wetted and then the inks would be applied with a pounding ink block and that yielded the intense blue and in fact the white areas are not printed areas, rather, they [indicate] lack of printing, and so that gives it the intense physical and visual appearance that it has.
Benjamin Miller: So, the white areas would have been carved out of the base stone . . .
Kevin Brown: That’s right.
Benjamin Miller: . . . so the ink would not have shown up on those spots.
Kevin Brown: That’s exactly right. But the map is a striking, resonant deep blue and the seas around it are a lighter, almost iridescent blue. And color was very, very significant in Chinese . . . not only social and political thinking but also mystical thinking.
Benjamin Miller: Hm, was blue an important color for the Qing Dynasty more generally?
Kevin Brown: Yes. So, in traditional Chinese iconography, blue references immortality, underscoring the everlasting nature of the Qing empire, which is in fact part of the title of the map in translation.
Benjamin Miller: Oh, I didn’t realize it had a title!
Kevin Brown: It does. The translation of the title would be “All-Under-Heaven Complete Map of the Everlasting Unified Qing Empire.”
Benjamin Miller: Oh, is that all? that’s quite an ambitious headline.
Kevin Brown: Yes, well, it was made for the emperor. And, of course, the mapmaker would have wanted the emperor to be impressed with the map. So . . . and all of the geographical features and annotations . . . appear in white. So, it is extremely vibrant and striking to observe.
Benjamin Miller: But the overwhelming feature over the surface of the map is actually Chinese characters.
Kevin Brown: Well, yes, and symbols. This was an administrative map if it could be called anything. And, so, as such, if it was made for the emperor and if you were the emperor you would look at this map and by looking at it you would understand the tax and tribute system throughout your entire empire. … So, it’s not printed or designed on a scale of distance, it’s on a scale of significance to the Qing emperor.
“This isn’t really a map in the Western or European sense of the word. It’s not designed on a scale of distance, but on a scale of significance to the Qing emperor.”
Benjamin Miller: So, tell me a bit about the representations of lands outside of China. Because we have the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers running across . . . really, the majority of the map, and then all of what appears to be Africa and Europe condensed into a very small . . . almost a margin, on the left side. Is it clear or is it delineated exactly what regions of the rest of the world are represented?
Kevin Brown: Somewhat. The map includes, definitely, England, includes Holland, includes Southeast Asia and Africa. There’s a possibility that it also includes Portugal but some of the terminology is unclear. So, the map uses extremely Chinese, if you will, terminology to describe various places. Holland is “the land of red beards” and Portugal is “the land of the great western sea.” Italy is possibly on it; the Atlantic itself is “the great western sea.” Arabia appears on the map as “the homeland of Islam,” and—
Benjamin Miller: … What use was that, really? What good was it to have a map that showed the world not as it exists physically but as it exists from a kind of egocentric perspective?
Kevin Brown: Well, you have to start with the basic understanding that the Qing were a nomadic warrior people, and—
Benjamin Miller: They were the Manchus from north China?
Kevin Brown: Correct, yes. So, they did not see themselves bound or limited by physical barriers or distances in the way that a European king may have considered their empire. So, the Qing really didn’t care how far it extended or how big it was. They cared that it was big, but it was more about the tributes that came in. So some symbols might represent a major city. Others might represent a regional sub-magistrate. … So, when the emperor looked at this, what he saw is he saw his tax income. He’s like “Oh, I’m receiving a certain level of tax from this regional magistrate in Guangzhou province. Good!” And, so, he was able to see the extent of his empire, he was able to see where the money was coming from, where it was coming from. He perhaps might say, “Well, I think we can get more money out of this area over here. Send out the armies.” Or, more likely, “send out a million Han settlers to repopulate this region and develop it so that I will have more—
Benjamin Miller: And fill it with our culture and our populace.
Kevin Brown: —income from the region.” And, in fact, potentially one of the reasons that this map was made in 1811 was because of a massive resettlement of Han Chinese farther to the west that redistributed the wealth of the empire.
The House that Vanderbilt: Gilded Age Mansions of Newport, RI
Benjamin Miller: And that brings us just about up to the present. This most recent episode was recorded up in Newport, Rhode Island, which, as many of you know, was the summer home to New York’s elite ranks of society during the gilded age. I went up there to speak with Trudy Coxe, the CEO of the Preservation Society of Newport County, as well as with a couple of their curators (you’ll hear Ashley Householder in this clip). Instead of talking about one particular object, for this episode, we were really talking about a whole city and whole culture and society.
. . . Who were some of the most prominent families?
Trudy Coxe: Certainly, several branches of the Vanderbilt family, who built the Elms and Marble House and Rough Point. You had the Berwind family, Philadelphians who ended up building the Elms. There was the Wetmore family that had been around for a good period of time—settled here in the 1850s and ‘60s—and then held onto the house that they built, Chateau-sur-Mer, for another hundred-plus years. … So, a lot of names like that. They were hiring the best architects in the world and they were building the biggest summer cottages. Remember, they were only here for six to eight weeks every year, but they were building the biggest and the best and they were trying to make the statement that this was the place to be, and, frankly, it still is the place to be.
Benjamin Miller: . . . And what happened during the Civil War?
Trudy Coxe: Well, what happened during the Civil War depends on where you were in this country. If you were a middle- to upper-class Southerner, it was not unusual for you and your family to head to Europe, primarily Paris, and this is how Alva Vanderbilt got her start. Her family escaped to Europe, to Paris, and there, as a young girl, she learned everything French: she learned about French architecture, she learned the language, she learned the art, and when she and her family came back to the United States after the Civil War, in her mind was a French aesthetic. And, so, when she married William Vanderbilt and he gave her that magnificent gift of building a house for her thirty-ninth birthday, she hired Richard Morris Hunt and together they decided that they would model Marble House after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. So, many people from the South were heading to Europe and gaining a European taste to bring back to the United States.
Benjamin Miller: Could you tell me a little bit about the sorts of objects that these people filled their homes with?
Ashley Householder: So, certainly, the best of the best. The Wetmores certainly were world-class travelers and took an extended trip to Europe for a number of years, and they were great collectors, buying the best that Europe had to offer in terms of porcelains and glassware. There’s a Lyon Mercat suite of furniture at Chateau that we’re very proud of.
Benjamin Miller: So, was there any thought to the fact that Newport was in fact this crucible of early American craftsmanship, where some of the great early American decorative arts originated, or did that enter into anyone’s thinking?
Ashley Householder: I think during the Gilded Age it was a different aesthetic. They were building these enormous, gorgeous palaces to emulate what was happening in Europe. So, I do feel that when the Vanderbilts and Berwinds were setting up shop they were more interested in European decorative arts.
“If you were a middle- to upper-class Southerner, it was not unusual for you and your family to head to Europe, primarily Paris. . . . to gain a European taste to bring back to the United States.”
Benjamin Miller: Because that was an indication of class, style, and sophistication?
Ashley Householder: That’s right.
Benjamin Miller: . . . I want to talk a little bit about the social and socioeconomic dynamic that’s happening at this time, because the Gilded Age was a period of civil unrest and strife, with riots in New York and elsewhere, and labor disputes leading to violent confrontations around the country. . . . Was Newport a refuge for the elite from that kind of difficulty, or did some of that seep through the cracks here as well?
Trudy Coxe: It was absolutely a refuge, except for the fact that Mr. Berwind did face a strike by his staff at the Elms, where they all walked out on him because they were unhappy with the working conditions. Imagine, in Newport during the height of summer, there was a lot of entertaining. . . . It must have been an exhausting period of time for those who were partaking, but, also, for the workers. But, in general, this was a place where you could get away from the world-weary world and enjoy yourself. That’s how they were living their lives. That strike at the Elms didn’t last very long, he just brought in a whole new team of people and kept going on.
Benjamin Miller: That was easy, huh?
Benjamin Miller: And that, in brief, is a year of Curious Objects. Thanks again for your support and your attention. Once again, images of the objects are at themagazineantiques.com/podcast, and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Instagram at @objectiveinterest. We’ve got a great episode coming up next, so stay tuned! This episode was produced and edited by Sammy Dalati, with guest editing by Cillian Finnerty. Our music is by Trap Rabbit, and I’m Ben Miller.