Living with antiques: Toy Story

Chris Waddington Living with Antiques

Fig. 1. Decorated with seasonal images of holly, a nineteenth-century trade sign advertising toys, painted on oil cloth and hung high on the gallery wall, announces the major focus of this Texas collection, which includes about three hundred tin and cast-metal toys from before 1900. Photography by Julie Soefer.

Among connoisseurs of American folk art and collectibles, great private holdings rarely remain secret, even when their owners prefer anonymity. That’s certainly true for the Houston-area folk art enthusiast who opened his doors to The Magazine ANTIQUES this past fall. For decades, this CEO and entrepreneur has been a major player in the close-knit world of antiques—on a first name basis with top dealers, directors of auction houses, and fellow buyers who sometimes offer him private sale rarities. At his suburban home, where custom-built cases display hundreds of objects, the collector and his wife often have welcomed groups of folk art insiders. And, for decades, they have been prominent supporters of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

Still, this Houston native prefers to keep the focus on his collection—not his name—and, why not, when the collection is so remarkable? It centers on a trove of some three hundred tin and cast-metal toys from the nineteenth century, and has grown, over the past forty years, to include mechanical banks, cigar store Indians, painted wood barber poles, a carousel horse head, the decorative helmets worn by parading firemen, and dozens of weathervanes posted high on the walls of a lofty, two-story living room (Fig. 6). Equally eye-catching is the profusion of well-documented folk paintings, which includes work by such named artists as Samuel and Ruth Shute, John Rasmussen, Deborah Goldsmith, and Grandma Moses. In recent years, this Houston collector has cast his net even wider, assembling one of the nation’s best private collections of carved wood Eastern Woodlands Indian artifacts (Figs. 11, 12).

Fig. 2. The collector’s Houston-area residence, with neo-Gothic detailing inside and out, was designed to accommodate hundreds of antiques and collectibles.
Fig. 3. The entryway is adorned with a host of oil paintings and notable objects. At left on the stairs is a painted-wood 96-inch-high barber pole with chevron designs and an acorn finial, c. 1890. On the floor, at center, is a fireman’s equipment chest, c. 1875, decorated with fire scenes similar to those done by Currier and Ives.
Fig. 4. Paintings of children—many with toys and pets—are a key theme in the collection, beginning with two canvases in the entryway, both from the nineteenth century. The larger is Scottish Heritage: The Silver Thistle from the circle of British painter William Powell Frith (1819–1909). At right is Genevieve White of Baltimore in Red Dress of about 1840, by an unidentified American artist.
Fig. 5. The collector sometimes mixes folk art and works by academically trained nineteenth-century painters, as in this arrangement in the living room. On the wall hangs In the Highlands by English painter Henry Garland (1834–1913); among the objects on the table below are an early twentieth-century folk art painted wood eagle and an eighteenth-century tobacconist’s countertop Indian figure, also in painted wood.
Fig. 6. Gothic-style hammer-truss ceiling beams are an eye-catching feature of the living room. The wall above the doorway accommodates a group of late nineteenth-century weathervanes.
Fig. 7. This view of the living room expresses a relaxed eclecticism, with whirligigs, a cigar store Indian figure, and other objects against a backdrop of dog paintings. One of the most notable pieces is the Peony table lamp at the right, made by Tiffany Studios, c. 1910. It came out of the collection of San Francisco restaurateur Henry Africa, whose watering holes helped launch the vogue for “fern bars” in the 1970s.

Although furniture and functional domestic objects have been of secondary interest for the Texan, his house is sprinkled with handsome period pieces—a fireman’s painted equipment storage chest, several Gothic revival cabinets, a Pennsylvania Soap Hollow dresser, scrimshaw carvings, a New York State blanket chest, a Tiffany lamp, and a tramp art bureau made for the tabletop. Taken together, those pieces provide context for a collection that powerfully evokes the mood and manners of nineteenth-century America—a nation of steamships, railroads and horses, of patriotic festivals and Reconstruction conflicts, of fraternal orders and firemen’s parades, of industrial progress, and the pathos of low life expectancy among children.

“I started as a coin collector at age fourteen, and I quickly learned the first rule of the game: if you’re going to live with things, buy what you like. It’s trite, but true,” the Texan says. “I also learned a few things when I used the coin shop’s consignment bid board—which was kind of like a silent auction for the shop’s customers. I saw that collecting was a form of entertainment, a way to meet like-minded people. I also learned not to underprice my pieces after a dealer came into the shop and snapped up my coins immediately. I haven’t forgotten that as a collector—or in my business career. I always ask: did you get a good price or the best price? Did you do enough research?”

The collector’s passion for research came through when he showed me a personal library of scholarly books and auction catalogues he has acquired over a half-century of bidding. Again and again, he pointed to documented examples of works that have entered his collection, many coming from fabled collections that helped establish the modern taste for American folk art, including those of Bernard Barenholtz, Ralph Esmerian, and singer Andy Williams.

“As a collector, you need to read and you need to look, but you also need to listen,” he says. “That’s why I also have formed relationships with trusted dealers and auction houses in the Northeast, where so much work comes to market.”

Fig. 8. A hallway that runs from one end of the house to the other has been employed as a showcase for the collection.
Fig. 9. Two small oils (at top center and bottom right) by Grandma Moses (1860–1961) are grouped with five other folk paintings. Top to bottom at the left are William Winter and his Family, Irish, c. 1816; The States Eagle, American, c. 1810; and, framed together, A portrait of a mother and child, seated in an interior and A portrait of a gentleman, seated in an interior, attributed to Deborah Goldsmith (1808–1836), c. 1830. At bottom center is Two Children from the Prescott Family with a Dog by Ruth (1802–1882) and Samuel Shute (1803–1836), c. 1831; while the work at top right is Two Sisters with Their Black Kitten, attributed to Robert Peckham (1785– 1877), c. 1818, still in its original frame.
Fig. 10. Well-documented pieces abound in this collection, such as the obelisk barber pole and trade sign from the shop of Charles Behm, Cazenovia, New York, c. 1890, which came out of the collection of Raymond and Susan Egan, accompanied by a period street photo showing the piece in situ. View of the Buildings and Surroundings of the Berks County Almshouse by John Rasmussen (1828–1895), c. 1880, came from the celebrated collection of singer Andy Williams.
Fig. 11. Bringing together hand-carved burl objects from eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America, the collection features a handful of covered bowls by colonists, but emphasizes the spiritual force of carvings from Eastern Woodlands Indian groups—Winnebago, Mohawk, Ojibwe, and others. Some of the highlights include medicine bowls and ceremonial ladles that bear animal and human effigies.
Fig. 12. Filled with trophies from his life as an outdoorsman, the collector’s home office provides a comfortable setting for the natural forms and burl wood of his collection of Eastern Woodlands Indian artifacts.

Among those dealers, he was quick to single out Steven S. Powers, a past president of the Antiques Dealers’ Association of America, who helped him gather his Eastern Woodlands Indian collection, among other things. The Texan also mentioned his decades-long friendship with Jeanne Bertoia, who helped expand the market for antique toys at Bertoia Auctions; and he talked about his relationship with Steven Weiss of Gemini Antiques and RSL Auction Company, describing him as “the kind of dealer who notices when you raise a paddle at auction, finds a seat next to you, and starts trading information.”

Fig. 13. Legendary collector Bernard Barenholtz (1914 –1989) called the Harwood Patent Horse Toy “the most graceful of all American tin toys.” Made by the Merriam Manufacturing Company in Durham, Connecticut, c. 1875, it is fabricated of stamped tin and stands 8 inches high.

Powers has been especially close with the collector, often flying to Texas to discuss individual pieces and the scope of the collection. Powers says: “He’s very impressed with craftsmanship, and looks to see how things are made. He understands that ‘folk’ doesn’t mean naive or shoddy just because the maker wasn’t formally trained. He has a discerning eye and loves to handle pieces—and I think some of that comes from his business, which involves precision products for the oil and gas industry. He gets his hands in and gets dirty. He doesn’t just buy impulsively.”

Powers has watched the collector’s taste evolve over the past fifteen years: “I saw him respond to the sensuality of hand-carved burl bowls and ladles, something that requires touch, not just looking. And he understands that these Woodlands Indian pieces were more than utilitarian. For their original owners, these effigy ladles were personal totems, often used on ceremonial occasions, with their imagery drawn from dreams.”

The collector’s attention to the deeper, spiritual resonance of material culture came through forcefully when he spoke about one of the twentieth-century outliers in his collection: the Psalm 23 quilt, wrought by Lena Moore about 1930, in Canton, Mississippi (Figs. 23a, 23b). With its edge-to-edge jumble of red letters on a white cotton ground, the piece could easily fit into a collection of contemporary paintings. The quilt’s graphic power won it a coveted position on the cover of Folk Art magazine in 2004. Still, the Texas collector didn’t talk about any of that. He kept it simple: “My wife and I are people of faith,” he says. “We responded to the message of the psalm.”

Fig. 14. Playthings from Connecticut manufacturer George W. Brown are paired with whimsical watercolor drawings of the same toys from the original designer’s sketchbook of about 1870. At lower left are the sketch of a Mechanical Walking Doll with Hoop and the matching toy; at lower right are the drawing and toy Peddler’s Wagon.
Fig. 15. The collection of nineteenth-century playthings spills out of the toy gallery into an adjacent hallway.
Figs. 16a, 16b. Housed in custom-built shelves, the Texan’s vast collection of tin and cast-iron toys evokes the mood and manners of nineteenth-century America—a nation of steamships, railroads and horses, of patriotic festivals and Reconstruction conflicts.
Fig. 17. Residents of America’s combustible nineteenth-century cities honored firefighters in everything from children’s toys to fraternal parading groups. Shown here are a leather ceremonial parade fire hat from the Vigilant Fire Company, c. 1850, and a painted tin clockwork fire pumper by Ives, Blakeslee, and Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, c. 1890.
Fig. 18. Every tin toy on these four shelves was illustrated in American Antique Toys, 1830– 1900, the seminal 1980 book by Bernard Barenholtz, who helped establish the modern taste for these nineteenth-century collectibles. The two pieces on the second shelf appeared on the book’s dustjacket: “Pumper Atlantic” and “Fire Engine,” both by Althof, Bergmann and Company of New York City, c. 1874.
Fig. 19. The Ives Velocipede, also known as a Toy Perambulator, made by the Ives Manufacturing Company in Bridgeport, c. 1870, is fashioned in painted tin with a horse head of japanned cast iron.

Throughout the collection, the quality of the objects is stunning. In the collector’s vast toy display we saw a pristine, unchipped example of a stamped-tin Harwood Patent Horse Toy from about 1875—a plaything that Bernard Barenholtz, in his book American Antique Toys, called the “most graceful of all American tin toys” (Fig. 13). Nearby, the collector showed us one of the earliest commercial toys made in this country: a Taylor Boat, from the 1840s, which was stenciled with the name of America’s twelfth president.

Among the paintings in the collection is John Rasmussen’s luminous, crisply rendered View of the Buildings and Surroundings of the Berks County Almshouse, made in the 1880s (Fig. 10). It had been one of the signature pieces in the Andy Williams collection.

The Texas collector also struck gold at an auction of material from the Esmerian collection, where he bought a hickory ship captain’s cane, topped with a freestanding figure, with details that include a top hat, frock coat, pressed trousers, cane, and crossed arms—all carved from one piece of wood.

Fig. 20. The collector’s attention to detail extended to the custom millwork, flooring and coffered ceilings that run through much of the house. All the wood was milled from trees that were harvested on his land.
Fig. 21. The collector often mixes toys among the scholarly books and auction catalogues he has acquired over a half-century of bidding—a library that is spread among several rooms, including this upstairs landing.
Fig. 22. A nineteenth-century portrait of a man with a pincushion flower, artist unknown, is displayed above another example of the Ives Velocipede
Figs. 23a, 23b. Two views of an upstairs guest room. The Psalm 23 quilt, a masterpiece by Mississippi quilter Lena Moore (d. 1965), c. 1930, was featured on the cover of the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of Folk Art Magazine. Below it is a nineteenth-century blanket chest; also visible is a dresser from the Pennsylvania Soap Hollow group of furniture.

One of the strengths of the collection is the way separate objects buttress each other. The Native American woodwork is displayed in a home office filled with mementos and trophies from the collector’s life as an outdoorsman (Fig. 12). Toy pumpers, ladder wagons, and hose reels are displayed alongside ceremonial parading hats worn by nineteenth-century firefighters. Play- things from Connecticut manufacturer George W. Brown are paired with whimsical watercolor drawings of the same toys, which came from the original designer’s sketchbook (Fig. 14).

The way the collector displays the pieces never overwhelms the comfortable, lived-in feeling of the house. It’s a place for relaxing, just the right size for a couple with grandchildren nearby. And it also provides an immaculate showcase for museum-quality objects. At home, the collector puts aside the business world, and lights and installs each work personally, climbing ladders and pounding nails. To get things right, he often uses an architect’s scale to draw plans for his displays. “I never buy anything without knowing where it will go,” he says. “It has to fit my standards and my walls.”