Aesop's Mirror: A Love Storyby Maryalice Huggins
"Everything I needed to know about Fox and Grapes mirror, I knew the moment I first saw it"
What antiques restorer Maryalice Huggins knew when she stumbled across the mirror at a country auction in Rhode Island was this: She was besotted. Rococo and huge (more than eight feet tall), the mirror was one of the most unusual objects she had ever seen. Huggins had/p>
"Everything I needed to know about Fox and Grapes mirror, I knew the moment I first saw it"
What antiques restorer Maryalice Huggins knew when she stumbled across the mirror at a country auction in Rhode Island was this: She was besotted. Rococo and huge (more than eight feet tall), the mirror was one of the most unusual objects she had ever seen. Huggins had to have it.
The frame's elaborate carvings were almost identical to a famous eighteenth-century design. Could this be eighteenth-century American? That would make it rare indeed. But in the rarefied world of American antiques, an object is not significant unless you can prove where it's from. Huggins set out to trace the origins of her magnificent mirror.
Fueled with the delightfully obsessive spirit of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Aesop's Mirror follows Huggins on her quest as she goes up against the leading lights of the very male world of high-end antiques and dives into the historical archives. And oh, what she finds there! The mirror was likely passed down through generations of the illustrious Brown family of Providence, Rhode Island.
Throughout history, mirrors have been seen as having mystical powers, enabling those who peer into them to connect the past and the future. In Aesop's Mirror, Maryalice Huggins does just that, creating a marvelous, one-of-kind book about a marvelous, one of-a-kind American treasure.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER ONEA Rhode Island Auction
When people discover I am in the antiques business in New York City, they never hesitate to ask my advice. Often, I am invited to their houses to see what they have. In most cases, such hospitality is extended when a change in residence is imminent. After people tell me the stories of how they came upon their cherished antiques, two questions inevitably arise: How much are they worth? And how can we best unload them? Right away, I set the record straight. I am not an appraiser. I am an antiques restorer. I have more exposure than most to the world of dealers, collectors, and specialists, and thus I know a thing or two about old furniture, but I know far from everything. The truth is no one really does.
The question of an antique’s value is tough to answer. It is not like the Blue Book value of a car, although the sale price is based on similar criteria: model, year, and condition. With the market for art and antiques in constant flux, not even the pros can predict with absolute certainty how much pieces will bring. Recent sales of similar things in the same category serve as a barometer for rough estimates only. But what one person chooses to pay for one object, at one particular time, does not always set value. I can attest to this from firsthand experience. Often I have found myself the happy owner of some unusual piece that I possibly have paid too much for. The fact that so few wanted what I now own has not diminished the pleasure of living with my beautiful “mistakes.”
How should you sell your antique, the one you have been hoping will allow you to quit your job and ease you into retirement? If by slim chance you own an outstanding piece with extraordinary, documented provenance, you won’t have to go looking for buyers. Chances are the dealers and specialists already know your name. Eventually they will be in touch. If, on the other hand, what you own is of purely sentimental value, you may as well let it serve its purpose. The rule of thumb for midrange antiques is “Easy to come by, hard to sell.” Such is the world I work in.
In the summer of 1995, a new friend named Tracy Hall told me her family was planning to sell their farm in central Rhode Island, as well as the contents of the outbuildings. Mrs. Miller, Tracy’s mother, had spent sixty years collecting antiques in Rhode Island. At that point, I had spent twenty-five years working in decorative arts, so I offered to go through the family’s household furnishings as a favor. Having never been to their home, I could not wait to see what was there.
Tracy, a top horse handler, is recognized for her ability to work with horses no one else can train, turning wild creatures into Palm Beach polo ponies. The farm where the family lived was used mainly for this purpose. Although I like horses, for me the best vantage for viewing them is at a distance, preferably when they are grazing in a faraway field. Horse people are notorious for clean barns and messy houses, so I happily anticipated finding a trove of neglected antique furniture at the farm.
Navigating the country roads through central Rhode Island, I arrived at Brigadoon Farm in the town of Clayville. The family compound resembled a scene from a Currier & Ives lithograph. Rows of beech trees shaded a split-rail fence that ran along both sides of a long dirt road. Set beyond two granite pillars was an eighteenth-century colonial house bordered by a vast reservoir. As I passed through the opened gate, I could see Tracy, surrounded by a milling assembly of mixed-breed dogs. Tall and lean, she had the erect posture of an equestrian. Her dark hair was tucked behind her ears, her large Prussian blue eyes smiling. Together we walked around the grounds, accompanied by the dog pack crisscrossing our route. On a lawn overtaken by weeds, we passed a disused swimming pool where a broken diving board dangled by the threads of its torn canvas cover at a forty-five-degree angle.
By footpath, we arrived at the edge of a lake. Tucked beneath an umbrella of tall pines were two log cabins built in the 1890s. Unoccupied for years, they were furnished in organic Adirondack decor: chairs and tables were constructed of twisted twigs; chests of drawers covered with peeling white birch bark sat across from metal bedsteads, whose mattresses sagged in the middle like hammocks. On a dressing table, a girl’s vanity set was laid out in a fan-shaped pattern; a hairbrush, comb, and handheld mirror with handles made of walnut burl were placed atop a rust-stained linen table runner embroidered with violets and edged in scalloped crocheted lace.
In contrast to the forlorn cabins, the leather-and-hay-scented barn was immaculate. Only one stall out of the ten was occupied; it belonged to a young, edgy thoroughbred, recently arrived from Virginia. The horse, deemed unworthy of a career on the racetrack, had been destined for the slaughterhouse before Tracy interceded. In the shadowy interior light, we passed a line of tack hanging on beam posts. When we approached his stall, the horse’s eyes flickered with fear. He moved skittishly, scraping the floor with his hoofs. He turned from us and stuck his head out a window that faced the meadow where he longed to run and join his new friend, the goat. Tracy tried to tempt him with an apple, all the while praising him by name in a gentle singsong voice. But the horse could not be swayed by flattery or sweet reward.
Finally, Tracy led me to the carriage house attic. The place was packed tight with layers of stacked furniture, making it impossible to walk around without toppling things. It was hard to see with only shafted light filtering through boarded windows. Tracy turned on the single bare bulb dangling on a cord from a rafter. From my vantage on the top rung of a ladder, most of the furniture appeared to be American. Although authentic, the style was simple country. The painted cottage chests, sets of stenciled Hitchcock chairs, spinning wheels, and primitive tables, although charming, did not strike me as particularly valuable.
The main house had a colonial American character, with most of the original interior architectural features intact. Mrs. Miller’s eclectic collection created a relaxed New England atmosphere. Given that it belonged to a woman with a rack-roofed station wagon and a reputation for mining the fertile antiquing ground Rhode Island once was, it was not as cluttered as I had hoped. I chose a few pieces for my friend to consider keeping, based on decorative charm rather than market value.
Tracy was not interested in any of the inventory. Nothing I could say tempted her. “I am moving across the road to a house my mother gave me,” she said. “I’ve already taken all I want from here.”
That said, there was no point in pressing or continuing to poke around further. I was anxious to see her house across the road, as I was still unconvinced she could not somehow squeeze in a few more antiques.
Once inside her modest two-bedroom house built in the 1940s, I saw Tracy had selected the best of what I had seen that day. A small collection of good early American pieces such as highboys, clocks, and primitive paintings made her home personal and cozy. One piece, however, struck me as incongruous. A Roman garden statue—a lion cub—reclined on the floor between a pair of potted ferns. Its limestone features had softened from years outside. It would be a while before I figured out where it came from.
Several months later, in October 1995, I vacillated about attending the Millers’ auction. Not until the morning of the sale did I decide to go. The clincher for me was the weather and time of year. The sky was cerulean blue, and the sun looked as though it was going to stick around. Instead of being holed up in my New York City apartment, which offered unappealing views of the façade of the Holiday Inn across the street and a symphony of honking taxis and idling tourist buses, I decided the day warranted a trip to New England. The leaves were turning, the autumn air was crisp and earthy. Because during my previous trip I had not seen anything I was dying to have, I headed for “Little Rhody” with empty pockets. Cruising through the center of Clayville, with its white steepled church, Grange building, and tiny post office, I was reminded of photographs in a propane gas company calendar one might receive at Christmastime. I arrived for the preview about forty-five minutes before the auction was to commence and parked my car in line with others on the bank of a freshly cut hayfield.
Mike Corcoran had been chosen to handle the auction. Mike is the best-known society auctioneer in Rhode Island. His clientele is from the old money set; the mansion-encrusted coastline of Newport and Watch Hill has been his primary district. A born showman, he is funny, outrageous, irreverent, and handsome. According to local legend, Mike once was Aquidneck Island’s most desirable bachelor, and so far nothing has changed. He started in the business in the 1950s, working for Gustave White, auctioning off the contents of thirty-room mansions as robber baron descendants either died or grew weary of maintenance and property taxes on their titanic summer residences. If a wealthy buyer or arsonist could not be found, a popular alternative was to gift estates to tax-exempt institutions like the Catholic Church or the Preservation Society of Newport County. Original household furnishings and fine art were offered to the public. These auctions drew dealers from Boston, New York, London, and Paris. Medieval tapestries, Persian rugs, Old Master paintings, and period European furniture were routinely sold under value and carted away by the truckload, ultimately landing in the hands of the next batch of nouveaux riches.
When Mike is not holding on-site sales, he conducts auctions from his own white-shingled warehouse in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The quality of his merchandise varies from the horrible (which he will admit publicly) to meriting the occasional prize. Mike touches everything he sells. He’s tried on an Australian fire brigade helmet and dozens of top hats and derbies. He cracks himself up as he swings a Scottish sword made in 1745 or aims the empty barrel of a broken antique shotgun at people in the audience he pretends to not like. If there is a baby grand on the block, Mike steps off the stage, saunters to the back of the room, and plays a few bouncy jazz riffs from the 1940s. His talent at the keys reels in the old ladies. He will go to any length to keep his audience entertained, integrating those present into the theater of the auction. He never forgets a name, so one doesn’t need a paddle with a number, only to register at the front desk with Elsie, his secretary of forty years. If he spots new faces in the crowd, he walks right up to their seats and in front of everyone asks their names, where they are from, and if they have cash.
A top-notch Newport estate auction will attract hotshot antique dealers to a Corcoran event. But a sale in Clayville, advertised in Antiques and the Arts Weekly and featuring stoneware crocks and spinning wheels, did not lure heavy hitters. Only small-time local dealers and curious neighbors attended the Millers’ auction. Past auctions had prompted me to observe that locals did not go to a Corcoran event with the intention of buying. They came to see Mike’s act under a tent, mingle with friends in privileged surroundings, and enjoy a catered lunch. On this day, I planned to dovetail into that category myself. But one never knows. A testament to Corcoran’s wizardry is his ability to cajole the tightest Yankee into an impulse buy in a matter of seconds. After a sale, a common sight was the remorseful expressions on the victims’ faces as they lined up at the receipt counter. However, because, I’ve been told, Mike neither spends his time studying antiques and art nor pays attention to current market prices, people have been known to score at his estate sales. I was about to do the same.
During the preview, I was surprised to spot two large crated Rococo mirrors leaning against a wall inside the carriage house. One was the most unusual mirror I had ever seen. Rapture and intrigue hit me at once. It was as if my brain was shot with a sudden blast of dopamine, the hormone that neuroscientists believe triggers cognition, motivation, reward, and . . . compulsive gambling.
The frame’s figurative design was based on Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” The carvings displayed a whimsical Rococo repertoire. Frolicking babies carrying baskets of grapes on their heads climbed a ladder across a divided section of glass at the top. Two other babies perched on opposite ledges. One stood beside a rustic, grape-filled bucket while his twin pulled a resisting goat on a leash. From among rocks gushing golden water at the crown, bold clusters of fruit, vines, and flowers cascaded down the sides. Tucked into two central cyma curves at the base, an alert fox sat in the grass with head raised, thirsting for the grapes he could not have. Designers working in London in the eighteenth century often used such allegory. As I gazed at the frame, one in particular came to mind: Thomas Johnson. A master carver and furniture designer, Johnson worked in London in the mid-1700s, at the height of the Rococo period. His first book of plates for carving pieces was published in 1758, and his work became so popular that the core design was reinterpreted in the nineteenth century. The question was, was this mirror made during the official Rococo period in the eighteenth century, or was it manufactured later?
The word Rococo is derived from the French word rocaille (rocky), and the Rococo style evolved from the weightier seventeenth-century Italian Baroque. The Rococo movement originated in France in the eighteenth century and was promoted by Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s trendsetting mistress and patron of the arts. From Versailles the style quickly spread to every nation in Europe. Like the lifestyle emphasized at the French palace, the compositions are lighthearted and gay.
Hallmarks of Rococo design are its asymmetrical proportions, made up of scrolls, curves, and surprising forms. Carved and gilded ornaments convey the interaction between man and nature in a surreal world filled with action and fantasy. Wild beasts and putti often appear amid masses of intertwining foliage, shells, rocks, and dripping water. Chinoiserie characters holding umbrellas, seated on raised platforms beneath pagoda roofs, are often part of the design. These, plus baskets, fruit, flowers, trophies, and human masks are frequently cast together in a variety of schemes meant to jolt the imagination and evoke timeless stories and fables.
For collectors of Rococo, the period from 1730 to 1770 is the most desirable. Indisputably, the art of carving both in France and England was at its apex then. Two artisans collaborated: the carver and the gilder. But the success of the end product depended on the gilder’s finesse at tooling into thin layers of white gesso built up with a brush over the raw wood. The gilder’s smoothing of the gessoed surface, carving of tiny veins on leaves, and creation of intricate patterning on flat planes all lent refinement and dimension, enhancing the effect of shadow and light once the piece was sheathed in gold leaf and raised decoration burnished with an agate-tipped tool.
In the 1830s the Rococo style experienced a revival in Europe and America, which lasted well into the 1870s. Familiar designs were reintroduced and reinterpreted. And thanks to the advance in technology, for the first time in history enormous glass plates were within the means of the expanding bourgeoisie. But there was a difference.
Mass production of mirror frames became cheaper when the woodcarver and gesso worker could be eliminated. Cast plaster often replaced solid wood. Identical pieces were cranked out in volume to satisfy the droves of people who could not tell the difference between them and artful, custom-made pieces and who were not inclined to pay or wait for something better. In the Victorian age of clutter, there were vast rooms to fill and walls to cover. If mirrors were large, ostentatious, and covered in shiny gold, most customers were satisfied.
What puzzled me about this mirror was that its size appeared to be Rococo revival while the primitive carvings on the frame were reminiscent of the eighteenth-century American school. Then there was the matter of inconsistency. Some sections were artfully managed, while others were handled awkwardly. The carver excelled at fruit and flowers, whereas his human figures were disproportionate, static, squashed, and quirky, strikingly similar to those on American labels, etchings, and paintings from the mid-1700s through the 1830s. Perhaps what one famous observer said about furniture could apply to a mirror. Thomas Jefferson, who preferred to buy his own in Paris, noted, “Furniture of quiet elegance could be made in Philadelphia, as well as furniture with burdens of barbarous ornament.” Indeed, the Fox and Grapes mirror, raucous and bold, had nothing “quiet” about it.
It was this primitive, self-taught American-like quality to its figures that attracted me to the Fox and Grapes frame. If it was made even as early as 1800—rather than in the 1830s—the mere thirty-year difference would substantially increase its value. If that were the case, it would rise above the category of simply decorative and might almost be museum-worthy. Regardless, in my long career as a restorer and gilder of mirrors, I had never come across one like it.
Colonial mirrors made between 1760 and 1800 have always presented experts with problems determining country of origin: England versus America. In the mid–eighteenth century, shops along America’s Eastern Seaboard regularly carried imported English-looking glasses as well as frames. Despite the colonists’ hatred of the English, almost everything made in England was precisely what everyone wanted to own. But imported mirror plates were often refitted to frames made by colonial craftsmen. Carvers and furniture makers working in places like New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia used British design books as they strove to imitate the much sought after English models. Artisans took license in reinterpreting forms according to their own skills and their clients’ budgets. Though England’s Rococo period was winding down in the 1770s, the style remained popular in America, where it extended to as late as 1800.
Unfortunately, the original glass had been replaced in the Fox and Grapes mirror. This would detract from its value and create one more obstacle in determining the frame’s age. It was hard to say when the change had been made. Judging from the thickness and clarity of the glass, my off-the-cuff guess was that it had been replaced after 1850. Earlier mercury-backed glass plates blemish over time, one reason why so few examples exist. As the art of mirror making improved, people often pitched out tarnished glass for more reflective surfaces. Even American mirrors displayed in museums seldom hold their original plates of glass.
Another tall gilded Rococo mirror stood beside the Fox and Grapes. A shell adorned the crown, and from there, flowers and graceful leaves descended, looping around ten divided glass sections. This ornate yet refined mirror was a perfect example of high standard 1860s Rococo revival. The frame was in pristine condition and had never been restored. The original glass was spotted with age. Harmonious proportions made it pleasing, and the vibrant carvings were of wood rather than composite. It was not common to find a revival frame made entirely of wood. As mentioned, cast plaster over wood was generally the method for producing frames during the later part of the nineteenth century. A Victorian with a discerning eye and a flush bank account had purchased it. This mirror’s flawless state guaranteed a quick sale to one of my decorator clients in either New York or California.
Outside on the lawn was what appeared to be an American Greek Classical sofa. It was so shocking to see it there, my first thought was that it was a reproduction. Several dealers gathered around the sofa. I tried not to generate more interest by getting too close. A top-quality antique here in Clayville seemed too good to be true. The days of finding treasures in attics and barns were over.
Yet, even from a distance, the proportions of the sofa looked right and period. A pair of dolphins constituted the arms and extended to the feet. The sculptural form, bold and sleek, manifested exquisite balance and grace. In place of fins, long leaves suggestive of wings lent the piece lightness, as though at any moment it might lift and fly away to a mythological island in Greece.
In early America, maritime merchants were the main clients to order pieces featuring the benevolent dolphin, believed to rescue drowning sailors. Cetaceans had long been described as the embodiments of peace and uncontained joy, and as guides to another world.
After the dealers moved on, I planted myself in front of the sofa. Brown, gloomy paint applied after the date of production covered the dolphins’ bodies. At closer range, a glint of gold flashed in the sunlight from beneath a tiny chip in the paint. My heart raced when I realized the original gold and the wash of blue-green verdigris on the scales might still be intact. My restoration skills began to click in. I visualized how the sofa had looked originally and the steps I would take to salvage what I hoped was still there. Low-relief carvings of oak leaves and raised acorns in tight-grained mahogany flanked the upper back rail. There, the crackled finish looked old and perfect. The bulky Victorian springs in the seat could easily be replaced with its intended webbing. A few rosewood veneer sections on the front rail were missing, as was a hardwood seat stretcher and both fishtails on the arms. Other than those minor shortcomings, the sofa had survived relatively unscathed. The distinct design fit squarely into the Classical period, around 1825. It was just what the antiques community could relate to and thus a safe purchase for quick resale. Having expected nothing so tempting, I kicked myself for how financially unprepared I was to participate in the sale. If I could buy the couch at the right price, it would defray the cost of the one piece I now wanted more than anything: the Fox and Grapes mirror. I went to register with Elsie at the picnic table that served as Corcoran’s makeshift desk. I couldn’t let the sofa vanish into an antiques dealer’s van.
With time to kill before the auction, I returned to the carriage house to inspect the mirrors again. Whereas the dolphin sofa was easy to identify, pigeonholing the Fox and Grapes mirror was a conundrum. I managed to get Tracy’s attention as she walked by.
“Where did these things come from?” I asked, pointing to the mirrors. “Were they here when I came by this summer?”
She confessed she had not seen the mirrors, which had been sealed in their crates for forty years until just a few days ago. She briefly explained that several of the mirrors, as well as some other items, had come from an estate in Providence called the Woods-Gerry Mansion. The hyphenated name stood for the two prominent families who had once lived there. The Woodses were the original owners of the house, built in the mid—nineteenth century. In the 1950s, Tracy’s father had purchased the property and quickly sold it to the Rhode Island School of Design. The goods inside were shipped to Clayville and had remained in storage in the barn ever since. That was all Tracy was willing to offer me at that moment. With the auction about to start, she grew distracted and scurried off into the crowd.
I compared the two mirrors. Though the gilding was hard and bright on the revival mirror with the shelled crown—the workmanship so flawless it had survived 120 years of domestic use followed by 40 years in an unheated barn—it was, as they say disparagingly in the antiques world, just decorative.
To me it lacked the soul of the Fox and Grapes mirror. Although I knew many might prefer the more traditional revival mirror, I was enchanted by the awkwardly carved figures on the Fox and Grapes.
Thomas Johnson’s designs were challenging and time-consuming to produce. As a result, most of his volumes of etched plates remained on paper, serving only as inspiration. The carver of the Fox and Grapes frame had clearly struggled to interpret a complex design scheme that stretched him beyond his range. Despite this struggle, he had, with determination, found his own way. I admired his courage to undertake one of Johnson’s most replicated works, however incapable he was of giving the figures true proportion and movement. The carver’s naïve hand and subject matter lent a gentle humor that resonated with me. The potbellied babies echoed American folk art simplicity. His unique interpretation was seductive. The carving stood outside the standards by which most objects are judged. Personal and individualistic, to me the frame was a work of art. It had a pulse. It had life.
The three pieces I wanted stood apart from everything else the Millers put up for sale that day. Their preference for colonial furnishings made it clear that flashy gold mirrors were not their style. The two mirrors and the Classical sofa had a sense of formality about them, signaling to me they were part of a group that had originally belonged to a sophisticated family of city dwellers. Despite the different periods, they were bound by a single thread: a generational insistence on quality.
My dilemma was that I wanted both mirrors: one for quick sale, the other for love. And I was determined that the gutsy Classical sofa, the unquestionable prize of the day, would be mine as well. Because of my financial circumstances, it seemed unrealistic that I would be able to have everything. To pacify the voice of reason, I played a familiar game: “If I had to choose just one thing, which would it be?”
My short-lived exercise in compromise was futile. Acting like a true dealer, I decided to buy everything and figure out how to pay for it later. I justified my behavior by relying on a platitude always handy when a situation felt scary but my instincts screamed I was right: “Everything that is meant to be will work out as it should.” It was stupid not to have prepared for the auction, but I quickly forgave myself by recalling one of my aunt Googie’s many aphorisms: “He who acts too late misses the opportunity.”
Out on the lawn, Mike Corcoran was working the crowd, shaking hands, asking women about their families, and saying hello to as many people as he could in fifteen minutes. “How ya doin?” I’d hear him cheerily ask passersby. Should anyone get too chatty before an auction, Mike’s cutoff line is “Huh. Is that so?” His expression is sympathetic, but with the show about to begin, the eyes read “gotta go.” I overheard a woman with an earnest face ask if he could tell what period a chair was from. Mike, who detests any sort of pretension, took a moment before saying, “That, my dear, is from the lousy period.” She stood flabbergasted while he waved his hand over her head to a dealer in the distance.
The auction was about to start. “Okay! Everybody ready?” Mike called out to a circling crowd, rubbing his palms together. “Let’s get started!” People hurried to stake their positions under the white tent. Dealers stood on the periphery near the tent poles, arms folded, intently looking straight ahead. I took a seat in the middle.
At each auction, Mike chooses someone in the audience as straight man for his jokes. This day it was an elderly gentleman with a florid face, sitting front row center.
“Hi, Judge,” Mike said. “How ya doin today? Good? Great! Now, let’s begin with the rugs. Murf, bring that Chinese one up here.”
With humor as his selling tool, once Mike gets people laughing, he digs in. “This rug is eight by twelve. It’s in pretty good condition except for”—he poked a finger through—“one small hole in the middle. Who’ll start the bidding at two hundred dollars? Two hundred dollars, anyone? How about a hundred? Jim, you in at a hundred? Yes! Good. I have a hundred. Anyone want to give me one fifty? Yes! And now I have one fifty. Do I hear one seventy-five? No? Okay. Take it away, Bruce, for one fifty! Good goin, Bruce! Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce comes to Rhode Island about twice a year all the way from Albany to buy things from us, and we appreciate that. He gets some good buys here. That’s why he always comes back.”
Four men carried an Edwardian pedestal table up and tilted it onto its side so everyone could see the figured top. “Lot fifteen is a dining room table with four leaves. Walnut, I believe. Look at that carving! Who’ll open the bid at five thousand?” When no one raised a hand, Mike tried again. “How about twenty-five hundred for the table? Okay. I have two thousand. Do I have any takers for twenty-five? Yes, I do! Tom, you’re in at twenty-five. Now I have three thousand from Jackie. Thirty-five anywhere? Ed, you’re in at thirty-five.” Mike noticed that Ed still had his hand in the air even though the audience had stopped bidding. “Ed,” Mike said, shaking his head. “I already have your bid. Never bid against yourself. That’s the cardinal rule. Any increases? Tom? Any interest? Nope. Tom doesn’t want it. Sold to Ed Collins for thirty-five hundred dollars. Nice buy, Ed! Next we have a set of six dining chairs.”
The last bidder, Ed, interrupted the proceedings. “Wait, Mike, I thought the chairs went with the table. I misunderstood. I can’t take the table without the chairs.”
“What are you talking about?” Mike snapped. “This is an auction. You own the table!”
“Mike, I’m sorry.” Ed sounded embarrassed. “I can’t buy it without the chairs.”
“Okay,” Mike said disgustedly. “Jackie, you were the last bidder at three. Do you still want the table for three?”
“No, Mike,” Jackie replied, relieved she didn’t get the table after all. “I thought the chairs went with the table, too.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Mike announced. “I’m going to start over. This time it’s just the table. Everyone clear about that? Here we go.”
The judge bid the table up to $3,000, but a second after Mike declared the item sold, a voice chimed in from the sideline offering more.
“Too late,” Mike said. “You’re out. The judge got it. A judge always trumps the layperson.”
China cups and plates went quickly and cheaply to the first bidder because Mike is bored by selling the little stuff. The audience was getting distracted. The din of private conversations was drowning out Mike’s voice. Something had to be done to rein in attention. Desperate, Mike resorted to one of his old standbys. Holding up a giant porcelain punch bowl, he spun it on the tip of his fingers, then, using both hands, tossed it into the air and offstage, where it was caught below by Murphy, his assistant. This trick, which I’ve seen him use many times, never fails to elicit great gasps. The bowl, unsurprisingly, is never very valuable.
As the auction progressed, I focused on what I wanted while candlesticks, drop-leaf tables, and an assortment of housewares were sold and carried off by hand and dolly. (To this day I regret not bidding on an American eighteenth-century bonnet-top highboy that went for a price equal to that of a pair of shoes at Bergdorf Goodman.) An hour into the session, the sofa appeared. Two staff members, grabbing opposite arms, hoisted it above the heads of the spectators. The price was climbing at a clip in $500 increments. Suddenly, the bidding slowed down, hovering around $5,000. The auctioneer was pressing for $5,500. As the audience grew quiet, I shouted, “Fifty-three hundred.”
Mike did his best to humiliate me for beating him down a measly $200. Rolling his eyes and swerving side to side, he shot me a flirty grin. The man was worth every penny of his 15 percent commission. With his left hand in his coat pocket, the right hand pointed two fingers to the crowd from an outstretched arm. He challenged his audience to top me. Mike allowed silence to last for ten seconds to give people the opportunity to think before the gavel hit the block. With nothing more he could do to escalate the price, he leaned forward from his pulpit and, in a pope-like gesture, bowed his head and swept his arm over the crowd. Looking up, he solemnly announced, “Sold. To the lady from New York City.” There was an instant burst of applause, a display of support I had never experienced at a city auction.
At a city auction, every attendant’s pinkie is raised to brow while the other hand jots down the hammer price in the margins of a catalog. The Clayville crowd was different. In unison, all turned in their seats to get a look at the sucker from the city willing to pay what they felt was a hefty price for a ratty old sofa in serious need of new upholstery.
The Fox and Grapes mirror was next. Mike knew I wanted it, and it was to his advantage to keep his winning streak going by focusing on me. Because the piece was so broken, and so cumbersome, it had remained stowed in the carriage house during the auction. Without the advantage of a refreshing second look, attendees had to rely on their short-term memories to decide how much they would pay for it. In broad daylight, the mirror’s condition would become more obvious and discouraging.
I was optimistic about the lowball figure Mike had quoted me earlier in the day, when we were face-to-face in the driveway. His hands in the pockets of his Harris Tweed jacket, he had been nonchalant. “About a thousand,” he’d said. Intuitively, he knew how to deliver the right answer: the one I wanted to hear. Like every victim of a salesman, I believed him. A tolerable price, I thought, for what I recognized as one hunk of a gorgeous piece in need of months of restoration.
It did not help that Mike had purposely announced my New York City residency to the crowd after my successful bid on the sofa, falsely signaling that I was either a dealer or a savvy collector. After that, people assumed I knew something they didn’t, which resulted in a contagious round of auction fever. Why was it, I asked myself, that whenever I really wanted something at auction, regardless of its limited value, one paddle-wielding maniac inevitably appeared who wanted the same thing based solely on the fact that I did? Predictably, my contender erupted out of the sidelines just as the bidding came to a crawl. When I turned around in my seat to see who I was up against, I spotted him right away. With his legs spread and his hands clasped tightly behind his back, he winked at me, his face plastered with a self-satisfied smirk. I was certain he was not any more informed about the history or value of this mirror than I. He was obviously a dealer out on a limb, and his audacious bid for something so atypical was as perplexing as it was infuriating.
Briefly I considered dropping out of the bidding war and letting the little guy in the back overpay through the nose. But I ended up paying more than eight times Corcoran’s earlier estimate. My victory instantly morphed into a malaise of buyer’s remorse. I did not need a huge restoration project for which I would not be paid. Every square inch of floor space in my studio in Manhattan was booked weeks in advance for antique furniture belonging to actual paying clients. The mirror was too tall and too grand to go on the wall of my nondescript New York apartment, and I was not keen on the idea of hauling it to my house on Block Island by ferry. If I ever decided to sell it, I might have a difficult time finding a buyer who was as drawn to its primitive beauty as I was. Nonetheless, the mirror was now mine.
In all, I purchased two ballroom-size mirrors—the revival shell-topped piece from the 1860s and the Fox and Grapes—a six-foot-tall mirror with a gilded bolection frame, the sofa, and some worthless bric-a-brac Corcoran bamboozled me into buying: the inevitable outcome of attending a Corcoran auction. I had no clue how I would pick up the five-digit tab for the day’s spending spree. Even the shipping cost was more than I could come up with on the spot.
Calculating the damage, I had to think of something fast. In a dazed state I wandered into the main house to make a phone call. I regretted my standing disregard for money, a proud attitude that up until this moment I had never questioned. Moral and legal questions raced through my mind. Was it against the law to buy at auction when unable to settle the bill? Did the town of Clayville have a sheriff? Would the Millers sue?
Everything inside the house had been sold except a series of large, dingy paintings, the canvases glued to wooden panels. On the kitchen linoleum I spotted a black rotary phone. Sitting on the floor among packing materials, I placed the phone on my lap. With both hands frozen on the receiver, I summoned strategy. Since I seldom looked at my checkbook, I had no estimate of my available funds. My accounting method generally fell into the realm of vagary.
With not a little trepidation, I called the bank. Dialing zero, I spoke with a representative who told me my account held $900 and went on to explain how to apply for a loan. I would have to go back to New York, meet with an officer, sign a document in her presence, and wait over a week to be approved. By this time, my auction euphoria had been supplanted by embarrassment and fear. I considered making an arrangement with Mrs. Miller, whom I did not really know, to pay her in the near future. It seemed likely I might have to head back to New York and secure a business loan, thus establishing myself with a line of credit for what appeared to be my new sideline career as an antiques dealer.
With the auction over, Mrs. Miller, Tracy, and Mike Corcoran stood together talking beside some foldout display tables. I casually joined the circle. “Would it be okay with you if I paid you next week for the things I bought today?” I timidly asked. Like Pompeian statues, the cluster locked eyes on me. The star bidder, the New Yorker who had outwrangled all (for the most expensive pieces), was a potential deadbeat. Without awaiting further cue, I assured them of a check later in the day, to unison nods and faint smiles. Eyes glued to the ground, I marched back to the kitchen for fresh ideas.
Tapping family connections seemed my only option. Some went unconsidered, most being in similar straits as I. But there was one black sheep in the family who had the good sense to have a conventional job. My younger brother, Bill, was an upstanding mortgage banker and lived in Rhode Island. Miraculously, he was at home when I called.
I tried my best to explain my bind. To put it in his terms, I was asking for an instant loan of a sum that could be a down payment on a waterfront condominium.
“I’m quite desperate to be able to pay my bill at the moment,” I said, sounding like an Edith Wharton character on a losing streak at cards. “Just by selling one of the very valuable things I bought today, I am certain I will be able to pay you back in no time. I’ll share some of the profits with you. How about that?”
“Well, Mary,” Bill said, after a pause, “I suppose you know what you’re doing. You’ve been at this antiques thing for a long time. Twenty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money, so give me a few hours to make arrangements.”
I walked around the house’s empty rooms until I felt calm enough to go back outside. Bursting with confidence thanks to my generous brother, I strode across the lawn to join Mrs. Miller, Mike, and Tracy, and reassure them of a check by late afternoon. They seemed so relieved that I was invited to join the Miller family for a celebratory lunch at their favorite diner, the Shady Acres.
As people organized to leave, I went back to look at the mirrors I now near-legally owned. I packed the loose elements lying at the bottoms of the crates into a paper bag for safekeeping. Standing in a corner where the mirrors were arranged, I saw my image at two angles. Something mysterious seemed to be taking place. “From antiquity onward, mirrors were believed empowered to capture the souls of those reflected in their lifetimes.” I had to wonder, was there something to that? I felt charged with a sensation subtly electromagnetic. The spooky idea that the spirits of the dead could contact the living through mirrors oddly enough seemed rather possible.
The sum I paid for the fable mirror was nothing compared with what it was to cost me in the future. Owning it was like owning a beloved pet elephant that followed me around, forcing me to keep working in order to feed and house it. But that’s love for you. You don’t keep tabs.
Copyright © 2009 by Maryalice Huggins
All rights reserved
Distributed in Canada by D&M Publishers, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
First edition, 2009
Meet the Author
Maryalice Huggins is a restorer and gilder of antique mirrors. She has worked for museums, interior decorators, and private collectors. She lives in Middletown, Rhode Island.
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