Life Begins at Fifty
from American Furniture at Chipstone by Oswaldo Rodriquez Roque, 1983
In February 1946 Mrs. Stone and I embarked, without realizing it, on a new career—collecting American decorative arts. At that time we took our first trip to New York City since the end of the Second World War. One of the things that we wanted to do was to purchase a desk for our use, and whether or not it was new or antique, American or English, was immaterial to us. At this time we knew nothing about antiques, which had never bothered us in the least.
After stopping at several of the English shops on 57th Street, we went in to see Mr. Israel Sack, of whom we had vaguely heard from a friend in Milwaukee. As we got out of the elevator at 5 East 57th Street, we were brought up suddenly by the narrow entry full of furniture; Mr. Sack came out and asked what he could do for us. I said we were looking for a desk. "What kind of a desk?" he asked. "Oh, just a flat-top desk to write on."
Right then and there I was given my first lesson about American antiques, for I was informed:
1. Mr. Sack had no flat-topped desks.
2. All American antique writing desks were fall front.
3. He only had American antiques.
4. "But," and this but was concurrent with my ringing the elevator call button, ‘there was a flat-top desk used by George Washington when the Federal Government was in New York City. It is presently at the Museum of the City of New York, if you care to look at it, and if you wish to have it copied, I can have it done for you."
We went to see the desk, and after looking it over carefully, we returned to his shop to talk over details of having a copy made. While we were there the second time, I went into the front room and saw something tall, well proportioned, perhaps even attractive, and, I hasten to add, made of mahogany. I asked Mr. Sack what it was, and he said; "It is a Salem secretary, but not available, as it is on reserve to a customer of mine." I told him that was all right with me, as I knew nothing about antiques and cared less. We returned home, having decided to have the reproduction of the George Washington desk made. But several weeks later I received a long-distance call from Mr. Sack telling me that the Salem secretary was available (it had been released by his customer). He advised strongly that I should take it, rather than have a reproduction desk made for half as much as the antique would cost. The antique would probably increase in value, whereas the reproduction would lose in value from the moment it was completed. I told him I would let him have my decision by telegram the next morning, which I did. That Salem secretary was our first antique (no. 29).
In June 1946, Mrs. Stone and I went to Boston for a few days, and were able to meet Edwin J. Hipkiss, Curator of European and American Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Hipkiss was one of the most delightful, as well as knowledgeable, people that we had ever met, and he insisted on taking us through the Karolik Collection, which he had played such an important part in forming with Maxim Karolik. While we were having this enjoyable experience, he said to me, "Mr. Stone, how large is your collection?" I gulped, and looking him squarely in the eye said, "Mr. Hipkiss, as of now it consists of just one piece." His answer was, "Well, time will take care of that."
To illustrate our consistency, in September 1946, I wrote a letter to Mr. Sack containing the following unqualified statement: "We do not care for a walnut lowboy." So in December we purchased no. 15.
In September 1946, I wrote to Mr. Sack saying, "We do not care for ball-and-claw-foot furniture." As you look through this book you will see how long we held to that idea.
My prize remark to my wife one day in 1946 was, "Polly! I like this stuff; I may put as much as 25 or 30 thousand dollars into it."
In June 1947 we were in Boston again, and at that time one of those amazing events occurred that almost has to be experienced to be believed. We were walking down Charles Street and naively went into the shop of one of the dealers there, whose name I will refrain from mentioning. A character came up to greet us, and I said (just as if I wanted to buy a suit of clothes), "Do you happen to have a block-and-shell Newport bureau?" He looked at me for a few seconds and said, "Yes. We have one that is exactly what you are looking for." "Well," I said, "Le us see it," and I looked it over carefully, and told him truthfully that I knew very little. But at the same time I took out one of the drawers and began examining it as best I could. He said, "You know more than you admit." "Well," I said, "that may be," and then I asked him, "How much do you want for this?" $3,500.00" was the answer. I then told him quite frankly that I was acquainted with the Curator of the Karolik Collection, and that I was going up to take a look at the four-drawer block-and-shell bureau in that collection, to compare it with the one that he had; and away we went. Fortunately we were able to see Mr. Hipkiss, and he looked at me when I told him where I had been and -what I had seen, and he said sadly, "I wish I could tell you, but let us go and look at our bureau," which we did, and he pointed out some of the things that we should look for. We also took a picture of his bureau back to Charles Street with us, and our friend there, when we entered, said, "Well, you are just too late." I said, "What has happened?" He answered, "While you were gone a fellow from Texas came up in his station wagon, bought the bureau, and it is now on the way home with him." That was the end of that fishy story, except that about 6 o’clock that evening the telephone rang in our room at the hotel, and the voice at the other end said: "Mr. Stone, we have not met, but I am Maxim Karolik. Mr. Hipkiss could not tell you what I can tell you. Please have nothing to do with that bureau. I’m sure, knowing its source, that it is an absolute fake." "Well," I said, "Thank you very much Mr. Karolik, but I am sure, too, that it is a fake, because when we went back to look at it a second time, it had vanished." In future years we became much better acquainted with Maxim, and he was a most inspirational person, whose collections in the fields of American prints and paintings were outstanding; the Karolik Furniture Collection, of course, is truly magnificent.
In May 1947, on the same trip as the one that took us to Boston, we stopped off in New York, and there saw a remarkable block-and-shell double chest from Newport (no. 13). This piece, in very sad condition as to finish and a lack of brasses, had descended in the Bowen family for five generations, and was now owned by the great-greatgrandson of Jabez Bowen, one- time Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island, Charles Gilman Bowen of Tiverton, Rhode Island. It could be the piece mentioned in the correspondence between Moses Brown and John Goddard, for Jabez Bowen was the brother-in-law of Moses Brown, and he was discussed at length in the exchange of letters between them in 1763. At any rate, whether or not it ever belonged to Jabez Bowen, it is outstanding because of its size, balance, and rarity.
In late November 1948, Mrs. Stone and I were in New York. While we were talking to Mr. Sack at 5 East 57th Street, he said: "Mr. Stone, how would you like to own a pair of the labeled Townsend card tables that were in the Flayderman sale?" I could not believe that there was a possibility of this happening, and I told him so. He said, "There is a pair coming up in December at Parke-Bernet, and I think that I could get them for you very reasonably. ... Let’s go over and look at them at the gallery." (At this time Parke-Bernet was at 57th and Madison, just a block from his shop.) Notwithstanding that it was raining very, very hard indeed, we trudged over with umbrellas streaming, and looked the tables over. The upshot was that he bid them in for us at exactly the figure that he said he could (no. 154).
In the spring of 1953, several weeks after I had heard that the Gratz piecrust table (no. 146) was available, and having heard from several reliable sources stories about its great quality, I received a long-distance call from John Walton in New York. He said, "Stanley, would you be interested in owning the best piecrust table?" I answered: "John, you must have the Gratz table." "How do you know?" he asked. "Well, I have heard that it is the best there is, or at least the equal of any, so I assume you own it." "Correct, and are you interested ?" The upshot of these preliminaries was that John Walton drove it out to Milwaukee, and brought along, just as a bit of icing on the cake, a block-and-shell bureau he owned. At one time the bureau had belonged to Joseph Wanton, who was the Tory Governor of Rhode Island before the Revolution (no. 4). He was to arrive on a Sunday, and we waited with mounting anticipation and excitement. He finally came about 9 P.M. with his youngster, then about 17 or 18 years old, whom we tossed into bed, as he was out on his feet. We then began to took over the two pieces, and I spent a completely restless night, seeing tables, bureaus, shrinking bank balances, and playing "Should I or shouldn’t I" and "Am I getting too darned reckless in my old age." At all events, as you can see, we kept them both, and we strengthened our collection very markedly by so doing.
In 1954 John Walton had a Queen Anne stool, obviously from Newport, Rhode Island, with shells on the knees (no. 98)—a great rarity, much sought after. Mrs. Stone and I were in New York before he had received it, but he told us about it, and said he would have it in a week or so. As nearly as I can recollect, this was our conversation: "John, how much do you want for your stool?" He told me. I answered him by saying that’s okay with me; "I’ll take it." He said, "What do you mean you will take it, you haven’t even seen it." I said, "Look, if you think I am going to take a chance on losing that stool to one of your many Eastern collectors, I am just not going to. Is the deal closed?" From him: "Yes, it is; the stool is yours."
Two years later we were able to get a Chippendale New York stool to go with it (no. 99).
In March 1956 we went to Europe, and when we returned, we dropped into John Walton’s and there we saw a truly outstanding Massachusetts bombé secretary of great quality. Coincidentally Maxim Karolik and Ralph Carpenter came in while we were there; the former rhapsodized about the secretary until any doubts that we might have had about it, and I hasten to say they were minor, vanished, and we purchased it (no. 28).
The years following 1946 were extremely propitious for the collecting of all kinds of art objects, both as to available supply and favorable price. I do not think that we could have started our collection after 1960 and have assembled it in anywhere near the variety that was possible in the earlier years.
Gradually, as time carried us along, we began to gain knowledge as a result of learning about and seeing important collections. After we read the introductions to such books as Downs’s American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods, as well as the excellent prose of E. J. Hipkiss in his opening remarks to the book on the M. and M. Karolik Collection, the matter of regional characteristics in our decorative arts assumed ever-increasing importance.
Having lived entirely in a part of the country where "Colonial craftsmen" in the accepted sense did not exist, and knowing nothing about them or their products when we started to collect, we had no partiality toward New England furniture as against Philadelphia, and the same feeling for that of Newport or New York. We just had no knowledge or prejudices for or against one or the other.
As we gained experience we also became partial to certain pieces, and gradually we added examples of what seemed to us outstanding or unique, regardless of where they originated. Nevertheless, our collection contains what I think are examples of high quality from each region. We have attempted to have ample representation of examples from every region, especially Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Philadelphia.
Our collection consists not only of furniture, but also of American historical prints and engravings, as well as pottery mainly from England of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If time allows, there may be publications about each of these fields.
I will not attempt to give credit to the individuals who had a part in bringing this book to completion. Oswald Rodriguez has done a most commendable job, and I hope that collectors as well as the book-buying public agree. The source of each object appears with each entry so that there is no mystery about which dealers assisted us, but since 1955 John Walton has been our main source, and we have been friends over the years.