Claudia Myers column: One man’s treasure is another guy’s trash
We had a short history of buying furniture that was, let us say, out of the ordinary.
DULUTH — In 1969, we moved here and bought a big old Victorian house, complete with stained glass windows, antique chandeliers and a grand entrance staircase. We owned a few bits of furniture but not enough to fill even a quarter of this old house. New furniture was not an option, since the cost of that many pieces was prohibitive and also the 1960s were the hardrock maple Early American era. This house needed oversized carved walnut.
Then, I discovered estate sales. Rushing to get to a sale before closing time, I almost fell over the last piece of furniture left. Well, isn’t that strange? I wonder why that’s still here. Can’t believe no one had snapped up this amazing table. It had an octagon marble top held up by four hand-carved women with wings and large bosoms. I ask you — who wouldn’t want that in their living room? The person running the sale was eager to close and get the heck out of there. She noticed me hovering around the unusual table. “You can have it for $35,” she sang out. Oh boy! That did it! “Look what I found, Tom! A bird lady table!”
Since we had a short history of buying furniture that was, let us say, out of the ordinary, my husband didn’t even blink at a bird lady table. Back in 1961, our first year married, Tom and I had found a “treasure.” There it was, in the window of a secondhand store in Minneapolis: a massive solid oak Empire-style gentleman’s chair, complete with curved wood back, big carved lion claw feet, tattered leather upholstery and erupting springs. We were pretty excited about it and spent many Saturdays scrubbing and sanding on the poor old thing. We got it down to bare wood and stood there looking at it, wondering how you put back the springs and the padding. And where did you get the leather for the upholstery and how did you even get it on there, anyway? So, we loaded it back into the car and gifted it back to the same thrift shop that it came from.
Much of my antique furniture came from Sally, who had an in-house antique shop, about five streets over. She had walnut drop-front desks, marble topped dressers and Victrolas with brass horns. All things I loved. But, you couldn’t just buy whatever you wanted, willy nilly. There was protocol. You visited Sally’s shop, several times, each time hinting at things you might be interested in. Then, finally, Sally would reluctantly put your name on those things, (unless someone’s name was already on there) just in case she ever decided to sell them. No prices were ever discussed. Then, sometimes she would call you up and say, “You know that bedroom set you have your name on? Well you can come and get it, now. The price is $$$” — period, no bickering, no offers. You felt like you had won the lottery! You got to buy the bedroom set. Sally was a smart cookie.
In the 1970s, the American Academy of Dermatology, of which my husband was a member, had their annual winter meeting in Chicago. It was glorious! Staying at the Drake, eating at the Palmer House, getting there just in time to see the many-storied Marshall Fields Christmas tree go up in the center of the department store atrium! While Tom was in his meetings, I would go to the Art Institute and the Science Museum, and usually take a cab to the antique-shop neighborhood to look around. On a nasty, cold day, with wet snow blowing sideways, I found myself in an iffy neighborhood not too far from Old Town. I had already let the cab go a block or two back and the shop I really wanted to go to was locked. The sign said “To the Trade Only.” So I was standing there with my nose mashed against the window, probably looking very pitiful, when the owner poked his head out and said, “Why don’t you come in and warm up?” And that’s how we got the enormous, solid-oak sideboard with the carved people, ornate brasswork and marble top. Just like the bird lady table and the Victorian house, it was just hunkered down there, waiting for me. I asked if I could bring my husband the next day, just to see it. Tom’s first words were, “Well, if you want it, we’ll have to put off the kitchen remodeling another year.” I was astounded! I had no idea we could actually have it! When all 1,200 pounds of it arrived, it was just shy of hitting the 13-foot ceilings, but it couldn’t have been more perfect for the house.
Most of our oversized Victorian Renaissance furniture, including the prized sideboard, made the move to the log house that we built in 1990. And it worked beautifully with the massive Lodgepole Pine logs. But, 23 years later, when we moved back to town, into a one-level house, not only didn’t it fit with the 1950s Prairie Rambler style, it literally “didn’t fit” through the doors.
One thing leads to another, they say. Selling the furniture and other Victoriana led me to rent a booth at a local antique shop and I became a bona fide antique dealer, just like my mom.
Next time: Can I sell you this lovely piece of junk?
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.