We’re taking a brief break from this week’s nightlife programming to bring you this special report. Regular snark resumes with the next post.
It’s not a secret that I work in a museum. I operate in a world of objects that cannot be touched, sat upon, slept in, worn– you get the idea. Well, sometimes things that I believe belong in a museum don’t end up in one. Sometimes beautiful objects with great stories and deep resonance with the museum I think they belong in don’t make it there. Sometimes museum professionals take phone calls from irate family members who are incensed that you’re even talking to someone in the family about how to organize their materials. Sometimes objects do make it, but then, before the paperwork is executed, the gift is rescinded. People get weird about stuff.
Sometimes they get weird about stuff because of what it’s worth. Eleven years ago, a family chose not to fight over objects, but instead sold their family furniture. They grossed nearly $13 million. Thirteen Million Dollars: Enough for a baker’s dozen of Dr. Evils. With chairs that sell for $204,000 (Sale 8278, lot 586), it’s no wonder people get weird about stuff because of money.
Lot 586. It’s a pity the catalog is no longer available online, but even Sotheby’s has to conserve server space. It was a beautiful chair: a 1763 upholstered easy chair– upholstered by Plunket Fleeson of Philadelphia.* I pored over that catalog page in the Important Americana sale catalog. It would have come in just before Christmas, or just after, slick clay-coated pages printed with fine ink. When the auction catalogs arrive at work, we stand in the kitchen-mail room and bury our noses deep in the gutter: smells like money.**
I wanted that chair, Lot 586, that walnut easy chair made in Philadelphia. Wrong town, you say? Mais non, Philadelphia was the place to buy fancy goods– especially upholstered goods– in the 18th century. Providence merchants were trading with Philadelphia, the town that set the style for the colonies.*** It was sophisticated, urbane, refined. So, when Sarah Brown was pregnant with their first child, John Brown sent to Philadelphia for an easy chair. It would be the best.
He’d already ordered a tea table and roundabout chairs from Newport at the time of his marriage in 1760. These objects were about more than function: they were signifiers of taste and sensibility as much as wealth. So, as the time came closer for Sarah’s confinement, John Brown became increasingly agitated with Plunket Fleeson, who was delaying the delivery of the chair. John Brown was concerned for Sarah’s comfort postpartum, and said so in a letter. I can’t quote or link to it, because it’s in private hands, quoted in the catalog entry for lot 586.****
So what about that chair? Well… I got permission from the Authorities (a Board-level committee, with the support of the Executive Director) and we bid on the chair by phone. You know already we were not the winning bid. We were willing to bid a lot– really, a lot of money for us– for this chair.
Not because it’s worth so much. Not because of Plunket Fleeson, or the quality of the carvings, or the craftsmanship, really.
Because Sarah Brown sat in that chair cradling her son, James Brown, in 1763. She sat in that chair with the children who came after him, the babies who lived, and the babies who died.
Because that chair told a story about a family, about a relationship between a husband and wife, a man and a woman, at its most basic level.
That chair told a story about love.
Even I am a sucker for love.
Love is why people get weird about stuff, about the chairs, the family photos, the workbaskets, heck– the drill presses. We imbue objects with meaning, with memories, that substitute for the people we love when they’re gone. Sometimes it’s a t-shirt that smells of a lover. Sometimes it’s sewing basket used by three generations of women. And sometimes it’s a chair.
In the case of the easy chair, imagining the cradling comfort of the chair and the memories it recalls is simple. In the case of, say, shield back side chairs, the leap is a little harder. But perhaps– just perhaps– arranged around a festively set table, those chairs conjure memories of holiday meals, birthday dinners, graduation parties. Maybe those chairs take you back to the people and times when you felt loved.
Or maybe they’re worth $100,000, and you consign them to auction.
But if you value the story as much as the object, here’s the funny thing: you can keep that memory forever, and share the story with everyone, if you give that object to a museum.*****
When people really love an object and are fighting with their families over who gets to keep the things, I don’t play Solomon. I tell them a story about memory, and preservation, and about endurance. Sometimes I can convince them. Sometimes I can’t.
When I can’t, I tell them I understand, and that my priority– and my institution’s priority– is not things, but people. They can keep their object: we’ll be here when they’re ready. It’s all true, and I do mean it.
But inside, I feel like Indiana Jones, soaking wet on the deck of a pitching ship.
That belongs in a museum.
*If money were no object, I’d buy it for that name alone.
**The quality decreased in 2008, when the financial crisis hit everybody hard, but the paper weight and ink have been creeping back up in quality of late.
***I know, it sounds crazy now, but it was true. At the time of the American Revolution, it was the second largest English speaking city in the world, after London.
****You are correct, sir: I’d like the letter book it’s in, too.
*****Subject to acceptance. Some rules and regulations apply. Leaning is touching. Don’t lick it.