Friday, August 26, 2011

Treasure Hunting - Ignorance Is Golden

I have just spent a wild two weeks digging in gold country, not for gold nuggets mind you, but for other buried treasures. You would think that great finds would be few and far between in the middle of nowhere, but this trip has been absolutely brilliant! 

I started out early each day, navigating open highways, then two lane roads that eventually turned into spooky dirt roads punctuated with abandoned, rusted-out pickup trucks and fallen down clapboard lean-tos. 

These roads sometimes lead to a once grand Victorian mansion down a shady lane, glorious in former days, its gaily painted gingerbread now faded and peeling, its handmade sign announcing its new life as an antique store.

I love when shops bust at their seams with any and all manner of things. Like a natural high, I thrive on the process of sorting through the chaos, digging through the layers of time and brushing away the dusty silt of history to reveal the signature of a great master, once heralded, now forgotten, primed to be rediscovered by today's savvy collectors. 

It was down a dusty road like this, while following a sign directing me to the historic downtown that I came across some of my first fabulous finds. 

The historic downtown turned out to be a one block long transplant from the Old West. The first shop was jam packed with the same chipped china patterns that I always see, so I left. Across the street was a storefront with an impressive assortment of antique suitcases and vintage embroidered Western shirts. The shop was overloaded with frocks, frills and tarnished silver. After flipping through countless moth-eaten frock coats and unraveling lacy petticoats, I came upon a giant snake-charmer's basket overflowing with silk scarves. Like a clown trick, one after another, I pulled out psychedelic, op-art Vera scarves until I reached the bottom and pulled out the most magnificent blue silk Schiaparelli scarf, as voluminous as a schooner's sail. 

That same day, I decided to drive ridiculously far to a one horse town where I had once by chance happened upon an excellent antique fair. Unfortunately, it was Monday and I soon discovered that all of the antique stores were closed. I decided to walk the main drag, hoping to come upon an open shop so that I could quell my itch to find something new. Empty storefronts were now occupied with temporary operations selling well-used children's gear like duct taped strollers with wobbly wheels. 

Next door was an old-timer's steakhouse called the Palomino Room. It was around the corner from a delightful establishment named Miss Bunny's End-Up Bar.

I wandered into a Western wear store and asked the saleslady if she knew of any shops that sold "different kinds of things". She directed me two miles up Main Street, past Antelope Road, with the directions "you can't miss it, it's between the Holiday Market and the Long John Silver's". 

Inside, there was row after row of bric-a-brac on shelves that betrayed the location as having once been a convenience store. The first thing that caught my eye was a gorgeous black and apple green Murano glass ashtray. Its sexy, voluptuous form seemed to still be molten, the glossy green inside flecked with gold aventurine. This glass piece was sitting on top of a long, clear glass topped vitrine.  I scanned the vitrine with eagle-eyed intensity at the random, crappy jewelry and dimestore watches that you always see. Suddenly, as if hit in the eye with the beam of a pen flashlight, a glint of gold emerged from the muck. Sitting there on the top shelf of the glass case was a large, gold brooch in the shape of an Aztec warrior mask. 

This brooch was clearly made of gold, with finely cast features that were powerful and haunting, with a beard of golden teardrops. I turned the piece over to examine its maker's mark. On the back it read "Marbel, Mexico". This was to my surprise, astonishingly, a creation of the genius Mexican metalsmith Salvador Teran, cousin of the great Los Castillos brothers. Besides being one of the most accomplished silversmiths of his time (the 50's and 60's) he also created fantastic mosaic pieces for both the wall and the tabletop. 

                                                                                available here

This fantastic gold brooch was made especially for the glamorous Marbel department store of Mexico City. How such an unusually beautiful and obscure piece of jewelry history ended up in this glass case in the middle of nowhere next to broken toasters and faux Hummel figurines is anyone's guess. Discoveries like this keep me searching further out down the road. Needless to say, I grabbed up the gold fast, paid and got out of there. 

The next day, while exploring the country backroads, I discovered a small, nondescript shopping center with a grocery store, a bait and tackle shop and the ubiquitous Western wear and saddlery. In this strip mall I found a shop that was half animal shelter, half antique emporium. Serenaded by yipping, yapping and constant meowing, I set upon finding something interesting. On a tall shelf, crammed between souvenir ash trays from unsavory destinations and wind-up, sad-faced angel music boxes, I glimpsed a porcelain cream and sugar set that I immediately recognized as being both genuine art nouveau and as pieces of extremely fine quality. The patterning was refined. The hand painted lines and gold banding initially reminded me of favorite Egyptian revival pieces, but the motifs spoke more of a Viennese taste, therefore older. I gently flipped the sugar bowl over and was thrilled to see a hand painted mark that read "Jul. H Brauer, Hand Painted China". Knowing I had a rare treasure, I carefully removed the creamer, hoping that the teetering tower of ashtrays wouldn't come crashing down. At the cash register, I asked the shopkeeper/kennel operator if she knew anything about the pieces and she looked at the bottom of the sugar bowl and said "These aren't anything special, just some not-so-old dishes made in China". Laughing hysterically inside of my head at the woman's sheer ignorance in not knowing the difference between hand painted china and Made in China, I smiled, paid and left the store. 

This stunning cream and sugar set was designed and painted between 1910 and 1920 by the famous Pickard Chicago Porcelain Company and Limoges artist Julius Brauer, who after leaving Pickard and taking their best artists with him, started his own workshop, producing fantastically beautiful pieces that are now quite scarce. In my hands I held pieces of decorative art history, just waiting to sit proudly on a fine silver tray in a beautifully appointed room, appreciated for their elegant good looks and fascinating history.

On my last weekend in gold country, I woke early to attend two estate sales. At the first sale, after the crowd's mad rush through the door, I was astonished to see these people, whom I was sure were educated pickers, grabbing everyday household items like old Bundt cake pans and napkin holders, failing to size up the contents of the house, missing the fact that this woman, while she was alive, had amassed a very fine collection of Asian porcelain.

While making my rounds, I noticed a glass fronted china hutch that people kept running past without looking in. Inside was a beautiful set of fine porcelain rice bowls and condiment dishes, as well as a lovely, small hand painted Chinese tea pot. When I flipped one of the rice bowls over, I saw that it had a yellowed label from an auction house with a lot number and an inscription that read "Japanese Imari, over 100 years old". The pieces were in fabulous condition, their indigo and rust decorations clear and vivid.

At the second estate sale, I made my way around the many rooms, circling back countless times as to not miss anything. I noticed a cardboard box containing various perfume bottles. On closer inspection, I realized that they were clearly crystal. When I asked about them, the person running the sale said that no one was interested in them because they were plain glass, without decoration. I took all four, as well as a flowered hat box containing a wonderful, veiled white French hat. When I got the perfume bottles back to my room, while examining the largest one, I was extremely excited to see the identifying mark of early Baccarat crystal etched into the bottom. This perfume bottle, insultingly accused of being plain and unadorned glass was, in fact, a very fine and beautiful antique French Baccarat crystal perfume bottle from around 1905 that had been passed down and clearly loved by this woman, kept and treasured for over one hundred years.

One of the other perfume bottles had a beautiful design with a distinctive wave shaped stopper. The bottle itself felt wonderful in the hand, its sides softly grooved to fit a woman's fingers. On the bottom of the bottle, it was marked "Zofaly, France". After much research, I discovered that it once contained the famous scent named "Passion de Zofaly" from 1946.

These rare treasures, temporarily lost to time, often misunderstood or overlooked, are mine and my vintage collectors reward for weeks of digging, not for gold, but for beauty.

If you have any stories of similar discoveries, we would love to hear them!

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