Just a plate.
A cake plate. A nice size, a full foot across, embellished by deep pink roses and lilies of the valley.
Just a plate. But a plate belonging to my great-great-grandmother, name of Brown Coats, resident of tiny Greenfield, Tennessee, where she lived with four generations of her family on Main Street.
Apparently she served cake. But I don’t have a lot more on her than a gentle face in a faded photograph.
Today was a grand opportunity to find out a little bit, if not about Brown herself, then about her cake plate.
The Antiques Roadshow came to Dobbs Ferry – or at least Leigh Keno, one of its two hosts (with his identical twin brother Leslie) and a cohort of appraisers, who tended to a few hundred supplicants in the auditorium of the Greenburgh Hebrew Center. On my way, driving to the place, Sinatra came on the radio with “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” I began to get in the mood, thinking about all the things that bewitch and bewilder us, all the precious objects seeing the light of day for the first time in a long time and really assuming new identities.
Heirloom Discovery Day attracted people with all sorts of things.
Eastern European silverplate.
Large, bad paintings. Tasselled lamps. Elaborate tableware. People looked as if they would wait days for an appraisal, hugging packages of brown paper and bubble wrap to their chests. It wasn’t about the money, but the connection with the past that their attic-lodged belongings gave them. One woman told me about the diaphanous nude woman pictured in the oval frame she toted – her mother hid it in the basement the whole time she was growing up with her five sisters, she said, saying it was “porno,” but now at the age of 75 she claimed she’d posed for it.
We were just as eager as everyone else. My sister-in-law Suzanne had a Windsor chair and a ceramic jug with a portrait of George Washington on its bulbous face. Her mother had been an antiques dealer. The chair, she always said, was “a good chair.”
She had a lot of similar antiques at home, big and small.
But how good was the Windsor?
I had the plate, as I said. My appraiser was kind.
She indicated its hairline cracks that slightly marred the back, though the hand-painted imagery and the curvature of molded scrolls and beaded edge were “very, very sweet.” Austrian, or European, she said, 1870. Originally part of a set that would have included a pitcher, creamer, dessert plates, it now stood alone, a beautiful orphan. It was “not in vogue at the moment,” she said, “not in demand.” It’s too bad, she said, these things fall out of popularity. Worth less than a hundred bucks.
I brought out my next objet.
It was a “letter opener” that Gil had carried home from Wisconsin, from among his deceased mother’s belongings. I didn’t anticipate my appraiser’s slightly pursed-mouth critique. “Not so sweet,” she said.
She examined the reverse with a magnifying glass. The writing, she said, was half Russian, half English – the English part said Bookbinders. Its quaint decoration was a caricature that was not kind to a certain class of people. You could tell from the homely scarves, the humble cap. My father-in-law spent time in Germany in the second world war, I said. Could he have picked it up there? Yes, she said gravely, dating it to the mid-30s. “it’s something they’d been making for many, many years. It mocks peasants,” she said, “especially, you see, because the underclass can’t read, and this is a book mark.”
It was time for Keno and perhaps a less awkward meet and greet. Friendly and urbane, he ruefully explained his allergies to metals and to news clippings, “if you can imagine.” He turned over the Liverpool creamware jug in his hands, neatly dissecting its good qualities and its flaws. The Windsor chair it took him about 20 seconds to date to 1785 Massachusetts. Hickory, pine and maple gave it its delicate lines. The chair and the jug were “the two neatest things I’ve seen so far,” he told us. Hooray.
Then came the puzzle.
What, we wondered, was the provenance of the gold buckle with runic inscriptions all over its back and front? It already made a good monocle, according to Jasper. “That’s a baffler,” Keno said, getting out his magnifier, bending his blond head over the buckle, attempting to read the words, turning it to all sides to catch the light and generally fidgeting with excitement.
It’s either a modern fake, he said, or it originated in the 17th century, in which case it would be a very exciting find. He would do some sleuthing, he promised.
I can’t wait to hear the origin of this buckle. Somehow I think it’s really an amulet of some kind, you hold it up and can fly through the hole, through history.
We joined the antique lovers trooping out of the building.
“Was it worth any money?” one called out to another.
“We still have to keep our day jobs,” jested the one with the bulky package.
Even if there were a fortune in it, in a plate, in a painting, in a chair, in an amulet-buckle, we don’t want to part with it anyway. Not for all the money there is.