I think we can all agree, this godforsaken year wasn't good for much. But despite everything, it ended up being a great year for collecting anyway. Antiquing is just about the only activity outside my home I'm able to do during this pandemic, and I'm incredibly lucky that this great source of joy is also my job! Here my top 10 new additions to my collections this year:
1. 19th century carved wood cross
This elaborately carved wood cross came from France and was one of my first purchases of the year. It's not clear to me what the snake represents in this context: It may allude either to the Garden of Eden, or to the Nehushtan, the bronze serpent Moses raised on a cross that cured whoever looked at it from snakebites. The image of Christ on a cross is analogous to this latter symbol: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15)
2. Antique valentines
I specialize in sentimental objects, and there is perhaps no love token or keepsake more familiar than the valentine. My small collection exploded this year, thanks to just a few lucky purchases. Most of the antique valentines out there are from the 1880s to the early 1900s, but I prefer the ones from my sweetspot decades, the 1840s-1860s, which are both difficult to find and expensive. Early in the year, I found a grouping of exquisite, very finely die-cut and embossed valentines from the 1840s. A little later, I landed a large lot of German religious cards in that stunning, blind stamped, book shaped leather box. Looking back at the original photos I took, I wonder how on earth I brought myself to part with so many! But here is a selection of the best keeps.
3. 19th century French hair work memorial
I was fortunate enough to acquire many new hair works this year, including a new hair keepsake album, but when it's time to pick favorites, I'm always going to pick the willow. At about 8.5" tall, this acquisition from France is my largest palette work. In addition to its somber beauty, its other selling point is that there is a key on the back describing all the members of the family whose hair contributed to this piece, and which specific parts of the design contain whose hair. It's extremely rare for these family heirlooms to include a key, particularly one this specific.
4. Christ Child Figure in Glass Box
France... again. This stunning, 19th century devotional assemblage consists of a Christ child figure made of composition mounted inside a vitrine with flowers and shells. These kinds of objects are usually found in Europe wherever Catholics are, particularly France, Germany, and Italy. Very often they were made by cloistered nuns or monks, and purchased as gifts to welcome a new baby or celebrate their baptism. An incredibly fragile, glass assemblage is just about the last thing a home with a new baby needs, but it looks very handsome in mine! Although they were relatively common in Europe, they are very hard to find here in the States. I missed an opportunity to buy a similar piece a couple years ago, so when I stumbled on this one, I jumped on it. The time to buy it is when you see it!
5. Victorian wax wedding cake toppers
These Victorian hands are about 5.5" long and made from molded wax with real cloth cuffs. They were wedding cake toppers, like today's more traditional bride and groom figures. As with so many of my favorite keepsakes, they are maddeningly hard to find, especially as a full set. I'd previously only had one, single, much smaller example in my vast collection of Victorian hand shaped objects.
6. 19th century mourning china tea set
Now, this was a true bucket list item. I have bought and sold a fair few single pieces of early 19th century mourning china before: Usually I just find one cup and saucer, plate, or bowl at a time. In fact, a mourning cup and saucer I sold made it into the first ever Morbid Anatomy Museum exhibition on "The Art of Mourning." I had only ever seen large sets in museum or historical society collections, so this was an incredible coup. "Maybe some day," I figured. I purchased it in the middle of the USPS's summer meltdown, and consequently it took about 6 fucking weeks to get from Georgia to Boston. So, if you are one of the many people whose packages are stuck in limbo right now, I completely understand the anxiety you're feeling. Miraculously, this more or less irreplaceable set arrived in one piece. C'est un miracle!
The pattern on the saucers is called "The Mother's Grave" and shows children gathered around a tombstone. The two other patterns that appear on the cups, sugar bowls, and creamer are known as "The Mother" and "The Orphans." I had never seen the pattern on the tea pot before, "The Sky Lark." It depicts the orphans pointing upwards towards heaven. The set dates to the very early 19th century and was likely manufactured in Staffordshire.
7. Victorian mother of pearl inlaid jewelry box
My love for decorative objects made from black lacquer and inlaid mother of pearl, a Chinese-inspired design fad from the mid-19th century, is well known by now. I'd wanted a jewelry box in this style for ages. They aren't actually hard to find, as such, but it took me a while to find the right one at the right price. It's one of those things that puts a smile on my face whenever I look at it.
8. Antique Black Forest bird sculpture
For a person who adores animals, I sure have a lot of dead birds around. Why do I like them, then? I don't know. The Victorians just really liked to kill things. While so many of their decorative arts celebrate the natural world, it never seemed to occur to them that killing everything they could and bringing it inside was perhaps not the best way to express that love. Ultimately, what comes across strongest is not their love of nature, but their delusional belief that we are the masters of it, and that the natural world exists only to serve us. It's a worldview that contradicts mine in every possible respect.
Perhaps these serve the same purpose to me as the mourning items I like to collect: I think many of us who collect these kinds of things have experienced a lot of sadness or cruelty one way or the other, and need to acknowledge that somehow in a beautiful way.
Sometimes dead bird sculptures represent a memento mori, as you can see in many still life vanitas paintings, but this particular piece is just a decorative item with a hunting motif, similar to Black Forest trophies and decor. The birds are life-size, and the whole piece measures nearly 20" high.
9. Victorian Marble Bust
People make a lot of assumptions about what I like based solely on the fact that I wear a lot of black. You might be surprised to learn that I do not actually have anything with spiders, bats, skeletons, etc. in my home. This is the kind of buy that really makes me happy. Not only is this Victorian marble bust exquisite in its own right, but it means something special to me because the first time I saw it in my favorite Concord dealer's booth, it was out of reach for me. This was waaaaay back in 2013: The same year I started my business. Every time I look at it, I think about how tremendously both my business and collection have grown, and I am reminded that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.
10. Casket Plate Memorial
Well, it got an entire post of its own, so it should be no surprise that this unbelievable casket plate memorial made it to this list! As I noted at the time, it's not that any one of the pieces inside is particularly hard to find: But to see so many in one, enormous shadowbox is very rare indeed. I won't find another piece like this in a hurry!
And there you have it! It was a tough list to compile, but somehow I managed to narrow it down. Let me know in the comments what new acquisitions kept your heart afloat during this difficult year.