By: John Dorfman
Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story
By Maryalice Huggins
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar
Straus & Giroux, $26
Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England
By Briann G. Greenfield
University of Massachusetts Press, $26.95
It’s unusual for a book about antiques to be published by a major literary house. But Maryalice Huggins’ Aesop’s Mirror is quite an unusual book, by an antiques insider who can tell a good story. It’s a “love story,” as the subtitle says, and the beloved here is an 8-foot-tall gilt mirror decorated with whimsical figures illustrating the ancient fable of the fox and the grapes. Huggins, who spent decades as a high-end furniture restorer with a specialty in gilding, found the thing at an estate sale in her home state of Rhode Island, and was instantly smitten by its slightly awkward, folkish charm. Disbursement of barely affordable cash ensued, followed by a dogged attempt to ascertain the basic facts about this fascinating object: Who made it and when? And how much is it worth?
Huggins is nothing if not dogged. With a New England Yankee’s stick-to-itiveness and skepticism of authority, she travels through the elite antiques world in search of answers, taking no prisoners in her sometimes-acrimonious encounters with dealers, auctioneers and academics. No one has seen anything quite like it. The fox-and-grapes design came from a book by the English cabinetmaker Thomas Johnson, published in 1758. But the translation of the engraved images into wood is too stilted to be 18th-century English. The frame is likely American, from the Rococo revival in the 19th century.
Provenance is, of course, vitally important in assigning value. Huggins’ mirror came from a mansion in Providence built in 1860 for descendants of the famous Brown family. That could mean big money—a Newport secretary said to have belonged to Nicholas Brown brought $12.1 million at auction in 1989. But when did the mirror enter the building? Huggins’ delvings in the Rhode Island Historical Society don’t produce much in the way of evidence, but along the way she becomes obsessed by the lives of its former occupants, which furnish plenty of material for entertaining digressions.
In the end, Huggins establishes that the mirror was made in Philadelphia in the 1830s or ’40s. But the market fails to ratify the piece; when Huggins, hoping for a payday, consigns it to auction, the mirror doesn’t sell. The moral of this story is that in the world of antiques, uniqueness is a very bad thing, because value depends on points of comparison. Experts’ reputations are built on avoidance of mistakes, and a piece that breaks categories could also break careers, argues Huggins. Realizing that the real worth of antiques lies in the aesthetic and historical pleasure they give, she triumphantly installs the mirror in her new house.
A very different book published this season also addresses the question of how antiques get their value. In fact, Briann Greenfield, a professor in Connecticut, goes so far as to ask how American furniture became “antiques.” As she observes in Out of the Attic, 19th-century Americans appreciated 18th-century pieces chiefly as heirlooms. In order for the antiques market as we know it to be born, old furniture had to be taken out of its context in old houses and aestheticized. Once the public had been taught to appreciate them for their beauty and their place in the history of design, antiques could be transformed into commodities and sold at far higher prices than had ever been imagined.
If this train of thought sounds like a debunking, it isn’t, really. Greenfield approaches her subject with sympathy. Her book is rich in anecdote: We learn how immigrant Jewish dealers (some formerly junkmen), eager to embrace Americanism, played a central role in the discovery and promotion of antiques in the 1910s and ’20s. Another chapter takes us into the world of George and Jessie Barker, upper-middle-class Providence collectors who created their own museum without robber-baron riches, and yet another chronicles how the 20th-century town of Deerfield, Mass., was turned into a “historic New England village.” There is fun and insight on almost every page of this book.