by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
If you have been reading my arts columns over the last several years, you know that I have a particular fondness for the largest auction house in Continental Europe, Dorotheum.
Based in Vienna since 1707, Dorotheum presents over 600 auctions in a year on a wide variety of subjects. In fact, one might visit Dorotheum for one thing, find another, and be lost amongst the glittering gewgaws. At least that was so for me.
Over the last several years, in and around the year 2008, annus horribilis, that it is, I have savored the low prices Dorotheum has presented on a silver salver, of course. I would walk away from a single auction with a shower of historic silver.
The folks in Western Europe at the usual suspects, Sotheby's, Christie's, and Bonham's, didn't seem to know anything about the attractive doings of Eastern Europe. And their advice was always bland and unsatisfying. They did not care. It was all reminiscent of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his famous statement just before WWII:
"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."
Well, if the statesmen of Europe knew nothing about Eastern Europe, the silver connoisseurs knew even less, and cared not a whit.
Enter the dashing American (that would be me)
I am a firm believer in the oldest business adage there is: buy low, sell high. And by dint of constant effort, I expanded my hunting territory from just Manhattan, to London, Paris, Amsterdam, etc. And while I looked at these places with keen interest and growing success, I was certain that the great kingdoms of Eastern Europe had produced a plethora of beautiful objects, storm tossed by war and revolution… ready for a perspicacious hunter and collector like me. And I was right to do so.
Eastern Europe is a treasure trove of items made for kings and princes, buffeted and crushed by communists, fascists, and silverfish. In short, a delightful place in which to saunter through a lifetime. But the price is always less than you’d dare imagine.
Unfortunately, as the other old adage says, all good things come to an end. So it was in the residue of imperial, royal, and noble artifacts… dispersed by the wind, and the tramping feet of careless soldiers, eager only to go home. Now, times have begun to change at the Dorotheum. And the results of today’s silver service sale proves this point beyond cavil.
As usual, I had prepared for the silver market with exemplary habits. I knew what I wanted, I had read the provenance, talked to the experts, I had my money ready, and my battle grit, too.
But Eastern Europe, and the Dorotheum with it, are no longer the imperial cousins down on their luck. I love those cousins… I love their lousy luck… I love the cascade of imperial artifacts at bargain prices. And that is why I was unhappy today when I bid on over 20 items, and got just one.
Prices have now exploded, as I must honestly admit they were bound to do. In the light of this price explosion, I am grateful that when their luck was down, I bought and bought and bought, and came home with my last penny in my pocket, and a song in my heart.
The item is a sugar box. Now it is difficult for us in America to understand how important sugar has been throughout our history. In the French and Indian War (1756), the French gave away the Canadas for the isle of Martinique. Why? Because Martinique produced sugar. And so a tiny island was exchanged for what the acid critic Voltaire (1694-1778) called a few acres of snow. There are no statues of Voltaire in Canada, not even in Quebec.
Sugar was so valuable that it was locked in boxes, often with several keys, and always retained by the chatelaine of the home, and woe betide any schoolboy with mischief on his cheek and a single granule of sugar about his person. Sugar was the master’s prerogative, and he used it ruthlessly to gain his domestic objectives.
I have been collecting boxes for some time now, and I own to being intrigued by them. A box means something important. A locked box means something of great importance, indeed.
I first became interested in boxes when I worked in the public records office in London, working on my book “Insubstantial Pageant: Ceremony and confusion at Queen Victoria's court”.
In 1887, Queen Victoria held her 50th anniversary, her Golden Jubilee. Every person of consequence in the Empire on which the sun still never set, and many who were not, sent boxes to Her Majesty filled with the loyal addresses of their constituents. And the higher the rank of the individual submitting a box of consequence, the more unique, valuable, and awesome it must be.
No scholar had ever studied these hundreds and hundreds of loyal addresses and the caskets that carried them to the foot of royalty. No one that is until I came along. These boxes had, during WWII, been buried beneath the streets of London, the better to preserve them against the inroads of the Luftwaffe.
Sadly, many had been destroyed by those Nazi aces. But now, each day the antiquated elevator brought from deep below the great city its cargo of boxes, sent by the maharajah of this, the prince regent of that, the ambassador of, and each and every cabinet minister and public servant from realms and republics great and small.
It was an avalanche of the historically unique, beautiful, and never before seen, now exhumed for me. In short order, I gathered an immense following of people who wanted to see what I dug up. I was in short the toast of the public records office, if only champagne had been allowed.
I shall continue to collect boxes, particularly boxes with royal coats of arms and heraldic devices, with engravings which often are cryptic, as if between two lovers. Boxes suggest things of value, kept only for the sender and the recipient. With a box, we can hear in our mind the sounds of the owner, the sender, the thief who stole them, and the rescue squad, which dug out the owner and spilled his box across the fragments of what had once been a great house on a great road, now just shards and confused survivors.
I am, you see, of a fanciful disposition. If I do not know the history of the box I can, working with incomplete shards and pieces, weave you a story. And I am pleased to note that whenever I talk about boxes, I always gather a crowd, for they too want to know what each box contains. And so I have come to learn that boxes have an important role in our history, right up to Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth herself.
Each day, each hour, Her Majesty is besieged with boxes, cabinet boxes. To these boxes Her Majesty has the key. And so as she sits unlocking the boxes that arrive any time of the day or night, she is answering for herself the question of every hour: what is in the box?
Now there is nothing in my sugar box except memories. But I can change all that in an instant. Some of these days I will want my breakfast cereal to have what I usually forego… that is to say, sugar. And when I want it, I want it delivered in a box. A sugar box. Then set upon my table, ready for the compliments which inevitably come. “Oh, what a lovely box!” It is, isn’t it?
And that is why today, with soaring prices, causing me to overbid my usual amount, still without success except in this one instance, a day which initially promised success along the usual lines, surprised me with a huge increase in prices, thereby leaving me nothing to show for my efforts. Nothing, that is, except this box. I shall enjoy unraveling its mysteries, and sharing them with you.
I have chosen as an accompaniment to this article a song by sultry Nina Simone (1933-2003). She wants some sugar in her bowl. Will you be man enough to give it?
“I want a little sugar
In my bowl
I want a little sweetness
Down in my soul
I could stand some lovin'
Oh so bad
Feel so lonely and I feel so sad”
Man, open that box and let the lady in. You haven’t been there for so long.
About the author
Author Dr. Jeffrey Lant, still knocking them dead at 70, has just completed his 58th book. The more he writes, the more he publishes, the more he has to say. In the last few paragraphs of Volume 1 of his two volume autobiography “A Connoisseur's Journey: Being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck, and joy.”, Dr. Lant’s stern and loyal seneschal Sir Maximiliano von Rabbit hands a golden box to his ailing master and whispers a secret to change his life. He then places a letter in the box, and locks it, taking away the key and leaving us all to wonder, what secret did Max pass to the Prince?
To see Dr. Lant’s complete oeuvre, go to www.drjeffreylant.com. And never eat your sugar alone.