Great Antiques Find: Tea Caddy’s Secret

You get 10 Worthologists together under one roof with approximately 30 years each of experience, and I guarantee no matter how diverse their areas of specialty, they all have one thing in common: STORIES OF THE GREAT Antiques and Collectibles FIND. Here’s one of mine.

Many years ago, I was in my office in Middleburg, Va., preparing for the live broadcast of my radio show, “Antique Talk.” My producers were comfortably ensconced in their offices in Detroit, and I was umbilically connected to them through my DSL line.

I had found that after being a rather esoteric dealer and appraiser in fine art and antiques, the requirement for this job, in addition to being charming and having a face for radio, was that I was to be a collectibles expert. This meant I should have a working knowledge of everything from, well, you name it, and everything in between.

The show was a call-in type where I was meant to appraise and identify antiques and collectibles, evaluate, give advice on preserving and restoring, suggest dealers and collectors across the country who might be interested in buying and sometimes just talk to people who really didn’t have any antiques but needed the connection.

First tea-caddy call

I must have fielded 10 calls that day about Weller Pottery, Depression glass, Noritake and the usual suspects when one came through from someone who lived just a few miles away. He had recently purchased a tea caddy.

For those of you not acquainted with tea caddies, they take many shapes and stylistic forms from small decorative boxes with interior compartments to containers shaped like fruit, made in wood, porcelain or precious and base metals. But for all the shapes and sizes, a caddy is meant to store tea, usually under lock and key. Tea was once an expensive commodity. Caddies also took on a ceremonious bent in tea’s preparation and serving.

The caller described the shape of the box—rectangular—its construction—very fine—and its two silver-leaf-lined interior compartments with lids. He went on to say it was made of mahogany with brass decorative corner fittings and lions’-paw feet. The dealer from whom he bought it said it was Regency, that exuberant period in England’s history where George III was mad and his excessive son took over.

I concurred that the era sounded right. I was not surprised when the caller told me he paid $550. The man wanted to know the name of a good restorer who could bring up the finish and basically make it look pristine. I personally don’t do pristine. I like my antiques to have the faces they’ve earned, but I gave him the name of a good restorer in the area and warned that while the restorer was excellent, he was also irascible, dour, spoke with a thick Scots accent and his shop looked like something right out of Charles Dickens. Thank you, bye, commercial break, on with the show.

Second tea-caddy call

A week later, I’m in my office and the phone rings. It’s the restorer. I recognize him immediately because he coughs loudly before speaking.

“Christopher,” he says, stringing out the R’s in my name. “That guy you referred to me with the tea caddy.”

“Yes, hello, Angus.”

“Right, yes hello.” Sometimes getting beyond salutations with Angus could be a wee bit tortuous. “Well, I’ve found something when I was working on it, and you’ve got to come over this afternoon and see what it is.”

“What is it Angus? Tell me what you’ve found.” But, no, he wasn’t going to tell me over the phone. “Are you coming over this afternoon or not?”

“Right, when?”

“Three.” Click.

Angus’ shop is in a little, blink-you’ve-missed-it village about 10 miles from my office. It has the feeling of a rag-and-bone shop with dirty windows, a padlock on the door and a general look of “go away” about it. At the door, as I pull up, I am greeted by a man waiting to get in. He introduces himself as the person I spoke to on the radio show.

We’re in the middle of pleasantries and not even have gotten to why we’re there when the door opens and there’s 6-foot, 5-inch Angus looming. Angus puts the “L” in looming, standing in the doorway.

Collectibles restorer puts tea caddy under spotlight

“Come in, come in,” he says, and we follow him past the kind of antique detritus I always long to pick through. Stuff packed from floor to ceiling with a narrow walkway through even more stuff. We enter the back room, which has the look of a germ-free operating theater. The tea caddy is sitting in the middle of a felt-lined worktable with a halogen spotlight beaming down on it. We’re the audience. Angus is the MC. We wait.

“I was cleaning the inside of the box,” Angus says, his cheeks as red as his hair as he is working up to real animation, “and was just going to touch up these brass decorative bits here on the corners when I must have pressed down and the base of the box came unattached. Here, let me show you.”

He presses the round brass circles on the opposite sides, and the base came off revealing a secret compartment. Now, lots of desks, writing tables, lap desks and boxes have secret compartments, but this one was virtually undetectable. We were making appreciative noises when Angus interrupted and said, “That’s not what I want you to see.” An expletive followed that I will omit.

“Here, look,” Angus directed. In the palm of his hand was a small red-leather drawstring bag. “I didn’t want to open it, this being not my property. That’s why I wanted you both here.” He hands the small leather bag to the owner, who looks first at Angus and then at me.

I can barely contain myself as the owner painfully, slowly opens the bag. He pulls out a many-folded piece of paper that is sealed with red wax. Angus passes him a knife blade. The owner carefully slits open the seal, unfolds the letter and begins to read.

Hidden pouch, hidden letter

“To my daughter Elizabeth Fordyce, given unto this day of April 2 1815 this gift given in love from your true mother, Susan Wilts. Though you have seen me many times you never knew. These are the tears that I shed for my loss.” It was simply signed, “your loving Mother”

The owner looked up from his reading and slowly upended the contents of the little red-leather pouch. Holding his hand out to the light, we saw six small but perfectly cut diamonds. Even the dour Scot had a tear in his eye.

Forgive me for crassness, however, I would be remiss if I did not put in the monetary significance of the gems. Diamonds were mined in Russia and could be afforded only by the extremely wealthy and kings and queens with sizable incomes. French nobility created court buttons out of diamonds. Queen Elizabeth I had her dresses and hair ornaments encrusted with them.

It is safe to say that in the first quarter of the 19th century, the six diamonds, which were at least 4 carats each, would have been worth $75,000 to $100,000.

Where this person acquired them will remain a mystery. She either had access or was in her own right extremely wealthy, which puts an interesting spin on the story. I often wonder about why “your loving Mother” gave up a child and then bestowed a king’s ransom on her.

Big Find? This was that and more. A collectibles story of remorse and love passed down through centuries—in a tea caddy.

– Christopher Kent is a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design.