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Great Finds—Into the Cobra Pits: A Worthologist Remembers

by Christopher Kent (03/16/09).

christopher-kent-head-shotMany years ago, in a land far, far away, there lived a precocious kid. A kid that had inherited all the antique collectors’ genes from a generation before. Not knowing how or why, he had the uncanny ability to sense and discern what was good, worthy or of value.

He became, at the tender age of 7, the purchasing agent for his family and their friends. He seemed, in some instances, to be psychically connected to something of beauty. Though he could not verbalize why it was important, he could translate by winnowing it out from lesser items and setting it apart for examination.

He also came fully wired to ask, “Is this your best price?”

At 11 or 12, he was able to walk into one of the oldest auction-house showrooms to preview an English porcelain collection and say with total conviction to one of the appraisers that several of the pieces had not been properly vetted. This led to his first professional appraisal job where he was asked to take a look at a collection of English creamware, not knowing that his findings were being compared to those of a foremost expert in the field.

1800 British creamware sauceboats

1800 British creamware sauce boats

1840s English creamware pitcher

1840s English creamware pitcher

Are you interested in the sauce boats? Click here. The pitcher? Click here.

Another expert then scrutinized the findings, and the kid was found, nine times out of 10, to be more accurate and precise. This sleight-of-hand, instinctive knowledge was called upon on several more occasions until he was working, more or less, where his school schedule permitted, a full-time gig with the auction house. He used to take the train through the Main Line of the Philadelphia suburbs into the city, briefcase in one hand, lunch bag in the other.

All the speculative, instinctive knowledge stuff aside, he owed his early exposure to things that he grew up with in his home, his grandparents’ home and a business source that, at the time was second to none, called Merritt’s Antiques in Weavertown, Pa.

In those days, old Bob Merritt went on extensive buying trips to Europe, the British Isles and even on occasion to India and the Far East, filling huge shipping containers with treasures that, without exaggeration, were like a souk in a box. Excelsior-protected treasures packed in tea crates could be anything from 18th-century French porcelain, Dutch brass, English Jacobean pewter, crystal from Bohemia, a 19th-century silver dinner service from Russia, collections of exquisite leather-bound books from a defunct publishing house, place settings of dishes from all walks of life by the thousands, rare and unusual rugs from the Caucus, chandeliers, gas, electrified, crystal, brass, pewter . . . and those were just the smalls.

19th-century French porcelain vases

19th-century French porcelain vases

Rug from Caucus

Rug from Caucus

Visit GoAntiques for information about the vases and the rug.

Huge shipping containers of furniture, stacked and packed within an inch of their lives, culturally commingled, French with German with Spanish with Italian with English with American.

Once unpacked, the Merritt’s staff, young Bob and Jiggs, would annoyingly mark the prices on these treasures with a grease pencil, usually yellow, which was both defacing and difficult to remove. The kid went to Merritt’s every Saturday morning, appraisal schedule permitting, with two family friends who, in their own right, were scrupulously sharp collectors.

He gleaned from them their instinctive good sense until he became viewed, after a year or two, as competition. Then he would keep his mouth shut and hare off by himself with a rendezvous time established to meet back at the sales office. The kid had no money to speak of (what 7-year-old does?), but he did learn early on to ask for something to be held for him until his father, who was a soft touch, could come back and take a look at it. The kid would then describe its merits until his father relented with a knowing, appreciative smile and produce, sometimes, his checkbook.

When the two of them arrived home having successfully made a purchase, the voice of their mother/wife would ring out as they entered the house. “What is it, and where are we going to put it?” Father and son would conspiratorially laugh to each other as they made moaning and groaning noises as if they were carrying in a Steinway grand and placed the purchase on the table in front of her.

Canton storage jar from Qing Dynasty

Canton storage jar from Qing Dynasty

Antique Indian deity figure

Antique Indian deity figure

Find out more about the jar and the Indian figure at GoAntiques.

Old Bob Merritt enjoyed this kid. Bob was a big, tough, sharp cookie who played his cards close to his chest, was evasive, if a little slippery, but had the good sense to recognize, in the shape of this kid, that he had a potential client for the foreseeable future. He listened to the kid expounding on a particular find with tortoiselike, veiled eyes, a Cheshire-cat expression on his face. He gave the kid free range to wander where other people were not allowed, and this included around the just-opened shipping containers.

One early Saturday morning, the three driven collectors headed for a container that had an hour before just been deposited off the back of a huge tractor-trailer truck and contained a collection from India and China. The doors were unlocked, and the three squeezed into the stifling interior. The musty smell, combined with the scent of the wood-shaved excelsior, was like an elixir that roiled the blood and got the adrenaline pumping.

Packing crates were crowbarred open to reveal an amazing collection of copper in one, brass in another, Indian deities in another, spice boxes, carved containers in mahogany and teak, blue-and-white Canton storage jars, Chinese roof tiles . . . the opening of cases became a feeding frenzy as one lid was ripped off then another, each case revealing more and more treasure.

Chinese roof tile

Chinese roof tile

Another Chinese roof tile

Another Chinese roof tile

Click here for information about the roof tile on the left, here for the tile on the right.

The three, for this particular occasion and because of the variety and delights of the contents, had thrown off their otherwise studious and slightly condescending demeanors. They were, in short, having a ball. The screech of the wood cracking as the crowbar lifted back the lid of the last container abruptly stopped. Expecting to find another giddy-making collection of goodies, the three sets of eyes instead locked on the somnambulant form of a snake lying partially buried in the wood shavings. Not just any snake but a cobra.

cobraThe snake, and who knew how long it had been packed into this box, slowly turned its head our way. The three froze, not because they were mesmerized by the unblinking gaze of the snake but because they were paralyzed with fear. Now with the eyes firmly locked on them, the snake took in the three sets of eyes staring back at him. Whether he was annoyed at having been awakened or because he was disoriented or because he was nasty by nature, the snake began to stir or rather, to begin to uncoil and slowly raise his head.

The sensation in the collective three pairs of feet said, “Run like hell.” But this sensation had not yet reached the brain that had momentarily gone blank. Oh for a snake charmer to step into the scene. A voice came out of nowhere but originated from the opening of the huge shipping container. “Back out slowly, and don’t make any sudden movements, and for god’s sake, don’t say anything.”

We registered what was being said. The advice smacked around our collective brainpans, and though it first registered as Sanskrit, it slowly seeped into our conscious minds. We inched back. The snake moved. We inched back another 2 feet. The snake raised up. We—it’s as if we were tied together and walking through two-day old oatmeal—moved further back. The snake raised still further and began to flare out.

The female member of the group, as we backed our way out, started to pick up items that she had been most dazzled by, her arms full of copper and porcelain and Indian deities. Her actions spoke volumes. This ship’s going down like the Titanic, but please put my hand luggage in the lifeboat first. Suddenly, a long shepherd’s crook attached to an equally long arm came shooting beside us. The curve of the hook used in corralling wayward sheep caught the edge of the packing crate and in one agile movement, sent the lid of the crate slamming shut, trapping the cobra.

This accomplished, we collectively exhaled and turned to our savior. Old Bob Merritt stood big and triumphant behind us with his trademark enigmatic grin. Without missing a beat, our lady companion said in a bright brisk tone, “Now Bob, what will you take for this Canton plate?”

1845 Canton plate

1845 Canton plate

This plate is featured on GoAntiques.

No animals were harmed in the writing of this story.

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.

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9 Responses to “Great Finds—Into the Cobra Pits: A Worthologist Remembers”

  1. christopher kent says:

    It is with great sadness that I report that after 71 years in operation Merritt’s Antiques will be closing their doors as of May 2.with a possible on site auction of the remaining contents. The reason, reports general manager Randy Westley, ” it’s not just the economy but it’s difficult to find good antiques” The company will concentrate on it’s internationally known clock shop as well as the doll segment of the business. It is indeed and end of an era and the passing will be mourned by many.

  2. David Mycko David Mycko says:

    Hello Chris, Great article! I look foward to your articles, knowledge mixed with a bit of wry humor. I will do my best to emmulate you! May I ask…who is this mysterious and precocious 7 year old?

  3. Tom Carrier Tom says:

    Christopher Kent, you are a scream and a half! Who knew collecting would be so much like an Indiana Jones prequel. Your stories always read like the old radio serials. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  4. Maria says:

    Oh the adrenalin of the chase, and my you found a corker.
    What happened to the cobra in the end, and is that gifted child still in the business.
    You have a way with words, and have perhaps missed your calling. More please!

  5. Kait says:

    I am so glad I stumbled upon this website!!! Not only do I enjoy the visuals ( ok, as the kids say eye candy) but I LOVE the rest! That story had me sitting on the edge of my seat! I had a hunch there would be a snake packed somewhere. But Bless Bob Merritt! First for having the good sense to let young people hone their skills. Too often I see ‘adults’ talking down to youngsters at auctions. When a kind word could kindle the spark of interest in antiques, uniques and the like. Mahalo!

  6. Mary says:

    Ummm…I hate to be anal, but snakes can’t open their eyes. They don’t have eyelids.

    • Sandra Lee Stuart says:


      Thanks for that great catch. I’m the features editor at WorthPoint, and as much as I might strive for perfection, things get by me. I’ve changed the story. When it comes to finding mistakes, anal is good.

      Sandra Lee Stuart

  7. christopher kent says:

    True confession time. The precocious kid turned out to become one of Worthpoints Worthologists, Christopher Kent. I’ve dined out on this story for many years only, in the gentle form of one-ups-manship, to have been told stories about black widow spiders and tarantulas found in the folds of linens and even a spectural lady that stood at the top of the stairs of her house while the auction of her personal possessions were being sold in the hallway below. Indeed the stories that surround the hunt and chase are sometimes more interesting than the object of someones desire…oh, did I tell you the one about the painted over portrait in the trunk of the Dusenburg?, next time. PS the cobra, after the police and fire company had arrived was no where to be found, we all stood by our story, and boy was that packing container unpacked with alacrity.

  8. Marilyn Jacobs says:

    WONDERFUL wonderful story, Chris. Keep ‘em coming…


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