Great Finds amid Cow Pies

By Christopher Kent

The great hue and cry these days from longtime dealers is that they cannot find their antiques, collectibles and fine art in all the usual places. Their old stomping grounds just don’t exist anymore. Instead of diversifying and going on the Internet, they will draw in on themselves, divesting their own collections and professionally poaching on their rival’s to suit the needs of their clients.

Now, I’m not talking about the new dealers, the thirty-somethings, the darlings of the Internet, who walk around shows and shops clicking digital cameras and downloading the pictures onto sites around the world. I am referring to the old guard who have become anachronisms, Hogarth caricatures of themselves. There’s a place for these curmudgeon types—in glass cases with small printed cards that read: “Antiquarian 20th-century specimen.”

My reaction to these guys is to remember them fondly as a part of my childhood learning curve. They taught me a great deal. They imparted their wisdom, sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes with an enthusiasm that matched my own childish bumptiousness. One of these relics, a rare hothouse variety who has made the transition into the 21st century and now conducts his business online, invited me to an upstate New York sale.

An example of a Utamaro beauty

An example of a Utamaro beauty

“Don’t get too excited,” he said. “The sale will probably be junk, but I hear there are a couple of decent country pieces and probably a lot of tractor parts. Oh, and bring your boots. We’ll probably be in a field somewhere.”

The wellies were duly packed, and I arrived in upstate New York in a little town called something like Tooten-on-the-Hudson. The sale was just about to start, and we had the opportunity to view the small but promising collection of furniture, unpromising chipped pottery, cracked Staffordshire and as promised, tractors, combines, tillers and other farm equipment.

Seated woman

Seated woman

We both exhaled with the disappointment of the collection. We were standing in a pasture that probably had been cleared of cows the day before. And, frankly, I don’t know what these cows had been eating, but wow, there was manure aplenty. The sun warming up the dung prompted the memory of many a country sale that I had attended in the past.

This was a far cry from the salesrooms and gilded halls where I was of late more accustomed to frequent. The auctioneer was good, fast, really fast, so fast that the uninitiated were bidding against themselves. He cleared most of the collection by noon. My friend picked up two good Federal fancy chairs and a tigerwood tripod table. Now it seemed what was left was to rid the seller of all the rusted farm equipment.

We hung in for another hour, consoling ourselves with hot dogs and lemonade from the concession stand, when the auctioneer paused and produced, like the proverbial rabbit from a hat, seven framed prints that had not, heretofore, been seen.

Once again I experienced a solar-plexus smack that said run, don’t walk to the front and check them out. Casually, I traversed the field. Leaving my friend in midsentence and after several dead-on hits with cow pies, I got to the front.

“Utamaro,” I said aloud.

Takashimaya Ohisa with Two Mirrors

Takashimaya Ohisa with Two Mirrors

“What?” said the man next to me.

“What?” I said back to him while I zeroed in on the early-19th-century Japanese prints. “Oh nothing, they’re not what I thought they were.” The man, losing interest, turned away.

Unbelievably, in the middle of hayracks, bailing wire and milking machines were some of the loveliest Japanese prints I had seen outside a public collection. I recognized them because I had just finished cataloging a collection that was good but not like these. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was an innovative Japanese artist. While Europe was adding yet another putti and floral flounce to their paintings, he was producing refined and simply elegant depictions of 18th-century Japanese life.

Courtesans

Courtesans

These prints were real, and their condition was unbelievably good. They consisted of highborn ladies at their toilet, stylized with large portrait heads in which the design style, unique to Utamaro, relies on the outlined elongated features of the face, detailed decoration of the coiffured hair and painstaking rendering of the clothing.

The bidding started low. I bid $50. Silence. Suddenly a voice from across the field said, “One hundred-fifty.” Okay, these prints are worth easily several thousand, I said to myself. “Two hundred,” I said.

“Three hundred,” said the voice.

“Three-fifty.”

“Four.”

“Four-fifty,” I said. Okay, who is this jerk bidding against me? I turned around and saw my friend raising his hand to top my bid. One is capable in rare instances when the occasion calls for it to send out daggers, thunderbolts, paralyzing paroxysms of pain. He got the full thrust of my message, threw up his hands in an “I surrender, who knew?” gesture and turned away to get another hot dog. Hammer down at $450. His apology was finally accepted after a second bottle of Bordeaux that evening.

I resold the prints through an agent to an unknown buyer. Two years later, I received a large box the day before Christmas. I opened it, and to my amazement, there were the framed prints. The enclosed note read, “Merry Christmas, I decided we’ll enjoy these on a lend-lease exchange, yours for the next two years. Enjoy, and happy New Year.” It was from my friend, the bid-oblivious dealer.

– 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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  1. Rhonee Jones says:

    Can you please remove this writer from your otherwise good site?? — he is self absorbed and only talks about himself — the rest of your stories are usually very good but this person, Christopher Kent, is a contstant disappointment. What a tremendous ego this man must have. I am not entertained and have certainly not learned anything. I have hesitated about writing in the past but this story put me over th edge.

  2. Audra Blevins says:

    Great find and story!

  3. Maryb says:

    Mr. Kent- Thank you very much. This was just fun to read!

  4. Cheryl Cockrell says:

    See, everyone has an opinion. I disagree — Mr. Kent is my FAVORITE columnist. When I see his name, I know that I am in for a good read. Cheryl

  5. Joyce says:

    I agree. I always look for Mr. Kents stories. He puts fun and intrigue into his stories. Sometimes I have to look up a few words, but that is part of the fun. Keep up the good work Mr. Kent!!

  6. Brian says:

    Great story! Funny and well written and a little humor goes a long way these days. I certainly learned some things, “The auction is not over until it is over!” and “Cow Pies can lead to riches”. When you think of the tens of millions of households in the US, the mind boggles at the thought of what riches they may contain.

  7. Tom says:

    Well, Christopher, I am entertained as usual and who knew that I could learn about a Japanese artist in the bargain. Please, keep talking about your finds, your experiences, and certainly your impressions of what goes on around us in the world of antiques and collectibles. Despite the limited objections of a few who are obviously bothered by fun and look down on you with their pince nez, you have a positive impact for us regul’r folk. Don’t stop. How else are we to enjoy the world of a professional who knows his sh–, uh, stuff. Lead on, McKent!