From America to Estonia: Finding the Hidden/True/Lost Value of Antiques
The early 19th-century, three-room log cabin I purchased on several acres of rolling countryside outside of the small village of Välgi, Estonia. This small, 300-square-foot house lacked electricity and plumbing.
I bought my first antique in 1977; the year my son was born. It was a late 19th-century oak sideboard with a beveled mirror. I convinced my husband that it was an investment that would appreciate on our drive home unlike new furniture. I’m certain that the investment aspect was a consideration in my desire for this wonderful piece—as it sat in an antique shop’s window, like a puppy in a pet store, begging for a home—but prestige was certainly another consideration. We lived in Loudon County, Va., where old money, horses and antiques were integral parts of the lifestyle.
A few months after the purchase, my parents came for a visit. My father looked at the sideboard—sitting in its place of honor in the living room of our sparsely furnished townhouse—then he pulled me into the kitchen and whispered, “Oh Honey, if you needed money for decent,/i> furniture, you should have asked!”
“What are you talking about?” I responded, wondering if he was possibly alluding to my sideboard.
“That horrid old thing in your living room …” he said.
Then, unaware of my wincing facial expression, my father continued: “Back during the depression people had those things out on their back porches to store canned goods in.”
Unlike me, my father didn’t think in terms of The Good Old Days; antiques represented memories of times he considered best forgotten—times when loved ones died because antibiotics lived in the future, when children went to bed hungry because of a Great Depression, when thick black smoke from coal stoves hung heavily over towns and blackened winter skies … Out with the old and in with the new was my father’s mantra.
I thanked my father for his offer of financial assistance and defiantly told him that I loved that old thing, and besides, it was a sound investment!
The oak sideboard lived in our home for the next 17 years.
Within those years I bought many lovely antiques: Beds of walnut, oak and pine, dressers, service tables, sewing stands, a divan, chairs … And with each new find, I celebrated my investment and the unique beauty that welcomed visitors into my home.
In 1993, I was suddenly widowed …
Even though there was no plumbing, it came instead with a clean well and an old bucket. Here my daughter Jesse is pulling up a bucket-full of water.
Yearning for a simpler life—no doubt reflecting on The Good Old Days—I decided to move abroad to raise my two young daughters in a simpler culture. By 1995, I had liquidated most of my belongings and moved my small family to North Eastern Europe, where we settled in the newly independent country of Estonia. This move brought with it challenges, adventures and some remarkable shifts in perception.
Upon arriving in Estonia I rented a furnished apartment. Within six months, however, my American sensibilities kicked in (translation: The voice in my head—that constantly assessed my finances while simultaneously declaring where and how to get the biggest bang for my buck—persuaded me to invest in real estate) so I bought an apartment. Since mortgages didn’t exist in Estonia, at that time, and real estate prices were absurdly low, I paid cash for my new flat. The evening after my settlement, I sat cross-legged, alone, on the parquet floor of what would be my living room and sipped Champaign. I was almost completely broke, but in possession of three rooms on the 9th-floor of a Soviet block building—albeit void of everything from wall outlets to a kitchen sink—but it was mine, free and clear. Life was good.
Shipping the few furnishings that I hadn’t sold (one of which was my oak sideboard)—from the United States to Estonia—was cost prohibitive. But since Euro designs were to my eyes as fingernails scraping the chalkboard were to my ears, I vowed that I would invest in antiques for my new home, in spite of a cash flow now diminished to a trickle.
My first visit to an antique shop (antiik pood), in Tartu, Estonia, was in 1997. It was an adventure.
In most of Europe, built-in clothes closets are rare. In Estonia they were unheard of, so my flat had virtually no storage space for my daughters’ and my clothes. I’d saved a few hundred dollars and hoped to buy an antique wardrobe for our collective use.
Upon entering the shop I saw two gorgeous wardrobes: The first was a magnificent pine piece that looked handmade; the second was walnut, massive and definitely hand carved. I hoped to swing a down payment on the walnut piece—aware that I might have to opt for the pine—and arrange to pay it off in time. Struggling with my abysmal Estonian language, I attempted to get a price prior to negotiating terms. In the midst of my stuttering and stammering, the shopkeeper interrupted me and said, in fairly good English, “It is price of eight hundred kroon.” Translated to U.S. currency, this was about $48. Then, as though needing to defend the price, he added, “But this is excellent piece, Madame, very sturdy and will last for long time.”
“And this one?” I asked, grasping for some composure, as I pointed to the 19th-century pine wardrobe.
“That one is six-hundred kroon,” he said.
Certain that I was mistaken in my understanding, or he in his English, I did the addition in my head, wrote down the total amount for both pieces and showed the paper to the shopkeeper: One-thousand, four-hundred kroon.
“Is this the correct price for both pieces?” I asked, enunciating clearly.
He looked at me with a “you sly dog” expression, smiled, and said, “OK, OK, if you buy both, it is one-thousand, two-hundred, and I will deliver, if you live in town.”
I left the shop having paid $72 U.S. for two beautiful wardrobes in mint condition—the first antiques for my new home. I returned the next day, when the shock had worn off, and bought two wooden chests, a cobbler’s bench, a bundle of handmade doilies and many magnificent items of vintage clothing. I was overjoyed with my newfound treasures … and completely dumbfounded when my perplexed local friends began making comments like “Why would you buy such old, worn-out junk?” often delivered with an air of pity.
It hadn’t crossed my mind that the low price tags on antiques in Estonia reflected a local attitude that was very much like my father’s.
The fact that my treasures were not going to gain me one iota of admiration within my current environment—and had instead caused me to lose ground in the prestige department—was a startling realization quickly followed by another: transporting my possessions out of the Baltic region, where they would be recognized as valuable, was not permitted according to the customs bureau. It was the ultimate SNAFU for a class-conscious capitalist: the local people attached no value to antiques, while the authorities viewed them as having historical significance and prohibited their relocation. Simply moving from one Baltic country to another—countries that had not even known a border prior to 1991—required a barrage of paperwork. This was a lesson learned, shortly after I began buying antiques and attempted to transfer a few of them from Estonia to Latvia. But that’s another story …
My daughters wearing rhubarb-leaf hats in our garden. We were as self-sustainable as possible.
Within a year of buying my flat I decided to buy a house: an early 19th-century, three-room log cabin on several acres of rolling countryside—with a second log structure that I planned to use as a guest house, and a log sauna house on the banks of a stream that ran through the property—outside of the small village of Välgi, Estonia. This small, 300-square-foot house lacked electricity and plumbing; it came instead with a clean well and an old bucket. It was to be my next project—my next investment.
But then the shift started …
Shortly after I bought the log cabin, a neighbor dropped by to introduce herself as I was cleaning the grounds around the house. I asked if she knew any history behind my latest acquisition.
“They say it was a wealthy farmer who owned it last,” she said, as we stood in front of my small cabin.
“Wealthy?” I asked; certain she’d used the word incorrectly. Wealth is a relative term but …
“Oh, yes, so wealthy that Stalin had the entire family exiled to Siberia … or maybe executed. Many stories are told, but who really knows … the family had cattle and sheep and grew vegetables, too. And they had an employee!” The last sentence was said quietly as though my neighbor still thought it was shameful.
Someone had raised a family in this house, without electricity or plumbing … they were considered wealthy because they were self-sustaining and probably very hard-working but they had committed the sin of employing a farm hand—an act considered exploitative by Papa Stalin and friends. A family had loved, lived on and worked this land—my land—for a lifetime and ultimately been exiled, or worse, for their efforts. That was the day that my cabin and the rolling hills of wild flowers surrounding it, took on a new identity to me.
It never became the home that I’d initially envisioned—the contemporary glass and stone addition, solar panels and luxury bathroom with a sunken tub, never happened. In fact, my cabin was never introduced to the buzzing of electricity or even the running and flushing of indoor plumbing. It received only paint, new glass in the broken windows and a substantial amount of scrubbing, sanding and waxing. It became a silent retreat—more like a sanctuary—lit only by iron candelabras and gas lamps in whose soft golden light my daughters and I played countless games of Uno and told ghost stories until we couldn’t bear to sleep in separate beds.
I eventually sold my cabin to a young couple that loved it as much as I had. It sold for seven times what I’d paid for it, but it was a hollow victory. Releasing it was painful and remained so for years—in fact I have a lump in my throat as I sort through pictures to accompany this article … I can still smell the old wood and wild flowers that seemed to permeate every log. But I’m grateful to have shared a few years of the cabin’s life and appreciative for the opportunity that my daughters had to experience the simplicity of drawing water from a well and snuffing out candles prior to sleeping.
I can’t tell you precisely when the shift began—although I suspect it walked hand in hand with my increasing awareness of my surroundings, Baltic history and perhaps my own aging process. But one day I realized that the wardrobes, trunks and various other antiques were not possessions but gifts that were on loan to us. They had lived before me and would—in all probability—continue on, long after I was gone. One of my chests, held together with only hand-hewn dowels, quite possibly began its life under Swedish rule, followed by German and lastly Russian, which came—under the auspices of the Soviet Union—and stayed for 50 years. On a more personal level, my chests most likely sheltered slowly acquired treasures of young Estonian girls’ preparing for marriage, grandmothers’ hand-sewn quilts and linens, as well as a myriad of dreams, promises and secrets. They no doubt witnessed births, deaths and many full lives lived in between the two. My wardrobes quite possibly sheltered ballroom gowns from Czar Russian days or the boots of army officers in the First or Second World Wars, or both. Almost assuredly some of my furniture was alive during the first Estonian song festival in 1869: a powerful tradition that would later—in 1991—be credited with winning Estonia’s independence from the Soviet powers in what is now called the Singing Revolution.
My collection of antiques may never leave the Baltic region—where I still own a home—but they will, in time, probably move on to new caretakers who will, hopefully, come to appreciate them as I have. After all, they were only passing through my life, and I theirs.
The second log structure that I planned to use as a guest house.
When I reflect on the intimate relationship I now have with antiques, I wonder if this is something that can only happen when that relationship is informed by history and then given a lifetime to develop.
I see antiques, now, as material bridges to bygone days—not to be confused with The Good Old Days that probably only ever lived inside of the human imagination. And when I touch, smell and enjoy the beauty of antiques, I feel only slightly separated from other people—who lived within their own dramas, challenges and joy—who touched, smelled and enjoyed these same pieces 100 years ago or more. And that concept fills me with a sense of awe.
I no longer live in North Eastern Europe. I am now creating a new home and life in the U.K. I seem to thrive on reinvention and relocation; perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the stability and constancy of antiques has grown even more important to me over the years. But my nomadic ways are most definitely another story …
Signing off from London,
Holly Morrison, a writer who now lives in London, has lived abroad for 17 years. She now lives in London with her Latvian husband, Egil. You can read her blog The Accidental Immigrant.
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