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Open-and-Shut Cases : Why Does June Berliner Collect Powder Compacts? Well, It All Started With the King of Nepal

December 29, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

June Berliner of Los Angeles has a collection of more than 1,000 powder compacts. The earliest is a brass one of 1910 by the Cleopatra Vanity Box Co., embossed with a woman's head in art nouveau style. The latest was designed by Salvador Dali in the form of a dove in 1950. In between are hundreds of enameled Art Deco examples: compacts in the form of military hats, hands, hot-air balloons; compacts with musical boxes; compacts that do everything short of powdering your nose for you. The compacts are displayed in illuminated cabinets. The plastic shelves revolve at the push of a button, and the compacts glide past like decorative candies on a conveyor belt.

I asked Berliner why she started collecting compacts. Her answer began: "I used to mountain-climb in the Himalayas--the Mt. Everest area--and I became enamored of the Sherpas." I wondered what that could possibly have to do with those refined little boxes for cosmetics, and I remained mystified for some while as Berliner unfolded her exotic story.

In 1978, she and some friends took medical supplies, a doctor and warm clothing to the Sherpas at Thami in Nepal, about eight miles from the Tibetan border. They also built the Sherpas a volleyball court. King Birendra of Nepal was delighted with her initiative and gave her a Lhasa apso dog. She left it in Katmandu, Nepal, for a time while she visited Darjeeling, India. There a lama, hearing her story, gave her a Tibetan terrier.

When she and the terrier returned to Katmandu, they were met at the airport by a young Nepalese called Deepak Chhettri. He said: "Oh! You and small dog have big fleas."

Having de-fleaed herself and the terrier, Berliner went to the palace to call for the royal dog, the Lhasa apso. "They wouldn't let the terrier in because he was a common dog. He had to wait out in the car. I went into a beautiful marble hall to receive the Lhasa apso, who had his own amah (nurse)." The king sent Deepak Chhettri to accompany Berliner home with the dogs. When she arrived in Los Angeles with them, her husband was not wildly enthusiastic. Throughout the next year, he made Berliner practice saying "No, thank you." He would say to her: "Please accept a royal dog." And she would have to repeat, "No, thank you." And when she again went to Nepal the next year, that's exactly what happened. The king offered her another royal dog. Berliner said, "No, thank you." So, instead, the king made her a present of two old, silver, Nepalese powder compacts. And that, best-beloved, is how June Berliner's collection began.

"The Nepalese boxes were just so fascinating," she says. "And I had the contents of one analyzed. I asked my doctor to let me go to a lab and have it analyzed because I thought, 'This smell is like nothing I've ever smelled before.' I found that it had a great deal of mercury in it; it could have killed more people than it beautified. So the whole history of cosmetics started to interest me, and I began reading about why people would put mercury on their faces."

On her travels, Berliner bought more compacts. Her husband said: "Oh, compacts, that's what I used to give girls in my high school days. That's what you gave as a gift; they were inexpensive, they weren't too personal and you could have them engraved if you wanted."

June Berliner's mother died two years ago. When June went back to her mother's house in New York and began cleaning out the drawers, she found all her own old compacts.

"They were engraved from different boys in high school," she says. "I remembered then--I had forgotten--when I was getting married, my mother said, 'You can't take things with other men's names on them, now that you're a married woman.'

"I said, 'Well, you take them all'--and she kept them all those years."

"Lucky you weren't tattooed," I suggested.

Berliner decided to amass as comprehensive a collection of compacts as she could. At first she made a lot of mistakes. She bought very ordinary compacts of the 1940s, with cracked mirrors or ill-fitting lids. When she removed the shops' labels, she often found that the stickers had caused irreparable damage to the surface. She bought at antique stores, Art Deco stores and flea markets. Then she started putting advertisements in such magazines as The Antique Trader Weekly. She found that prices for the same compact could vary from $15 to $150. She also noticed that "the first time I dealt with people, they were fairly reasonable; the second time, the price went up; the third time, greed entered the picture, and by the fourth time, I decided that I wasn't ever going to buy from that person again."

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