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Paul Dean

Putting Lid on Collection Box Mystery

November 01, 1986|Paul Dean

The little box had that brave but forlorn look of grade school shop. Screwdriver dents in the wood. Lopsided sandpapering. Ancient varnish congealed to yellow-orange.

This schoolboy primitive would cost me.

"You know," I said to a salesperson at the Antique Mart in Sherman Oaks, "I'm probably the only bozo in California who would pay $35 for this."

"That," she said, with kindly humor, "is what the antique business is all about." True. Hard profits of antique sellers, I suspect, are in direct proportion to the soft remembrances of antique buyers.

Obviously, that doesn't apply to professional hardnoses who buy London's bridges, spruce geese and assorted chunks of Europe for Victorian-themed restaurants. But for us low rollers with youths to re-create and odd corners of dining areas to fill . . . well, if it weren't for us, the Antique Guild would still be an abandoned bakery.

Back to that box. It's a collection box. In soprano years as a London choirboy, I'd seen them at the rear of church; parish piggy banks silently collecting loose change for a variety of royally chartered charities assisting widows, pensioners, soldiers, sailors, airmen and guide dogs.

For whatever causes remained unsupported, there was the Mother's Union.

And my collection box from the Mart bore the initials of the Mother's Union and a hand-painted purpose: "Orphan Gift Fund." A dealer's sticker claimed the box was from: "Lower Ormsley Village, England."

I couldn't see this gem ending its life as a decorator item in some Ventura Boulevard sushi bar. So I paid too much for it, loved it, polished it and gave it a grand display spot on the coffee table.

I also christened it with a quarter. A friend picked up the box, shook it, and donated another quarter. Within a week--in apparent obedience to whatever compulsion keeps public fountains littered with pennies--comers and goers had donated what rattled like $5.75.

The pangs began. This, surely, was collection by false pretenses. Worse, I was scamming hungry orphans. On the other hand, how many orphans could there be in Lower Ormsley?

A solution was obvious. Drop a note to the president of the Lower Ormsley chapter of the Mother's Union and send her the money. It would be fun at this end and a small reward for that end.

But where was that end? The National Geographic Atlas of the World wasn't much help. Lower Lough Erne. Lower Montague. But no Lower Ormsley.

Doug Conner, a researcher in the editorial library of The Times, touched every reference book and data base within his impressive command. It was Conner's considered opinion: "Lower Ormsley is due south of Upper Ormsley."

The British Consulate-General was consulted. A United Kingdom gazetteer was pulled. Also Crockford's Clerical Directory listing villages within Church of England parishes. Nothing.

It was suggested I write the Mother's Union at Mary Sumner House, 24 Tufton St., London, and deputy central secretary Roger C. Cozens LLB. Courteous Cozens, however, could find "no trace of Lower Ormsley . . . nor any evidence that it formerly existed but has now disappeared."

Meanwhile, back at the Antique Mart, dealer Linda Davidson certainly remembered the box. "But I don't know anything about Lower Ormsley," explained Davidson. "Except that's what it said on the label when I bought the box at an auction in Houston."

End of trail. Beginning of an awful realization.

That Lower Ormsley really doesn't exist. And that an antique dealer in Texas probably reached back into his memories of Lorna Doone and Brigadoon to invent a name. Lower Ormsley.

He then scribbled it on a sticker as a dash of authenticity for a box that actually came from Universal Studios.

That, sadly, also is what the antique business is all about.

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