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DESIGN : The Thrill of the Chase : Forays to Out-of-the-Way Farmhouses Can Turn Up a Rare Antique That Sells for Six Figures

November 22, 1987|HAROLD SACK and MAX WILK

WHEN I WAS about 9 or 10 years old, my father began to bundle me up, and the two of us would go off to spend Saturday afternoons together. Back in the early 1920s, other fathers might be taking their sons to a Fenway Park ballgame or downtown to the movies or to a vaudeville show, or even camping or fishing along some sparkling New England trout stream.

Not my father, Israel Sack. He had me beside him in the front seat of his long, open Buick touring car, on its black leather upholstery, and in those pre-seat-belt days, we careened our way down rutted dirt back roads, calling on a Mr. Littlefield, or a Mr. Tuck, some farmer, or a rural entrepreneur who'd lately become a dealer in local antiques.

It might not have seemed so to me at the time, as I bumped and rolled on that drafty front seat, but in truth, we were on a far more romantic mission than any of my school classmates those Saturdays. We were treasure hunting.

My father was a man with a mission, as he hurried hopefully on to unearth some piece of fine, early American craftsmanship that had perhaps been tucked away for years in the back room of a farmhouse, or a family heirloom, down from the attic, covered with a century's worth of dust. A New Hampshire chest or a Massachusetts desk, a highboy--or perhaps some primitive family portrait, encrusted with its years of grime.

Once we got to our remote destination, I would listen as he dangled a high price as bait. I can remember the owners wincing and squirming, reluctant to sell, but up and up would go my father's offer, and rarely was his bait refused.

'My father was a man with a mission, as he hurried on to unearth some piece of early American craftsmanship that had been tucked away for years in the back room of a farmhouse, or a family heirloom covered with a century's worth of dust.'

On most days, my father was successful, and we'd return to Boston, weary but triumphant, with another fine antique piece, "in the rough," perhaps, but ready to be carefully restored and polished for his Charles Street shop. On other Saturday forays, he might not be so successful, and we'd pitch and rock home with nothing to show for the day's travail.

But throughout his long life, my father continued searching for those buried treasures, those temporarily forgotten masterpieces of furniture and silver. "Crazy Sack" my father might be to others in the trade, but the prices he paid back then were only relatively high. What he gave for those marvelous antiques were 1920s' "hard" dollars, and time--which he was far ahead of--has proved him correct. Present-day prices for these items make what my father paid then seem ridiculous indeed.

But it was never merely commerce and profit that impelled him, day after day, to unearth the next whatever. Israel Sack was a man truly possessed by a deep love for antiques and for those early American craftsmen who created them.

It's decades later, but since I and my brothers were all infected by our father's taste and enthusiasm at a very early age, we have all been possessed by the same drive. We continue to search for treasures. In this, we're far from unique. Everyone who collects, be it furniture, silverware, antique china or even ephemera (that new catch-all word that covers such a multitude of heretofore trivial items), is driven by the same fantasy.

You may be a buyer or a dealer, a museum curator or a knowledgeable browser in an out-of-the-way antique show, on your way to a flea market, or to a neighborhood tag sale--but you live with this fond dream always ticking away in your subconscious. Each and every day, it motivates you.

Its scenario goes something like this.

You will wander into an antique shop in a backwoods village or on a quiet city side street. There, in one of the rear rooms, covered by a slight coating of dust, is a piece of furniture. Or a piece of silver. Some old china. A desk, a chair, a card table, a pitcher, a bureau, a tapestry, a framed piece of primitive art, it doesn't matter specifically what. For the sake of this scenario, it will be graceful, well-proportioned, a bit shabby perhaps. But most important, this item will be so anonymous that no one will know its monetary value.

Eventually, then, you will buy it for a smallish price, bring it back to your home, dust it, polish it and set it in a corner where it will be admired. Then it will quietly lapse into its new role as a member of the family. Nobody will pay it much attention, but there it will sit, like some sleeping princess, waiting to be discovered.

Time passes, and then, one day, someone with a sharper eye will come into the house, spot the Something, and ask its origin. Careful research will turn up the fact that this might not be just another early American Something--no indeed. This might even be a unique piece, signed, perhaps, by its maker, one of the fine early American craftsmen, a furniture maker, a silversmith, an artist.

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