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Jack Smith

Some Things Old and Full of History

July 28, 1988|Jack Smith

It's not for you and me, unless you have $250 and a good line of credit, but John P. Wilson's new architectural antique auction is the stuff of dreams.

The warehouse at 2220 Gaspar Ave., City of Commerce, is crammed with interiors rescued from the vanishing castles, clubs, mansions and public buildings of Europe and America.

I walked through it the other day with Diana Markes of Wilson's staff. The first object that caught my eye was a flamboyantly carved pine merry-go-round horse, an exquisite example of that ancient art. Markes said Wilson saw the horse and three others in a Gypsy wagon leaving Dublin. He followed the wagon and bought the lot.

We walked into what appeared to be a small saloon of carved oak. Markes said it was a "drinking room" from a private London club. Lloyd George used to tipple in this very room with his friend Rudyard Kipling, she said.

We sat on a sofa under a 10-foot stained-glass window known as "Goldie's Window," for its owner, Goldie Schiesser, of St. Joseph, Mo. For 40 years Goldie rejected would-be buyers' offers; finally, its present owner, Charlie Knight, acquired the window by buying the house. Now the window stood under a skylight, brilliantly aglow. Like everything else it was mounted on wheels for easy rolling up the plywood ramp to the auction block.

Knight was overseeing the preparation of his other stained-glass windows. I asked him how he moved them across country without breaking them. "You always keep them vertical," he said.

Wilson wheeled up in an electrical cart, son Michael at his side. Wilson is in his late 40s, 6 foot 3, with gray-blond hair and beard. He is the man who restored Santa Monica's Main Street and Pasadena's Old Town. I asked how he managed to accumulate his glorious junk.

He said he had agents, or partners, throughout the Western world. The partners share in the profits. The antiques are moved and prepared for auction by veteran teams. Their hammers resounded throughout the warehouse.

I asked him how he acquired the drinking room. "Did you just walk into that London club and say, "How much do you want for your bar?"

He said the room had been hidden away in a warehouse for 20 or 25 years. It is often hard, he said, to establish provenance for such finds, but the origin of most of his objects is documented.

He said it was true how he had acquired the carved horses. "My father told me never to follow an empty truck."

We stepped up into the Erie 400, the private railroad car built for J. P. Morgan Jr. in 1925. It rested on a rented track just outside the warehouse. It had an observation room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom with shower and four sleeping compartments. It looked lived-in. Wilson said he and his son were temporarily living in the car, which is on the block like everything else.

I asked Wilson where such things might end up. He said, "Hotels, resorts, homes, restaurants, condos." He estimated their total worth at $12 million. "We have always sold everything."

Near the car were eight red iron English telephone booths of the kind that James Bond is always ducking into to call his chief. Inside we examined a wrought-iron spiral staircase, perhaps from a rectory, an 18th-Century French meeting room, street lamps from a Belgian square, and an art deco enclosure for two elevators, with etched glass by Lalique, from Bon Marche in Paris.

It all goes on the block the weekend of Aug. 5-7 for those who have registered and paid the $250 fee (applicable to purchases). Others may preview the exhibits today from noon to 4 p.m. and Sunday and Monday from noon to 8 p.m. with the purchase of the $25 catalogue--good for one to four admissions. Saturday night the warehouse will be taken over by the Make-A-Wish Foundation (it makes ailing children's wishes come true) for a $50 and $100 (valet parking and free drinks) fund-raiser. (You can attend the auction without having registered if you deposit a $10,000 cashier's check to show good faith.)

I do wonder whether Lloyd George and Rudyard Kipling really drank together in that room.

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