What Is the Best Thing You Have Owned?

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I received an email from Joanna Reeves, subeditor/editor newspaper supplements for APL Media Limited in London, asking if she could email me a few questions regarding my opinions about current and past developments “for collectibles.” While loath to do another reporter’s work (I prefer the reporter interview me and write his-her own piece—after all, the reporter is the one being paid), I reluctantly agreed. I was momentarily caught off guard after reading the third question, “What is the best thing that you’ve owned?”

This question is similar to another I am often asked when being interviewed, “If there was a fire, what is the one thing you would save?” If my spouse is sitting next to me during the interview, a quick look at her eyes and body posture sends the message, “You had better say you would take me.” As you might suspect, this is not what I would say. My spouse is smart enough to figure out how to get out on her own. I would grab something. The exact object is irrelevant at the moment.  My deepest wish is that my spouse does the same. It is better to save two goodies than one.

If Linda was sitting next to me when I was asked what is the best thing I owned, she would expect me to pick her. In all honesty, I would be tempted to do exactly that. Linda is a keeper, and I look forward to a long life with her. The problem is that such a response or attitude is totally unacceptable in this age of political correctness. The concept that one person “owns” another is an anathema. For better and for worse implies commitment not ownership. As a result, responding “Linda” to the reporter’s question is not possible.

When teaching advanced composition at Davenport University, I tell my students that critical reading leads to critical thinking, which results in critical writing. When asked what is the best thing you have owned, the question, being in a past tense, implies what is the best thing you once owned but no longer own. Phrased in the present tense, the question is what is the best thing you own? Is this what the reporter meant to ask? Since the reporter was on deadline (reporters always are on deadline when they contact you), there was no time to ask for clarification.

I accepted the challenge and thought about the best object or objects I once owned, no longer owned and miss. Loss is a difficult concept for collectors. True collectors—those who do not deal to support their collecting habit—are scarce. At the time of purchase, these collectors assume they are going to die owning the object(s).

Occasionally, for one reason or another, the collector reluctantly parts with an object or objects. The decision is painstaking. Regret haunts the collector for eternity. “When it is gone, it is gone” is not an easy concept to accept. Letting go of an object or objects is easier than letting go of the memories. Memories linger.

Until I sold The School (the former Vera Cruz [PA] elementary school), I could count on two hands the number of objects or collections I sold. Unable to fit the objects I had housed in the available 14,000 square feet at The School into a 2,800 square foot house in Michigan, I worked with Kevin Smith of K.D. Auctions in Allentown to dispose of objects I left behind. Two years into the process, the end is in sight.

Needing to answer the reporter’s “have ever owned” question, I made a short list of objects that when I think about them, I experience a brief moment of sadness. To my surprise, the objects fell into two categories—objects with great stories and objects I knew would mean more to another than to me.

The first object that came to mind was a wonderful American 1820s-1830s Country Sheraton painted settee that sat in the living room when I lived in a home located on Third Avenue in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which I rented from the West Side Moravian Church. I love it because of its rock hard seat, one that became excruciating uncomfortable after a person or persons sat on it for longer than 15 to 20 minutes. I made no effort to alleviate the situation by adding a cushion. Its purpose was simple. When guests in whom I have limited interest stopped for a visit, I offered them a seat on the settee. The settee never failed in its mission. Shortly after marrying Connie, my second wife, she found the role played by the settee downright inhospitable. I viewed it as highly functional. There are some spousal discussions where compromise is not an alternative. Connie eventually issued an ultimatum—she or the settee. To this day, I wonder about the correctness of my decision at the time.

Eventually, Connie and I moved from Third Avenue in Bethlehem to a solar-powered home designed and built to our specifications that was located atop Carl’s Hill in Zionsville, Pennsylvania. Our solar home did not use solar panels. Instead, it used a passive solar system using building mass, a single wood stove, window quilts, landscaping and location to control the flow of warm and cold air.

Our solar home was large, almost 2,000 square feet. Even so, space was limited, especially in the living room area. The furniture was a combination of nineteenth century Pennsylvania German pieces, a few “formal” Victorian items and a contemporary couch. When a decision was made to acquire a coffee table to sit in front of the couch, I was determined to find something of antiques origin rather than purchase a contemporary fantasy Colonial Revival piece. The answer turned out to be a child’s funeral pyre, one that was used to support a child’s coffin during a home viewing. It was the ideal size. There was legroom underneath. All that was required was a piece of glass cut to fit on top of it. An adult coffin support pyre was too big. A similar devise used to transport the carcass of a pig or cow when butchering was done on a farm was too bulky in appearance.

The coffee table was the perfect conversation piece. When new guests arrived, I could hardly wait for the inevitable tell us about your coffee table question. The reactions ranged from neat to gross. [Author’s Aside: The unusual coffee table also housed a medical device—an antique rectal examiner. I reserve the stories associated with questions asked by guests about this for another time.]

In 2000, when I moved to the bachelor pad I created at The School, the coffee table went into storage. It did not fit into the 1950s/1960s turquoise, copper and chrome theme for the living room. What did fit was a “U” shaped turquoise covered kitchen nook set that belonged to my Aunt Doris Bebb. Think corner booth in a 1950s/1960s diner. When Aunt Doris renovated her kitchen in the 1980s, she stored it rather than throwing it out. God Bless the Pennsylvania Germans—they never throw out anything. Although not part of the original plan, it fit perfectly in the area set aside for a 1950s Formica table and chair set. Since it was “built in,” I had no choice but to leave it behind when I sold The School. The memories of sitting in the booth at Aunt Doris’s house and The School will remain until I die.

The settee, child’s coffin pyre, and kitchen nook represent objects with great stories. To end properly, this column needs a something-I-once-owned-that-meant-more-to-someone-else-than-it-did-to-me story.

While there are several such objects on my list, the one that stands out is my Mickey Mantle rookie card. The teeth in my mouth are capped and filled with silver or composite fillings for one primary reason—the bubble gum I chewed with relish when collecting bubble gum cards, known today as sport and non-sport trading cars, in the early 1950s. I kept my bubble gum card treasures in two cigar boxes, far more interested in the Hopalong Cassidy and western card sets than I was in the football and baseball players.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s—I do not remember the exact year—I found something I wanted, remembered a baseball card collector’s offer to buy my cards if I ever wanted to sell them and decided to part with the cards in order to acquire the desired object. I was aware the pile included a Mantel rookie card. The collector paid a fair price. Neither of us foresaw the value rise potential of the Mantle card. I was happy. The collector was happy. It was a good deal. To this day, the collector profusely thanks me every time he sees me.

This story always brings a smile to my face. Its importance ranks close to the story about the $3,000.00 I turned down for the first Hummel Christmas plate in the late 1980s based on the mistaken assumption that if the plate was worth $3,000.00 then, it would most certainly be worth much more in the future. Dumb is as dumb does is a favorite saying among the Pennsylvania Germans.

What is the “best thing you have ever owned?” Email your story or stories to harrylrinker@aol.com.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry Rinker’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 and 10 a.m., Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC, 2015

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