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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow Part II — Nicolo Paganini

Let's see, we left off last week with my treasure find of the Civil War Ambrotypes. Now I will share the story of the hidden treasure that was returned to it's family in Italy.
The year was 2002, I was still learning about generations before me through objects passed through countless hands’only to end up in garage sale bins and bazaars.
On one particular Saturday morning, I strapped on a fanny pack filled with; dollar bills, a roll of quarters and one Ben Franklin for that "prize" find. I sloshed coffee all over my console as I rode though town braking and going and braking and turning around while looking for the little square and orange yard sale signs  — I caused many a Christian to stumble behind me.
Although the search was always fun, it hadn't been a productive morning. One last stop before going home was the Moravian church bake sale/bazaar. I had promised my 88 year old friend that I would buy some of the Moravian Pies they had been baking all weekend. "They're going to go fast" she told me.  And — that was exactly what I wanted them to do. Like, be gone before I got there. Don and I had tried their chicken pot pies the year before and literally spit them out into garbage after taking a bite.
Thank God, the pies were gone! I feigned disappointment and browsed the bazaar sale items to spend an equal amount to add to the church ladies auxiliary fund. My loot consisted of beeswax candles, a few tin smith pieces, a super buttery brownie and a beautiful old wood picture frame with smelly cardboard backing.
I dumped the items on the kitchen table when I got home. Well — all but the buttery brownie.
Let’s examine the frame; ornate, gold gilded and about 12 inches tall.  I loosened the hinges on the back of the frame to remove the glass and cardboard. One conclusion I've come to?  For whatever reason people hide things, or —maybe they aren't hidden at all, maybe they are safely tucked away for the sole pleasure of the owner. Either way, I have discovered flowers, centuries old four leaf clovers, letters, hair and —Egads, other unidentifiable preserved matter pressed into the binders of old books and the backs of frames.
When I lifted the cardboard backing from the frame, I realized there were actually two pieces. I gently separated the two and gasped!
A woeful musician stared up at me. I touched the painting on canvas, the raised strokes told me it was hand-painted. I pulled out my magnifying glasses and tried to find a artist signature. None. The only markings were a quill pen date of 1832 on the back.
Internet search time. Ok, it's an oil painting of a violinist who in some rendering's looked like Edgar Allan Poe. After a few searches, I concluded the painting is of Nicolo Paganini, violinist and composer, considered to be the greatest violinist of all time.
Nicolo was said to be so extremely talented that it wasn't humanely possible to be so. He must have made a pact with the devil!  His following was immense despite the demonic whisperings. Many a accomplished musician left his concert breaking their violin's in anguish over their knees.
It was definitely him. I found a few prints similar, but no oil painting to value it. I spent  hours delving deeper into this mysterious violinist. I was captivated by his story, his passion, his darkness—like many composers and artist's over the ages he battled demons with gambling, womanizing and alcohol and finally death.
His death could actually explain the reason I found his image portrayed upside down. In one story I read that in many European cities people came out onto the streets and mourned Nicolo’s passing for days. Prints and likenesses of Paganini were turned backwards at his death— to view no more. After a little more digging, I learned the practice of turning photographs over to be customary practice at death for many reasons.
Anyway, the more I thought about this, the more I thought that this particular painting should go back to the family.  Hmmm — or was the truth that I was scared eebie jeebies would jump on me for exposing him to daylight and then selling him on E-bay?  I truly believe the latter to be a product of living in the south.
No. Truthfully, I liked the fact that the family at that time still maintained a page on the internet for Nicolo. After initial contact and several communications with a family member, I released the picture for the sum of fifty dollars and mailed the package to it's final home in Italy. See pic of first contact transmission (one of the few successful attempts to find communications from my old Ebay sales.)
Even though I don't treasure hunt anymore, I still leaf through old books and frames at bazaars. I laugh when I think of the treasures that will be unearthed after my demise; A pocket of M&M's, a penny, movie tickets. When I skid in sideways into those pearly gates (after further review from the booth) there won't be regrets of a life not spent, of a fortune hoarded or treasures left in books, frames or hidden in boxes. I use my good perfume, I burn my candles.
I don't know how this painting ended up in a Moravian church bazaar unbeknownst even to the hands that placed it on the table and attached that fifty cent label, but I am grateful for the story and the life I was able to peek into and learn from.
Niccolò (or Nicolò) Paganini (27 October 1782 – 27 May 1840)  Italian violinist, guitarist, and composer. The most celebrated violin virtuoso of all times.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow | | Bold. Smart. Local. Now. | Charleston, SC

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow | | Bold. Smart. Local. Now. | Charleston, SC

Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Don and I have been talking about going off the grid in the next year and a half. Big land, Tiny-ish house, haven't determined location yet.
We have Googled every thing on the planet. When I say tiny-ish, the ish is my two hundred square foot extension of tiny. The addition was implemented after a few small panic attacks.
Part mermaid, I want a claw foot tub, so the bathroom would have to be bigger than any of the tiny houses we saw. I also need a studio of sorts, outback office —a place where my muse can find me. And Don needs a shed. Oh, and windows; windows everywhere —skylights.

The outside is going to be as important as the home. Think camping — You spend all of your time enjoying the surroundings, campfires and lightning bugs and then retire to the tent or camper to relax and sleep.
What to keep, what to get rid of?  Stuff isn't nearly as important as time and the reduction of performance pressures. I wish we had thought of this years ago. And surely I SHOULD have. You see. I accidentally fell upon a trade that validates the thoughts we are pondering today. It started with a few minutes of spare time and a venture into a Goodwill store 15 years ago.

An object's worth is determined by it's owner, hence the old adage “One man's junk is another man's treasure."

Let's just say that first visit paid off. Goodwill, Salvation Army re-sale store's, yard sales and church bazaars yielded caches of treasures and paid many a Brabham bill when sold on E-bay.

A lot of these treasures are my own now. I remember talking to my oldest daughter abut the heirlooms in our home. She replied "I would never know the difference in what was a true family heirloom and what came from Goodwill."  I understand her confusion, I had 18th and 19th century cabinet photos of people I claimed as adopted family.

The biggest and best sale?  I was at Goodwill in Winston-Salem when a lady came out with a buggy of donated items. She began putting small gold framed photos on the shelf. As I walked up she dropped one, it shattered across the floor. While I helped her pick up the shards, I noticed the image was actually in the glass. What are these?

A trip to Barnes and Nobles, a few cups of coffee, a cushy arm chair (which they used to provide) and antique reference books yielded my answers. These gold gilded frames were called Ambrotypes. My lot consisted of; a little girl, measuring  2 x 2.5 (considered a ninth plate.) and two ambro's of a man in distressed comparative condition between the time span of the two photo's. One measured 3.25 and 4.25 (quarter plate) the next was a half plate measuring 4.25 x 5.5  The gentleman was a confederate soldier. The Ambrotypes were colored with an eerie gradient exposure.

The smaller Ambrotype depicted  the soldier (when I say this, note that I still don't know what the stars and button's signified in rank) with an amused confident half grin. He looked healthy and had excellent posture.
In the larger Ambrotype the soldier still held himself with confident composure, but was gaunt and had obviously lost at guess about 20 pounds. The uniform was impeccable. He didn't appear to have gained anymore ranking than he had on his collar before. But — he had lost an arm. He sat with his knees crossed and his good hand over the empty sleeve. His eyes still haunt me. Steely light gray. His cheeks in both pictures were high and prominent, but were colored rosy in the pic which belied the condition of the man taken. He looked ill and tired.

These were the early days of EBay and Google, I believe 2001 was when I found these. Even though information was available to search, it was much more limited than today. I had no idea what I had, and truthfully still don’t.

At that moment I knew that I had Ambrotypes and they were confederate and I was probably going to triple the twelve bucks I spent on the lot of them. I went all out and started the bid at $100 for the three on EBay around 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon. I popped popcorn and settled in for a movie. As I headed to bed for the night the phone rang.

I answered the cordless. The male voice asked me if I would be willing to negotiate an offsite bid for the ambro's. I told him I thought I would let the auction run it's course.  An hour later I received another call and sleepily answered it.

"Would you consider selling offline." he asked.
"No"  I answered and groggily headed to the computer to see what was going on. I jiggled the mouse and went to EBay.  The Ambrotypes had over 50  bids. It was at $700 and my e-mail inbox was full of request; How many stars are on his collar? Can you zoom in on the buttons?  I went to bed and took the phone off the hook.

The next morning I put the phone on the hook and made coffee. It immediately started ringing. I was under the impression that my contact information was not available through EBay and to this day don't know how they all got it.

After a continuous barrage of request, I took the phone off the hook again. The bid online was now $1000.00. Later in the day I lifted the receiver to make a call when it began beeping. I clicked over, thinking it was the person I just tried to call. A gentleman calmly asked me if I would allow him to make me an offer, stating  "I will drive down and pay you cash this evening."
I asked what his offer was. He replied "$4,400.00."  I accepted. I suggested that he schedule to leave the next morning because of the terrible weather conditions that evening. The entire seaboard was getting impaled with torrential rains. He dismissed the idea of a delayed departure and said he was leaving immediately. 4 1/2 hours later he pulled up into our drive.

We cut to the chase quickly and headed over to my kitchen counter. Albeit calm and collected, that first glance told me that he had found a gem.

 I calmly asked "Who is he?"

He wouldn't offer the identity of the man in the Ambrotypes, feigning research. He did explain what he thought would suffice me. "The larger the Ambrotype the more affluent the subject was, because of the depravation of war there wasn't a lot of money for the frivolity of a photograph. So therein lies the importance of these Ambrotypes."

"Are you going to re-sell these" I asked
He emphatically stated "No." He offered that he was the largest collector of civil war artifacts on the east coast and one of the 10 in the country.

$4400.00 was doled out on the kitchen counter. After gingerly wrapping the Ambrotypes in bubble wrap he placed them in a case, thanked me and walked out the door.

I bought a riding lawnmower and a shed with the money. I was quite happy with the find and the payoff but I have a sneaky feeling he was happier.

Several years passed.  I was waiting in an insurance office while the agent was with another client. Bored, I started browsing his books, Civil War enthusiast he was.

I flipped the pages and froze cold on a page. There were the steely gray eyes of my photograph. I searched the name below in the caption. Stonewall Jackson. Ok...understand again. I lived in mid North Carolina. Although one of the states that succeeded, it was neutrally so. Civil War history was not nearly as prevalent in NC as it is in SC. Not all restaurants had the battle pics of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall over the booths. I’m being funny here, not sacrilegious,  this is my feeble attempt to explain why I wouldn't have recognized Stonewall Jackson .

I went home and told Don that I thought I had found out who the guy in the ambrotype was. I Googled Stonewall Jackson and we both agreed that he looked astoundingly like the guy in the Ambrotypes.
But— there is this HUGE problem. My pic had depicted a sick ranked officer without an arm, even though it appears the limp sleeve contains one. If this were Jackson. It would have been the only pic of him ever without his arm. Which he lost to friendly fire 8 days before he died, (his arm is buried separately from his body.)

I have looked at every single photo of Jackson available to date and still shudder at the uncanny similarity of this man in my photograph and Jackson. And —the ambrotype photo's I sold have never resurfaced.
But — I had a shed and lawnmower and all was well. All I have for testimony is my family who saw the listing and Don who held the Ambrotypes with me. I have tried to contact Ebay for archives, which apparently weren't available at that time. My floppy disc with photo's for listing have long since been discarded.

This week I tried once again to search for Ebay archives, there were no records of my closed account. I starting Googling the "what if's" online. All of the research ended late one evening when Don nudged me on the computer. "It's not our story anymore, it's his."

Things come and things go. It's the stories that remain.
Let's just say that I learned a lot from the ghost of possessions that I brought home over those five years. And I will need to remember the lessons again when I donate, give and sell my stuff to go tiny living.  “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings
I really enjoyed the time spent treasure hunting, I never knew what I would find and I found some doozies!  Along with valuables, there were many stories and some downright hilarity’s. I will share more over the next few weeks.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Valentine's Day, Bah Humbug ...or....

The month of Love seems all but that to this February Scrooge. I become a person foreign to my very soul. A Cupid Grinch. It would suffice me just fine if cupid remained a concrete frieze smiling down at tourists' from cold stone buildings.

Those who know me know that I have a love/hate relationship with the month. At least the first half of it. I wish Valentine's Day could have stayed as simple as my grade school doily and red construction paper bag filled with Neeco's candy conversation hearts and hand scrawled valentines.
Hmmm, maybe the day bred expectations even then. Did you ever dump that white bag of cards onto your desk scrambling to find one from that special guy/gal to see if he/she sent a coded special message?
The more commercial Valentine’s Day becomes— the more demanding, the more predictable — the less it feels like love. As soon as a Valentine commercial or radio ad starts, I am scrambling for the mute button or volume knob.

I am aggravated that something so trivial can aggravate me so. I vow annually to resolve this issue before February comes around the next year, but—here we are again.
Earth itself seemed to agree with me this year, withholding her care like an angry woman who had been robbed of her 3 foot Valentine card.  The earth shook, it froze and — Thank God, it thawed. So was the first half of February 2014 in Charleston, SC

I woke up on February 15th like it was the first day of the month. A new moon of sorts. My arms stretched to the sky when I rose. Sipping coffee and thinking of blessings — I silently expressed gratefulness that I wouldn't need to turn the channel, mute the volume or avoid the dedicated aisles of the stores.

All is well, all the people that I love know that I love them still. And —the proof isn't a half eaten box of chocolate or a box of edible undies that will end up in a garage sale or forgotten and hidden in a dresser drawer to mortify a child years later when they sort through our tokens of this earth at our demise.
And then a few hours later, I got the last laugh. I walked into Harris Teeter and there are five full...yes five overstuffed buggies of 75% off flowers. Day old Valentines flowers! Nirvana!!
The skies opened, I think I heard music and — the answer came to me! The answer to that elusive annoying ass problem, what to do with myself for Valentines day for the rest of my life.

Flip the table! Anonymously surprise those people who weren't expecting the Vermont Teddy Bear, the 50 piece chocolate box or box from Jared. When I started thinking of who may be on that grew and grew and so did my heart. (Imagine Valentine Scrooge here, feeling her heart beat.)
Next year, I will fill my doily & red construction paper Valentine bag with cards for:

The person who quietly offers a lifetime of un-reciprocated love to another.
The pessimist. (A card AND a box of good and plenty)
The person cloaking a hurting heart
The widow/widower
The  father who misses the game because he is working overtime to give his kid that shoe with a stripe.
The mother who feigns she isn't hungry so that there is enough food to go around.
The scared one.
The selfless person who avoids pettiness and greed as dirty bath water.
The one who hold secrets to their chest that would cause pain to others.
The angry ones, they walk the streets with placid smiles, like walking dead.

Maybe— just maybe, the fourteen days before Valentines Day won't be enough time for me to celebrate!
Happy Belated Valentine everyone!!  But to those special ones above— May the god who knows and sees all injustices, fill your planter with a bird dropped wildflower seed, offer up a rainbow from a minuscule drop of water or fill up 5 grocery carts with clearance day old flowers and chocolates!