A Prized Footstool
Cleaning up a Gustav Stickley footstool last week, after bringing it out of our temporary storage unit, also brought back a couple of early memories.
When I moved to North Carolina in 1985, furniture collectors here were obsessed with Southern sugar chests, false-grained corner cupboards, and heart pine harvest tables. If an antiques shop had a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture, it was often labeled Mission Oak and either used to display other items or shoved into the basement.
As soon as I showed an interest in any piece they had, the dealers were falling over themselves to clear it off and help me carry it out to my van. Word of the new “Yankee” collector traveled fast and soon my phone was ringing. One summer day I made a three-hour drive to check out what had been described over the phone as a Gustav Stickley china cabinet. My heart sank as soon as I saw what was a poorly-made, generic knock-off — priced as if Gus had made it himself for Craftsman Farms. On my way out the door I glanced over and caught sight of a pegged leg beneath a stack of old Life magazines.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Nothing,” came the reply. “You can have it for forty dollars. Cash.”
I knew better than to check for a shopmark in front of him, so I pulled out a pair of twenties and walked it to the passenger seat of my van without so much as a second look. Three blocks later, I pulled to the curb and flipped it over, finding a faint red Stickley decal under a coat of dust and grime.
That stack of old magazines helped protect what turned out to be not just an original finish, but an original leather seat secured with steel pyramid tacks. Once home I proudly placed the footstool in front of my Arts and Crafts rocking chair. As I stepped back to admire it, our black and white cat sauntered into the room, leaped up on the footstool, and prepared to begin sharpening his claws on the dried leather. My shout sent Spike flying, but he kept returning, obsessed with the scent of the original leather. I had no choice but to hide the footstool inside a closet.
A few months later my parents came to visit, so I retrieved my prized footstool from the closet and placed it in front of my dad’s chair. He leaned back, placed his feet on the footstool, and casually asked how much it was worth. When I told him, his feet hit the floor. Despite my protests, he wouldn’t use it again. After they left, the footstool went back into the dark closet.
It was pretty obvious that Spike and the footstool weren’t compatible, so I sadly sent the footstool off to auction, where it did well, as someone – hopefully without a cat — took the footstool home. I hit the road again and this time brought home a more typical Stickley footstool: one without its original leather seat.
I bought a piece of thick, unfinished cowhide, dyed it to look like the one I had sent to auction, and brought the finished footstool into our house for the ultimate test. Spike looked at it, leaped on it, sniffed it and, unimpressed, jumped off.
Do I have any regrets?
Not at all, as we don’t live in a house museum — and we don’t want our guests, our family, or our pets to feel uncomfortable around the antiques we live with.
Until next week,
“A day without collecting is painful for me.” – Corneille Ewango