Serendipity in Collecting

Chance favors the prepared mind. (Louis Pasteur, French chemist, microbiologist, and inventor)

Collectors sometimes find that it is the unplanned moment that rises in importance. I think of happenstance, a random event that happens by chance or coincidence. A wonderful word, happenstance, a combination of happen and circumstance, originating in America in the middle to late 19th century. Some would lean towards serendipity, unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected events; a fortunate, discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident. 

Serendipity also has a wonderful history. The word was coined by Sir Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford, in the 1700s. He used the word to define “accidental discoveries.” In a letter to a friend, Walpole wrote about “The Three Princes of Serendip,” a somewhat silly fairy tale. “… as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” What is Serendip but the old name for Ceylon, Sri Lanka).  The tale described three princes’ fates who had left home to travel the world. Whereas they rarely found the treasures they sought, they encountered others they were not seeking, often even greater.

Some would describe such events as fate, others as the hand of God. Whichever, you consider, I believe that being prepared looms large role in these “accidental” goings on. Serendipity is not luck per se, but chance interacting with a prepared mind. Collecting then is not only a matter of logic, reading and study. A collector must be prepared but also predisposed to act. Unexpected events may present opportunities, if seen as such. In other words, collecting is more than being in the right place at the right time. It is the response to the perceived opportunity, the sageness of the collector and his willingness to act that makes serendipity so important. 

Serendipity played a role in what we now take for granted: vaccination, insulin to treat diabetes, vulcanized rubber, and quinine. Many basic discoveries – Velcro, Teflon, microwave ovens, x-rays, pulsars, and radioactivity – were due to serendipity. The Nobel Prize (first awarded in 1901) exists because of Alfred Nobel’s wealth and values. What you may not know is that he “accidently” discovered” dynamite. 

Pasteur’s observation may be deeper than it seems on first observation. What he is saying is that we have some control and bear some responsibility in making luck. Being successful is more than chance. If successful, the universe is telling us to keep on the road we are traveling, to keep going. While we have been waiting for the world to treat us favorably, the world has been waiting for us.

All of which is relevant to the world of Americana and its collectors who are repeatedly told to “be prepared.” Serendipity supports this maxim. It is the collector with a prepared mind who succeeds. Such a collector is not only the benefactor of good fortune but is an active participant in it. To be more direct once again, one might say that “he knows his stuff. For what lies behind serendipitous moments or discoveries is a lot of hard work and toil. These are sustained by passion and in turn develop a keen and sharp mind. Often attributed to Thomas Jefferson but probably better to anonymous, an insightful, humorous quote says: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

            My wife and I are on vacation in northern Michigan, the UP to Yooper natives. We are driving its back roads and come upon a small town, one of many we could have come upon, with a retail district two blocks long. A small bookstore beckons, a treasure boxes waiting to be opened. My wife immediately goes to the young adults’ section looking for works about girls or women who fly. Lo and behold, she holds up a tome. As I stand in the next aisle with my mouth open, she rummages in her purse and pulls out a list of books in her collection. She does not own the work she holds aloft, and we purchase it. Serendipity personified as we could have taken any number of roads less traveled and discovered other small towns save this one, and she knew what she was seeking. 

I check my email and there is a photo of a piece of redware from a known dealer. The slip reads, “money wanted” and the platter has slip across almost all of it. The condition is excellent except for one gouge. The email was sent by a dealer-friend who was attending the York, Pennsylvania show and the piece was for sale by a dealer I was aware of but had never purchased from. I call his cell and the conversation goes something like this:

 “Hi, a friend sent me a photo of a piece of redware in your booth that says, ‘money wanted.’ Does you still have it for sale?”

 “Yes, he says.”

 My heart skips a beat. “Can you tell me its condition and what you are asking for it?”

 “I’ll go get it,” he says. He returns to the phone in a minute or two. “The condition is excellent except for the gouge and the price is “X.” He names a price that is half again or even less of what I thought he would quote. An excellent deal for a rare saying I tell myself. 

“I am thinking of having the gouge repaired,” I tell him.

 “We think alike,” he responds. “The dealer next to me at the show does such work and it would increase, not decrease the value of the platter.” 

 “What does such repair work cost?” I ask. He tells me and it is most affordable.

 We strike a deal. I have never attended the York show. I did not know he had the platter for sale until I received the photograph from my friend, I knew the market and my expectation of the asking price for the platter was based on past sales. I know that redware can be repaired and so my question. I have found a bargain. Perhaps more importantly I have a dealer new to me with whom to develop a relationship for he has more One might say the platter appeared out of the blue but while I was waiting for the world, it was waiting for me.

We have a small, but I believe good, collection of aviation posters. They reflect my wife’s interest in women who fly, the Pan Am Clipper, the trimotor, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). One of the jewels reflects her love for the Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as “Connie,” a propeller drive, 4-engine bird that debuted in 1943, one or two still flying. Many, and we are among them, consider Connie the most beautiful airliner ever produced and put into service. 

We have seen Connie sitting on the tarmac, and she seduced us. Fate was to roll the dice. When visiting an online show, an image of Connie stopped me in my tracks. Neither my wife nor I knew this image even existed – Connie flying into New York City (lower Manhattan) at dusk, the city alit and the Statue of Liberty with its torch afire. “Flying is the way to Travel – and TWA is the way to fly.” I showed the image to my wife. She was as bewitched as I. 

  As chance would have it, the poster was in the booth of a dealer one of our sons and we have purchased from before. The poster was in “A” condition, the colors amazingly fresh. Eventually the deal was closed. It sits upstairs in our home, and I continue to look for a place to view it every day. It is one of the few pieces of art we own that would prompt me to rearrange all that is displayed to make it more visible.

 What a wonderful example of serendipity. I expected to find nothing at the show but felt I should look (a collector should always look). We did not even know the image existed. We had trusted ourselves in rejecting previously an image of Connie we liked but did not love in the hope that someday Connie would be united with us. That hope was realized purely accidently. But in reading this column you know that is truly not so. Chance truly favors the prepared.

Another story. A well-known dealer visits a prestigious show after the hordes of collectors have emptied. He finds a piece of furniture he really likes and purchases it. As he sits in the booth talking with the dealer from whom he bought it, he mentions in passing that he is looking for first-class smalls to purchase. “Oh my god,” says the dealer-seller. “I have a piece in a highboy I forgot to put out.” He rummages in the highboy and produces a wonderful William and Mary mirror which his dealer-customer purchases on the spot. Had the dealer-customer not purchased the piece of furniture, or mentioned in passing what he was looking for, and the dealer-seller not suddenly remembered the piece he had forgotten to display (which well may have sold by then had it been visible in his booth), the mirror would never have gone home with our protagonist. Such is the nature of serendipity.

 As you expect, or already know from your own collecting, many collectors in the Americana universe experience serendipity. The auctioneer who looks behind a door or in a dresser while on a home visit and finds a painting that had no business being where it was and in fine condition still. And more.

 I have presented three personal examples of serendipity, and others. I guess that makes them a collection. Finding antiques due to serendipity often makes for some of the warmest memories and best stories a collector has in his repertoire. I would very much enjoy hearing your own discoveries that came to you unexpected and out of the blue. Or did they really?

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