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By Florence Holub
In this essay, reprinted from the April 1995 issue, Florence Holub describes the joys and pitfalls of being a collector.
Last month, my man Leo and I visited the Transamerica Pyramid to view an exhibition called "The Collector's Eye," which contained highlights from three private collections.
One of the collectors, George McWilliams, is a graphic designer who was once a prize student of Leo's at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). With impeccable taste, George has collected hundreds of rare and beautiful cultural artifacts on his world travels over the past 30 years. The collection includes textiles from South America and Southeast Asia, pottery from Mexico, and burial objects from Egypt and China.
The second featured collector, Kit Hinrichs, is also a graphic designer. He started collecting American flags as a child after developing a fascination for the hand-sewn woolen flag made in 1865 by his great-great aunt in Ohio. Now he has amassed more than a thousand Old Glory flags and flag icons in his "Stars and Stripes" collection, including quilts, postcards, campaign buttons, food labels, and cigar bands.
The third collector, Dr. Leo Keoshian, is one of the nation's foremost hand surgeons. He has collected photographs, sculptures, and objects that celebrate the human hand as both a wondrous instrument and a work of art.
The impulse to collect seems to be instinctive, sometimes compulsive. It can also be accidental, as was the case with Leo's mother, who didn't discover her interest in doll collecting until she was middle-aged, when a friend gave her two very old suede-covered headless dolls.
Grandma was clever, so she immediately began researching the subject. In no time, she found bisque reproductions of the original heads. She was so excited that she showed them to everyone, including Helen Helfrich (née Helen Hughes), our next-door neighbor on 21st Street.
Helen, a spontaneous and generous soul, ran upstairs and returned with an old but beautifully preserved doll. She then told Grandma the doll's history, which began in 1906 at old St. Mary's Cathedral on Van Ness Avenue.
The church held a fundraising event attended by movie star "Bronco Billy" Anderson, who had played the lead in The Great Train Robbery (1903). At the fundraiser, Anderson used his charisma to sell a number of expensive dolls with china heads.
Helen's mother bought one for her little girl, but once home she did not allow Helen to play with it because the doll's head was so fragile. She placed it in a high cabinet, where it remained virtually untouched for many years.
As a result, Helen never formed a strong attachment to it, she said. At this point in the conversation, Helen casually handed the doll over our deck railing to Grandma, so she could add it to her small collection.
The doll was dressed in a light ecru frock with fine lace insets over a petticoat and bloomers trimmed with delicate lace. She wore small white shoes with tiny buckles. On her head was an off-white velvet cloche trimmed with a brown velvet rose-studded band. Her rosy-cheeked, hand-painted face had eyes that opened and closed with long eyelashes. Her arms and legs were moveable, too!
"Miss Helen" remained Gram's favorite of all the 200 dolls that she eventually acquired. One summer, she won a blue ribbon in the antique doll show at the Nevada County Fair in Grass Valley.
Leo's father was a bit of a collector, too. A great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he amassed many items related to our 16th president and to the Civil War.
I think Leo inherited his parents' collector tendencies. As long as I have known him, he has been in the habit of bringing home things of interest to him--and he has broad interests! He even has a sign posted on his bulletin board that says, "There's something cozy about junk." Ah well, I never could resist a "Sale" sign myself!
Our three children, all boys raised in the '50s, developed similar qualities. One evening when we visited the home of Bob Cook, a co-worker of Leo's, our two oldest boys were enchanted with a fabricated Pacific island that Bob's father had made for him when he was young. Inside a large flat metal tray, Mr. Cook had constructed a tropical island from plaster of Paris, metal, and paint. He built a cone to represent a volcano, then installed wiring and a red light bulb that looked like molten lava when it was plugged in. A sandy beach fringed with palm trees--with fronds made from sheet metal--surrounded the volcano.
At 6 and 8, our boys were just the right age to appreciate the island, so Bob gave it to them. That night, the happy lads brought it back to our house on Kingston Avenue, and placed it on the toy box next to the bunk beds in their small room. Soon it became a magnet for all the kids on the block.
Our Pacific island had some bad points, though. Whenever I bent over to make the lower bunk in that tiny room, the pointed metal fronds stabbed me in my rear quarters. As soon as the boys' interest in the island waned, it mysteriously disappeared.
The Purple Heart Thrift Store was then located nearby on Mission Street at 30th, where the Safeway now stands. We passed the thrift store often and couldn't resist the bargains there.
I once acquired a perfectly usable (only slightly dented) breadbox for less than a dollar, and one time our 9-year-old son Michael robbed his piggy bank in order to buy and lug home a double-hulled Hawaiian outrigger canoe. We still have it in our attic, along with another find--a five-foot model of a sloop, complete with mast and sails.
At that time, Leo was busy filling the basement with printing and photography gear. When he brought home a paper-cutter bigger than a washing machine, however, I knew I had to lay down the law. Our four-room cottage was bulging.
Comedian Tony Randall used to say, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" on the popular quiz show What's My Line? After the canoe and paper-cutter incidents, "Nothing bigger than a breadbox!" became my motto.
The rule was respected for a long time, that is until we moved into our much roomier house on 21st Street. Then Leo brought home something that opened the floodgates: a huge wooden breadbox large enough to accommodate yard-long loaves of French bread!
Despite our acquisitiveness, though, I don't think you could consider our family members to be true collectors. We have some fine new and used books, as well as junk shop treasures, but we more closely resemble pack rats than antique appraisers. Each object we save serves as a reminder of some interesting event in our lives.
I picked up the fossilized rocks with tiny shells, objects now displayed on our deck, at Año Nuevo Beach long before it became unlawful to do so. Our son Jan brought home the iridescent shells from his successful diving expeditions on the Mendocino Coast. Under the deck lies the sun-bleached lower jawbone of a moose, which Leo fell in love with on our trip to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
In the same tradition, our youngest son, Eric, and his friend Walter transported a heavy metal missile casing all the way home from an army-navy surplus store on Market Street (by way of the J-line) when they were going through their GI Joe period 20 years ago. We still have it up in the attic, too.
Our house is overflowing with objects, paintings, and photographs, each with some personal meaning. One item that now occupies a place of honor in our living room--a glass cabinet made especially for her--is Miss Helen. Leo's father gave the doll to us after Gram died 10 years ago.
Miss Helen's eyes are wide open, and she's gazing in the direction of the house next door, where she lived so long ago.