Discovering and exploring the virtues of a newly acquired antique is the great joy of this industry. Examining the aesthetics of a piece and comparing it against the ideal of the form is an important and subjective aspect of an evaluation. In contrast, investigating the history of a piece to establish a firm provenance contributes in a more concrete manner and lends a more tangible value. Unraveling this history defines a piece beyond its dimensional form, but as a specific portion of history. This is always a gratifying effort, yet once in a great while a discovery is made that elevates a piece to historical significance.
I had the great pleasure of linking a tall clock to its original owner who was a major figure in the early anti-slavery movement. The clock was made by the well-known Quaker clockmaker John Bailey Jr. who had gained notoriety in New Bedford for his strong anti-slavery views. Bailey produced the clock for a fellow abolitionist John Anderson Collins of New Bedford. The clock is a monumental example in a rich Classical style and the oversized dial is marked “Warranted for John Collins”.
During the second quarter of the 19th Century, Collins was a primary and radical member of the anti-slavery movement who figures prominently into the inception of the cause. As the general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, he worked with the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, organizing lectures, editing the monthly periodical and gathering support. He and Garrison attended a convention in Nantucket, at which the recently free Frederick Douglas lectured for the first time about his life as a slave. Impressed by his skill and convictions, Collins urged Douglas to become a full-time lecturer for the organization. Douglass accepted and soon became on of the most prominent orators and leaders of the Abolitionist Movement. This alone can be considered the most meaningful contribution Collins provided to this momentous cause.
A true radical, Collins shifted his focus from abolition to more sweeping reforms. He viewed slavery as a symptom of the larger malady of a Capitalist society. He followed these convictions and in 1843 established the Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform for which he purchased a large farm in Skaneateles, New York. This upstate location became the site of his utopian social experiment. The society was founded on an egalitarian communist principle. Although it was an economically viable community, the experiment would eventually succumb to internal struggles. Collins is undoubtedly one of the amazing characters that have contributed to the greatness of our Nation.
What a story. The history of these pieces can be so captivating. Remember this is a blog about discovering provenance. It leaves me breathless to be in the presence of such significance. My advice is to carefully document any histories that are tied to your possessions. Also bring them to the attention of your heirs. With a provenance an antique has more than just three dimensions.