As regular readers of this column will know, I am addicted to estate sales and auctions. I have been spending my weekends going the rounds of such sales for years, spending far more time and money than I should. Unlike many of the attendees at such sales, I don’t normally buy items for resale; I don’t go straight from the sales to eBay or other online sites. And I tend not to buy things that I need, although I will occasionally buy garden tools or a cheap bookcase, if I can.
Instead, my obsession at sales is to buy things with a history. I buy objects which have a story attached to them. I’m a sucker for old photographs of Kansas or postcards with interesting messages. Occasionally, I’ll find something that actually touches me in a profound way. These purchase are the reason I keep going.
The other day I bought what is known as a “box lot.” These tend be boxes filled with miscellaneous items which the auctioneer or estate sale coordinator doesn’t think have much value. They tend to dump a variety of things into such boxes: pieces of chipped pottery, a salt shaker minus a top, packets of letters or family photographs. Just the sort of things that appeal most to me.
It is in these boxes of “junk” that I find my real treasures. My first great find was more than 20 years ago at an estate sale in Champaign, Ill. In a box of miscellaneous papers, priced at a dollar, I found the business card of one of Lincoln’s law partners. When I saw the card lying at the bottom of the box I literally stopped breathing for a few seconds. When I picked up the card it was as if I had been transported back to Springfield, Ill., in the 1850s and I could see Abe Lincoln sitting at his desk talking to his young partner about a case they were handling. It was a glorious moment for me. I’ve treasured the card ever since.
I had another similar moment the other day. I bought a box of miscellaneous papers and odd objects for a few dollars. There were some old political pins, an old toy from a Cracker Jack box, and a lady’s handkerchief with embroidery of crossed American and French flags. There was a note attached. And a wonderful story therein.
The note is in red ink and was from an unnamed woman, now lost to history. She explained that the handkerchief had been given to her husband during World War I. It was a gift to him from a young Frenchwoman named Marianne Renaud, as a token of their mutual love. Marianne and the writer’s husband had fallen in love amid the horrors of the war. She had given it to him as a keepsake. They intended to be married after the war.
Unfortunately, her husband’s company was ordered to leave her village to fight in another part of France. When he returned, he discovered that the Germans had destroyed the village and killed most of the occupants. Marianne, his love, was lost. He came back to the United States and carried the handkerchief she had given him as a reminder of what might have been.
The note’s writer did not resent her husband’s lost love. Instead, she wrote:
“He (her husband) said I resembled her and that’s why he asked me to marry him.
“I did not know that until several years later after we were married, but sure am glad that he did because I could not have had a more wonderful husband than he was, even though I resembled her.”
Hollywood could never come up with a sweeter story and I could never find something more precious than this delicate handkerchief and the note attached. I can only hope that the writer, her husband, and poor Marianne were reunited somewhere, sometime.
— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World. Read his blog, “The Grumpy Professor” at http://www2.ljworld.com/ weblogs/grumpy-professor/