Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Collector's Collector

KNEELING on the dining room floor, Evan Lattimer sliced open a cardboard box and braced herself for what might be inside: a lock of human hair, a half-smoked cigar, an arcane torture device, perhaps? Her face broke into a smile as she peeled away the bubble wrap: a dinosaur egg.

“You just never knew with Dad,” she said.

When her father, John Lattimer, died in May of 2007 at the age of 92, Ms. Lattimer knew her inheritance would include more than the family tea set. Dr. Lattimer, a prominent urologist at Columbia University, was also a renowned collector of relics, many of which might be considered quirky or even macabre.

Over the course of seven decades he amassed more than 3,000 objects that ranged in age from a few years to tens of millions of years. “He was like a classic Renaissance collector,” said Tony Perrottet, a writer specializing in historical mysteries who spent time with Dr. Lattimer before his death. “Anything and everything could turn up in the collection, from Charles Lindbergh’s goggles to a bearskin coat that belonged to Custer.”

Several of the relics had a certain notoriety, like the bloodstained collar that Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was shot, or the severed penis that may or may not have belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. For decades, though, much of the collection has been sitting in boxes and disorganized piles in the 30-room Lattimer home in this suburb of Manhattan.

I read this article with great fascination, because I am also a collector. I am greatly limited by space and means, but I enjoy collecting items with stories, or some sort of historical significance. Most of my collection comes from my grandparents' estates: a 200 year old tri-leg table, a Singer sewing machine from the 30s painted with gold sphinxes, a mahogany bedroom set. My love of Egyptology has brought a number of items my way, mostly scarabs, but also the top portion of an ushabti, and an art deco wood box, inlaid with the images of Ramses III hunting that opens to reveal trays for holding cigarettes. Because of my love of Medieval history, my father secured for me some English pennies, some whole, some cut from the time of Robin Hood.

As a history enthusiast, I love these items because they are a part of the past that I can actually touch. I can run my fingers over the ushabti and feel the cut inscriptions against my skin. I also love them because they are fairly unique. I've never seen another painted glass mirror with a gilt frame like the one around mine. And certainly no one else has a watercolor self portrait of my great-great grandmother.

Sadly, a lot of my ersatz collection is in storage. My great-grandmother's cocktail service. My grandfather's mother-of-pearl cuff links. The 19th century vanity that waits for me at my parents' house. I can't wait to someday live somewhere where I can display all of these things, instead of crowding them onto shelves or hiding them in boxes.

1 responses:

David said...

I think we'd all like a little more space to build and store a collection, but don't you think those limitations help us appreciate what we have been able to collect all the more?


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