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Purchase Story

The Soul of a House

Lita Solis-Cohen | August 7th, 2017

A Book Review

The Soul of a House: Adventures in Building an Antique Retirement Account
by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II
Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd., 2017, 174 pages, softbound, $13.95.


If you love living with antiques and enjoy the hunt as much as finding the right place for each acquisition, what do you do when your local auctioneer tells you he won’t take what you no longer have room for and your favorite dealer who might have taken it off your hands is no longer at your local show? You begin to wonder who wants all those treasures you found at garage sales, antiques shops, small auctions, and on eBay, and the small wonders you liberated when numerous relatives downsized or moved or left this world, or even those special things you splurged on at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. What do you do when your house is perfect and there is no space for one more thing? What do you do when friends tell you no one wants possessions anymore? They want experiences; they do not want to be burdened with stuff. What do you do when they tell you they don’t care about history and that their interest is the future? What do you do?

You sit down and write a book. That is what Arthur T. Vanderbilt II did. He tells all who will listen what fun he had building a collection and what pleasures he has living with it. In an entertaining style, he urges his readers to go out and do likewise: take advantage of the low prices of antiques, because even if the market has ups and downs, there is a better chance of getting some return on your investment if what you buy is old than if it is new. He calls the McMansions staged for real estate ads “Home Porn,” and he laments that there is not an Oriental rug or a book in any of the pictures.

Vanderbilt writes about his passion for small dealers’ shops, his thrill at finding something at antiques shows, and how a collection takes shape by acquiring one and then another and another, whether they are old books or etchings of birds and wildfowl by the Boston artist Frank Weston Benson. He writes with fervor about his pleasure in finding, owning, and living with antiques.

The book is a quick and entertaining read, but it could have been edited more carefully. There are a few typos, and when Vanderbilt writes about the impulse that led the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to take all their prized possessions with them into their pyramids, citing a similar mindset when wealthy collectors provide in their wills that their collections be preserved forever in their houses as they left them, he names Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardener [sic], and Julius Barnes. He surely means Albert Barnes (whose will was broken).

Let’s hope Vanderbilt’s enthusiasm is contagious and he inspires the younger generation to take Granny’s antiques and add to them over the years. And then when they are ready to retire and disperse their belongings, let’s hope the proceeds will become a sizeable retirement account. That is what happened to those who collected with knowledge or good advice in the 1960s and 1970s when they sold in the 1990s, and to those whose keen eye led them to find a masterpiece now and again and sell it before tastes changed.

Even if the monetary rewards are not as dramatic as they once were, Vanderbilt points out the pleasures of antiques, noting that for anyone who sees them, the “feast of life” (Bertrand Russell’s words from his essay “Zest”) “has become infinitely richer.”


Originally published in the August 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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