In Pursuit of Beauty

In 1980, I had collected one of each model of Wooton desk ever made. I had planned to display them at various museums around the country because of their American historical importance. I worked with Thomas Frye, the curator of the Oakland Museum, to supply information on these desks in preparation for The Wooton Desk Exhibition, put on by the Oakland and Indiana State Museums. Shortly after the tour ended, I got a letter from a man who lived near Albany, NY. He said he had seen an article in the local newspaper and had a Wooton desk similar to one in the exhibition, but different in that it had “creatures and lions” on the top gallery. No pictures were included, only an address. I wrote back (no emails back then) and asked him to send photographs. He responded in another letter, saying that it was in a barn and too hard to get to, but if I was in the area to stop by. I lived in Los Angeles and felt that there was no way I was going to see it. I wrote and told him so; he then called me with his phone number. I stuck it in my wallet and all but forgot about it.

A year or so later, I was in Poughkeepsie, NY, and gave him a call. I took a train up to Albany, rented a car and went out into the farmlands. Finally, I arrived, and sure enough in the barn was a Wooton desk – the likes of which had not yet been discovered (nor has another been found since). The coveted, highly sought after Winged Griffin Superior Grade Wooton desk had been found! Heretofore, the only known pictures of the desk were drawings coming from Wooton’s original catalog. The legend had come to life.

Purchasing it was a different story. He did not really want to sell it; he just wanted me to look at it. It was in very bad condition, missing hardware, broken carvings, cracked wood, and generally very rundown and lifeless. The farmer was not aware of its rarity, nor was he interested in the Wooton story. I found out that it was inherited through his family and originally owned by his great grandfather who was a businessman in the Albany area. He told me that he understood that it cost $750 brand new in 1875.

I made him an offer and he refused saying the desk was not for sale. I was very frustrated because here was a piece of American history not yet revealed, and I could not pry it loose from him. I did not let my frustration show, but I did leave him with $1,000 cash so that if he ever decided to sell it, he promised to call me first. What else could I do, I had to have the desk? I was absolutely desperate. As I drove back to Albany, I figured it was a $1,000 lost but it was worth it to know the desk existed and I had lots of fun telling others about my experience.

Five years later, he called and said the desk was for sale and if I wanted it, he would hold it for me for 24 hours. I caught the next plane to NYC and flew up to Albany to try to make my meeting with Destiny. When I arrived, there were three other antique dealers looking around his place for things to buy. Nobody bothered to go to the barn. I spoke to the farmer, whose name was James Weaver, and made him an offer of $15,000. I felt he would take it for sure. If I offered him $5,000 he would have thrown me out, yet if I said $50,000 he would have thought he really had something and not sold it. So, $15,000 seemed to be the right number. James said, “I’ll tell you what, make it $30,000 and you’ve got yourself a desk.”

I looked at the sad decaying sack of bones, swallowed my pride and my usual negotiating skills, extended my right hand, and we shook on the deal. I cannot begin to tell you the elation that went through me when I knew that I owned the desk. I have been a Wooton desk collector and dealer for 25 years (12 at the time of purchase). I had owned every style in every grade, put the whole Museum tour together, repaired and rescued countless desks, but never had I reached such a high point in my collecting life until that exact moment. Truly, the first men to climb Mount Everest had nothing on me!

The desk took more than a year to restore and I have used it personally since, except for occasional exhibitions and antique shows. We now have it on display in our store and it is for sale. $250,000 gets you the best buy of Victoriana that there is. Cheap at twice the price. It will sell someday, and if it doesn’t, that’s OK too, because the pursuit of Beauty and its elusive capture was an experience I will never forget.