Mama’s Big Bargain

My mother, Elizabeth Morgan, sewed just about every stitch of clothes we ever wore, woke up at 5:30 AM to read her history books, wrote letters to the editor, and served as president of the P.T.A. (she never said what went on, except she’d never do that again!). Everybody tells me how much I look like my mother, but I only wish I had her steam engine energy. Here she is in a photo my Dad took of her; it was her favorite.

Mama reading about British watercolor artists, about 1985.

She was no delicate, retiring Southern lady; oh, no. Mama was loud, opinionated, well-read, and did not suffer fools gladly. When I saw the character of Mrs. Patty Hogg on the Amy Sedaris show, I had to chuckle: Mrs. Hogg reminds me a whole lot of her:

During our childhoods, Mama dragged me and my little sister, Connie, through dozens of antique shops: there were trips to Spring City, Dayton, and Cookeville, but her favorite was Clements’ Antiques in Hixson, Tennessee. Long before it became the biggest antique auction house in the South, it began as a crowded, dusty little shop deep in the wilds of Hamilton County. Mr. and Mrs. Clements seemed to be immeasurably ancient; they knew my mother by name and greeted her warmly every time she showed up to trawl through their sterling silver spoons, china dishes, and furniture, always, always looking for a bargain. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Clements retired and passed on their inventory to their son, Wallace, and after a few years, he opened up the huge warehouse store pictured below. He filled it with 18th and 19th century antiques and art, some of it bought out of upper state New York summer houses being jettisoned in the sixties by wealthy New Yorkers who wanted more fashionable vacation houses on the Hamptons.

The statues

There was (and still is) a line-up of marble statues across the front of the building which fascinated me when I was little, probably because some of them were partly naked. Most of the statues were high-quality 19th century reproductions of Greco-Roman works. It looks as if there aren’t quite as many as there used to be, but there is Diana (missing her good right arm and her bow), two versions of the Three Graces, and a Chinese lion. The statue I remember the most isn’t in this picture, but that’s because it stood on the left side of the storefront: a giant woman with a billowing cloak shielding her strangely miniature teenage daughter. The giant lady was Niobe, protecting her children from the wrath of the gods after bragging too much, a stern warning that Mama would have ignored. Inside, along with rooms full of antique furniture (no junk whatsoever), there were Victorian grotesqueries made of dead people’s hair, artfully arranged under glass bell jars; an enormous canopied bed from 16th-century Italy that stayed in the shop for years (I so wanted to jump on it but Mama would’ve had my hide); baskets full of Stereopticon photos and viewers, always good to while away an hour; and upstairs, shelves that held thousands of leather-bound 18th and 19th books, where I would hole up to read while Mama shopped.

When we were small, every visit was prefaced by a stern warning from Mama: Do not to touch anything!  We only misbehaved one time: I can’t remember if it was me or Connie, but one of us picked up an expensive porcelain plaque of two little angels, one blonde and one dark, just like Connie and me, and it got broken in two. Mama was mortified, apologized profusely to Mr. Clements, then took out her checkbook from her purse (a sturdy little suitcase covered in handmade needlepoint, another bargain from somewhere). I can’t remember if we got a spanking or not, but the little angels were not a bargain. Of course, Mama didn’t throw the angels away; she went to her drawer full of glues, varnishes and stains and fixed the broken angels so well you could just barely see the crack. I wish I still had those little angels now.

Mama stopped by just about every week on the way back from our piano lessons at Cadek Conservatory of Music in Chattanooga. My mother loved classical music, but she probably didn’t love classical music quite as much as she loved antiques, and she didn’t love antiques quite as much as she loved a good bargain. It was a battle of wits between my mother and the antique dealer, but she had immense respect for Wallace Clements: Mama said he knew his stuff. Mama knew her stuff, too, as you shall see.

The story of the Big Bargain happened during the summer when I was about 15, around 1966.  We stopped at Clements as usual, and Mama found something: a dark bronze bas relief sculpture, about 2’x 1′ (actually, it’s only 8 5/8 x 16 7/8 “), with the faces of three people on it. She said she had gotten a terrific bargain, a wonderful bargain! That didn’t mean much, because we all know she didn’t buy anything unless it was a bargain, but she was especially happy about this particular bargain for two reasons: it was signed by an artist whose name she recognized, a fellow by the name of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and she paid just $5.00 for it. http://(

As we got into the car, Mama said, I think he sculpted one of the statues in the Capitol Rotunda! Actually, as nearly as I can figure out, he didn’t– here’s a list of the sculptures in the Rotunda, and his name isn’t on it: – but she was close: he was one of the most famous American sculptors of the late 19th century. She probably read about Saint-Gaudens in Antiques Magazine, which she read from cover to cover every month, or in one of the many art and history books she read. Here’s a picture of Saint-Gaudens at the height of his career:

When we got home with the plaque, Mama was worried because it had a pronounced bend in one corner; my most distinct memory of that day is watching her on the back porch trying to straighten it out with a hammer. She balanced the plaque on the wood shingle wall of the house and gave it a few light taps, but then she chickened out because she was afraid of breaking it. After that, the plaque hung over Mama and Daddy’s double bed and there it stayed for the next twenty five years. A few times, I climbed up on the bed during the day and tried to read the script between the solemn woman and man:


Gilder Family Portrait

To say I was uninterested in Augustus Saint-Gaudens at age 15 would be an understatement, even though I already knew I wanted to be an artist someday. The plaque seemed dark and uninviting to my undeveloped teenage tastes, severely plain and almost grim. The lady on the left was pretty but unsmiling, and wore a dress with little pleats along the neck; she seemed to be staring straight ahead, not seeing the man with a big mustache who was sitting across from her (he was staring at nothing too), or the child with long hair in the middle. I had not a clue who they were, but Mama found out, or maybe she already knew. During the years the plaque hung over her and Daddy’s bed, she read all she could about them and their circle of friends in New York City. She found a biography of Winslow Homer, the American painter, and that was when she learned that Homer had been in love with Helena De Kay before she married Richard Watson Gilder! Oh, Mama loved a romantic story more than anything, but I was busy living my own love stories and getting my heart broken more than once, and didn’t pay much attention to her at all. I wish she was here now so we could talk about it over coffee.

Helena De Kay didn’t marry Winslow Homer, although their long correspondence remains.  She did take oil painting lessons from him and learned to draw, being in the first life drawing class at the National Academy of Design. Winslow was apparently a man of few words, and he lost her to Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, who worked with Helena at the offices of Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and married her in 1874.

Here’s two photographs of Winslow Homer:


In the first one he’s a nice looking fellow with appealingly sad puppy-dog eyes, but in the second one he looks as if he’s gone a bit sour. That must have been after Helena dumped him, which she probably did right around the time he painted this picture of her:

Winslow also painted this picture of women on the beach which was considered slightly scandalous at the time, because Legs:

The blonde squeezing her hair out is supposed to be Helena, too. My father painted a very nice copy of it because her long golden hair resembled my sister’s so much.

Here is a photograph of Richard Watson Gilder in 1873:

Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, I must say, has really got it going on here. Yay, Helena. You go, girl. He became the editor-in-chief of the Century Monthly Magazine, and he was the Chairman of the New York Tenement House Commission whose report was responsible for the Tenement House Law of 1901 requiring designs that allowed more light and air into tenement apartments. He and Helena also wrote a lot of letters to one another when they were apart; I guess today’s equivalent would be a thumb drive with all a couple’s text messages, which isn’t quite as romantic. Richard wrote poetry to Helena, which she illustrated for him in his books. Oh, and they hung around with all the NYC intelligentsia and had regular Friday night salons at their house that were very popular. They were friends with Emma Lazarus, Cecilia Beaux, the famous portrait painter, President Grover Cleveland and his wife, William Merritt Chase, John La Farge, Helena Modjeska, Stanford White, Eleonora Duse, and William and Henry James. Gilder and de Kay were the models for the characters Thomas and Augusta Hudson in Wallace Stegner‘s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Angle of Repose (I’ll have to find that book). They had seven children: the oldest one died in infancy (there must be the source of the faint sadness that always struck me about the portrait), and one of their daughters died in young adulthood, but Rodman de Kay Gilder, the little boy with long hair in the plaque, grew up to became a writer like his dad and married the daughter of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

But back to the tale of the Big Bargain! Looking through her papers, I see that in 1974 she contacted the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, just to see if they might be interested. There was a bit of bait dangling, but nothing came of it.  Then one day in 1988, Mama opened up her new issue of Antiques Magazine and saw an ad for Graham Gallery, located at 1014 Madison Avenue in New York City. The ad said they specialized in fine American art, and were looking for works by a long list of artists, one of them being Augustus Saint-Gaudens. There was a phone number to call, and this time Mama wasted no time. Yes, they were interested, very interested. Photographs were taken out on the patio.

Mama, enterprising lady she was, went through Antiques and wrote some other galleries in NYC, including Hirschl & Adler, just to get a feel for what the piece might be worth; they were interested too, but apparently after negotiating not quite as interested as Graham Gallery. So one fine day, Mr. Cameron Shay, representative for Graham & Sons, Inc., flew down to Chattanooga and came to my parents’ house on Signal Mountain to pack up the Saint-Gaudens piece and take it back to New York. Daddy fried him a mess of freshly caught fish for lunch, and while he sat at the table with them, Cameron said he had plans to go to Lookout Mountain and meet Mr. Lupton, scion of the Coca-Cola fortune, to get a piece of art from him too. Mama was in the Big Leagues! She got a check for $60,000 from James Graham & Sons, Inc, and an ad with “her bronze” appeared in Antiques Magazine, January 1989.

How do you think Mama went out and spent her money? Did she buy jewelry? A fur coat? A new car? No, she most certainly did not; Mama was not a flighty person who did unwise things. She invested it carefully in a bond fund and paid the undergraduate college tuition of every one of her four grandchildren with it.  Now, none of them went to Harvard (except my nephew, Andrew, but that was as a postdoc fellow); Mama believed a state university provided a perfectly good education, and she was right, for the most part. My son, Alex, told me, “When I hear about someone else’s student debt it’s like hearing about someone getting murdered. I’m glad it wasn’t me, but I hate that it happened to anybody.”

Buoyed by her fabulous art sale, Mama became a bit of a collector, and managed to wrangle almost all of those purchases into profits, too, although nothing was ever as spectacular as the Saint-Gaudens bas relief. She found a nice seascape by Charles Henry Gifford, a painter in the Hudson River School, but it wasn’t in his Luminist phase, so it only went for $17,000; a pair of little oval Luminists with indecipherable signatures; a small watercolor of some faraway beach, possibly the Isles of Kerguelen, by Captain Robert James Elliott, a British watercolorist (that’s what she’s researching in the photo); some interesting oil paintings by women artists, including a California scene by Joanne Cromwell; and an adorable, if saccharine Cupid by Egon Sillif Lundgren, a 19th century Swedish kitsch painter. She probably put all that money away in a bond fund, too. There were a couple of dozen pieces she bought and sold, and she kept careful records of every expense, from relining to shipping, and calculated exactly how much she came out ahead. A couple put her in the red, but not very many. She had a good eye; I did not. One time she took me along with her antiquing and I bought an oil painting, but when I had it appraised, it was practically worthless. Nevertheless, I helped her sell off her little collection, and got to know some of the gallery owners.

This little watercolor of a Scottish castle is one I miss:

When I told my friend Leslie about my mom’s fantastic bit of luck, she came back to me and said, “Julie, nobody believes me! Nobody believes that your mother bought a sculpture for $5.00 and sold it for $60,000!” It’s hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.

Before I wrote this post, I did a bit of research to see if I could find out where Mama’s bronze was now, and here it is at Hirschl & Adler, NYC:

It turns out that after Graham & Sons bought it in 1988, it went into the collection of Richard J. Schwartz, the CEO of the Jonathan Logan clothing line, which included Simplicity Patterns! Oh, I wish so much Mama was still alive so I could have told her this! I still have Simplicity Patterns she bought and used for our dresses. She would have been thrilled. Here’s a link to Mr. Schwartz’s estate sale, which was quite a doozy from the looks of it:

Graham & Sons, Inc., has moved around the corner, and is now Graham Shay 1857 Gallery:  It looks as if Cameron Shay owns and runs it now, and they still have works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for sale.

Lately, Saint-Gaudens has been in the news; the Shaw Memorial, in Boston, dedicated to the first volunteer Union African-American infantry unit in the Civil War, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, has been defaced numerous times over the last several years.  Mama wouldn’t have liked that at all, but she wouldn’t have given a hoot about the Confederate statues being torn down across the South. A lot of the history books she read were about the Civil War, and she was extremely vocal and adamant that the war had been about slavery, and even wrote several letters on the subject to the Chattanooga papers, usually when some Confederate sympathizer wrote saying the war was about states’ rights.  We were taken on vacations throughout the old Confederacy to various plantation houses so Mama could look at the furniture and woodwork, but we were also shown the cabins in the back and gravely told why they were there. In South Carolina, we were shown the docks where slave auctions were held. Mama’s great-grandfather was from McNairy county in West Tennessee, but rather than join the Confederates, he led the 6th Tennessee Cavalry for the Union forces. Family legend has it that he had a bounty put on his head by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, who lived over in the next county.

If I told you that my mom bought a wall plaque for $5.00 at an antique shop, and that my parents were the first in their families to go to college, you wouldn’t think much about it. But if I told you that I grew up in a house with a bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens over my parents’ bed, you would think my family very privileged indeed, and you would have been right, of course. In many, many ways we were very privileged, and I knew that even when I was a little girl in Pikeville, Tennessee. But I realize now that our truly unique privilege was symbolized by the wall of books, so heavy they broke the main joist of the house. My mother’s greatest privilege was her mind.

The Saint-Gaudens bas relief of the fortunate Gilder family, so severe and pure, faintly veiled in sadness, that hung over Mama and Daddy’s bed for so many years – in a way, it symbolized them, more than Mama could have known when she first picked it up in her hands and looked it over. She and Daddy were fortunate people, more fortunate than most, but after Mama died in 2011, I don’t think Daddy ever really smiled again.

Here are some other links to the people and places in this post:,Boston%20and%20the%20Adams%20Memorial%20in%20Washington%20DC.

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