Many of us have collected something at one time or another in our lives. From baseball cards and string to comic books or dolls, collecting is often confined to the realm of childhood. But at what point does a collector cross the line and go beyond mere curiosity to becoming completely obsessed?
For Marjorie Chester, who splits her time between East Hampton and New York City, it began with a typewriter that she found sitting abandoned on 86th Street in Manhattan, near the now defunct Gimbels department store.
“It was very heavy and very ugly,” she admits. “It was so heavy I had to take a cab home.”
Turns out this particular typewriter, from the late 19th century, was also very rare.
“It’s so rare because only 800 were made,” adds Chester. “It’s called the Edison. You had to hunt for the key to turn it on and throw down the carriage. It’s a mess to get out one letter. It’s a nuisance and ugly they stopped production.”
“I have a number of typewriters that go back that far,” adds Chester. “Some are beautiful. Many of the ones from the 1930s are svelte.”
While her typewriters are impressive — they’ve even been on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum — Chester’s collecting habits didn’t stop there. She has also amassed a treasure trove of forbidden fruit jewelry (circa 1950, rhinestone and Lucite), old tractor seats and steam irons, to name a few. But it’s two of Chester’s other collections — her shooting gallery decoys and depression glass — that will go on view this weekend in “The Passion of Pursuit: East End Collections”Â a new exhibit at Guild Hall.
“It’s daisy pattern amber depression glass,” says Chester. “It’s hideous, but I have gobs of it. I collected it so long ago and now I don’t like it.”
Chester stumbled on her first piece of depression glass while browsing in an antique store along the New Jersey Turnpike.
“It was so cheap and so available,” says Chester. “The amber went well on my table. I started collecting it because I liked it at the time. It was also the ease of doing it. If you broke it, it was not a big deal. It seemed so sensible to use it in East Hampton.”
As its name implies, depression glass came out in the 1930s. It was produced in a range of colors and styles and pieces were given away at movie theaters or in boxes of food. On view at Guild Hall will be bowls, luncheon plates, serving plates, creamers, soup bowls and more from Chester’s collection.
“Once you start collecting it’s an obsession,” says Chester, who keeps all of her objects out on display and is currently on the lookout for her next passion. “I would love to be collecting something else.”
For Dave Bennett, a lifelong resident of Springs who still lives in the house where he was born, collecting means just one thing — duck decoys. Bennett’s home on Barnes Hole Road, which once belonged to his grandmother, is full of carved decoys —Â not just ducks, but all sorts of birds, including geese, herons, puffins and sandpipers. The figures dominate the mantle over the fireplace and tables around the living room. But the real cache is in the basement where the walls are lined with shelves tightly packed and full of duck decoys of all shapes, sizes, age and condition.
Bennett grew up with many of these birds and actually remembers using some of them when he and his father went duck hunting in his youth.
“I’m 11th generation in East Hampton,” says Bennett. “It’s part of my family’s history. Decoys are one of my earliest interests. I was always fascinated with them, always playing with them. I didn’t have any other things to play with.”
But, notes Bennett, in his day, the decoys were not toys. Nor were they simply decorative objects, as they are often used today.
“They were tools. They weren’t made to sit on a shelf,” he says. “Most of the ones I have show use. They’ve been painted and repainted. The big time collectors don’t like that. But to me that’s important.”
Many decoys could be considered folk art, and though Bennett has a number of contemporary and pristinely painted decoys by carvers with well known names, the old ones remain his favorites, the carver’s names often lost to history.
“Many of them have never been identified as to maker and most likely won’t be,” he says. “For every one you know who made it, there are 10 unknown.”
“A lot of the baymen were poor and couldn’t afford to buy them so they made them for their own use,” he says. “That’s why they are so unidentifiable. Some of them were pretty crude some were well made. Everyone had their own style. When you’d go coot shooting you just painted Clorox bottles black with a couple white spots.”
Bennett began collecting decoys seriously about 20 years ago, but the market has escalated so much he is finding himself priced out of it these days.
“Unfortunately, now I can’t afford the damn things,” says Bennett. “They have these auctions now and the prices have gone way up on some of the stuff. Most of my stuff is nothing fancy and not worth a whole lot, but it’s worth a lot to me.”
Among the prizes in his collection are decoys by William Henry Bennett, or “Uncle Henry”Â as he was known in Springs, a distant relative and renown decoy carver who died in the 1950s. Bennett now makes his decoys in a style similar to Uncle Henry in a small workshop in the corner of his basement. He has learned to ask questions when he comes across a supposedly antique decoy in perfect condition.
“I have doubts when people have mint stuff over 100 years old,” says Bennett. “Decoys got repainted constantly. Now they’re finding these old things with original paint? It leaves a lot of doubt in my mind.”
“The Passion of Pursuit: East End Collections”Â is curated by Christina Mossaides Strassfield and opens on Saturday, October 25 with a members preview at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) at 4 p.m. and a public opening from 5 to 6 p.m. The show runs through January 18, 2009. On Saturday, November 8, Dave Bennett will discuss his decoys at 3 p.m. at the museum. On Saturday, December 6, also at 3 p.m., Marjorie Chester will talk about her collections.
Above: A duck decoy from the collection of Dave Bennett. Photo by Gary Mamay.