(Photography by Laura Demanski, AM’94)

The things we carry

Artifacts and their nostalgic value.

At a Neubauer Collegium event this winter, “The Imaginary Funeral: Image, Artifact, and the Work of Mourning,” faculty panelists discussed the trappings of mourning in the Roman Empire, pre-Columbian Peru, and 19th-century America. Afterward, audience members spoke about, and in some cases had brought with them, the things by which they remember their own lost loved ones. They brought wristwatches, clothing, books, and papers—even an actual death mask made in Germany in the 1960s. It’s a nearly extinct art form, said the son of the woman it memorialized, the tricks of the trade lost over time as the ways we mourn evolve.

The discussion was by turns philosophical, psychological, historical, and personal—but mostly personal. It kept reminding me of something else, and finally I made the connection: it echoed the Saturday morning I spent last summer shadowing fine art appraiser Gary Piattoni, AB’83, at an Antiques Roadshow taping in downtown Chicago (“Object Lessons”).

That day Piattoni was working the arms and militaria table, where he focuses on the 20th century. Many of the items he appraised had come down to their owners from family members who had served. When you watch the show on TV, you often see some of the very highest-value items that Roadshow hopefuls bring in. On a February episode taped in New York City, eye-popping five-figure estimates were the norm: a Tiffany lamp, a John Lennon autograph. Off camera, where few items are worth hundreds, let alone thousands, the stories behind them make the strongest impression. They’re what many of those with family heirlooms come for.

What ties us to the things we love? In so many cases, it’s the people we loved. I moved last year, and the glass doorknobs in my new apartment are just like the ones I remember from my grandparents’ houses. To open a door is to return, in some tiny corner of my mind, to a retrospectively enchanted time. A cookbook that belonged to my maternal grandmother does the same, and the mixing bowls that my dad’s mom used to make her apple-pie crusts.

I asked Piattoni which artifacts of today collectors will pine for in 50 or 100 years. “It’s really tricky to predict,” he admitted. But certain markets keep pace with the nostalgia of successive generations. A case in point: toys. “People collect toys that they played with,” Piattoni told me. “It’ll be Barbies, it’ll be Transformers, it’ll be Playskool.” As a 40-something who now turns up the radio for songs from the 1970s that I ignored most of my adult life, that made perfect sense to me.