There are moments in life when something happens that only you can fully appreciate, when opportunity seems to have crossed your path because whatever it is, you are the one who was meant to find it. At such times, this is your moment to act, no matter how whimsical the impulse or hard it may be to justify to others. My mother once got a black Labrador puppy that way at a school auction, and it is a good thing the hound latched on to my father afterwards because Dad could not imagine what had possessed her to do it.
For me it began with one of those classic parenting moments when the kids were acting up in the back seat and I pronounced sternly that I was turning the car around and heading home unless they knocked it off. To reenforce my threat I turned right when I otherwise would have turned left and headed past the darkened storefronts of our town in Northwest Connnecticut. As I neared the intersection where I had planned to complete the circle and head back in the direction we had been travelling, my partner noticed something unusual poutside the Stateline Auction House and commented; "There's a statue of a beefeater over there." I practically made a U Turn in the intersection. I knew at once what it was. There couldn't be two of them.
Sure enough, it was a carved and painted wooden statue, in the cigar store indian style, of a Yeoman of the tower guard, complete with all the regalia from his halberd to his knee garters. It was cold and dark, so she couldn't give it a thorough inspection, but I was convinced it was the very same statue that had once stood in front of Maggiacomo's liquor store in my hometown, Millbrook NY. And so it turned out to be.
The beefeater was carved in 1976 by artist Peter Wing, who still lives in the area where I grew up. He arrived in Millbrook in 1969 after serving in Viet Nam. Around the time of the bicentennial, Millbrook had at least six of his carved creations in front of various stores. A beefeater was an appropriate choice for the liquor store, and John Kading's Corner News sported a classic cigar store indian. There was a clothing store called The Haberdasher which had a mustachioed gent all in black with a top hat, and the ice cream parlor Jamo's had a victorian beauty, complete with bustle, wearing a dress the color of black raspberry. The deli had some sort of a dwarfish figure rather like a punch and Judy puppet that was straddling a barrel, and the Millbrook Diner had a magnificent ship's figurehead.
Within a few years, some of the stores had closed and the statues went with them. The Diner's figurehead was so weathered that several years ago it was removed and a new one created (though not by Wing) as part of the renovation. I often wondered what became of the other pieces, and never expected to see one of them again, let alone have the opportunity to own it.
But now here it was in all its glory, and from the looks of it it was in remarkably fine shape. Wherever its journey had taken it since it left the liquor store, this beefeater had not been exposed to the elements. I decided that if it could be had for a price that would not ruin me, I would go to the auction and win it.
It turned out that this piece had already been up for auction but had not met its minimum and was not scheduled to be a lot in the next auction either. I asked whether I could know the minimum bid and the woman I spoke with said she thought the auctioneer might be willing to sell it to me for whatever it was.
When she called me back I had already determined the maximum amount I was willing to pay for this extravagant recapturing of a piece of my childhood. I figured that either the minimum bid was much too high, or that maybe it just didn't attract enough interest from local buyers who lacked the association with the piece that I did. Or maybe they had nowhere to put the thing. I prepared myself to be disappointed.
And much to my surprise, the number they gave was less than I feared, and very likely les that it would be worth to the right collector. Today I picked it up, and they tossed in the wooden pedestal they had displayed it with that had just the right colors and came form an old mill in Ansonia, CT. I learned that the auction house had acquired it from an estate sale in Millerton, NY, about midway between here and where it all started in Millbrook. Then I drove it home.
Now there is a cigar store beefeater in my living room, and someday soon I'll contact Peter and let him know that one of his creations has found the right home.