CONVERSING with COLLECTIBLES
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Beginning at an early age, inanimate objects spoke to me. I fully understand that, to some, a statement like that might appear to be the ravings of a madman, or merely an exercise in semantics. And being that the language inanimate objects “speak” involves neither words nor sounds, it is not easy to explain. It is a language that is entirely visual. Art, and objects that are inanimate, communicate solely by means of what can be seen.
Words, written or spoken, are the dominant method of communication. They have so completely taken over the contents of our minds that we cannot even think without them. And yet, we all did that very thing, at one time, when we were very, very young. Have you forgotten how? Can you do it now? Can you think without articulating your thoughts in words? Animals do! Can you even visualize what that is like?
The language that inanimate objects speak is also a language without words. Music is such a language too. It has often been referred to as the universal one, because it “speaks” to everyone, crossing all national borders, without need of translation. Music is no more than pure tones, vibrating at various speeds. When put together in infinite combinations, these abstract sounds can be melodic, soothing, moving, and even shocking; they “speak” directly to the soul. The language of pure music, like that of inanimate objects, has no need of words. Music, on the other hand, often carries words with it. At times, words can enhance our experience of music. At other times, they can obscure it.
How often have you liked a tune, essentially, because you liked the words? Kids do that all the time. The music sort of sneaks in, taking a back seat to the lyrics. When the words are removed, one recognizes the melody, hearing the words still resonating in their memory. Rap music is all words, words and rhythm. Is that really music? Can anyone hum a rap “tune”? Like most of the human race, rap cannot communicate, without words.
Music is everywhere, today! It is in the background of every TV show and movie. And on the nightly news, each major news event has its own theme. As we become desensitized to crime and violence, music helps to ease the pain. Eventually, we fail to consciously hear each new event’s quickly composed leitmotif, but we instantly realize, unconsciously, that we are about to get the latest update, or hear the last one repeated again. Eventually the constant repetition of news events, playing in the backgrounds of our lives, becomes, a kind of music, in itself.
Music is broadcast incessantly, wherever we go shopping, dining, or even riding in an elevator. And we learn to tune it out. Its effects on us become subliminal. But it is still communicating with our subconscious minds, even though we cease to hear it. Does anybody visit Walmart to listen to the music?
At other times, we become aware of background music, and find it either pleasant or annoying. It was the composer Eric Sati who first identified and purposely composed such music. He called it “furniture music”, and considered it part of the furnishings of a room. In his mind, the music became a kind of object, an object that speaks to the listener, without words. Inanimate objects are objects that speak, without words, as well
“Listen” with your eyes and you will “hear” what inanimate objects are saying to you. If you are a collector, your first meeting with a new object is, essentially, an interview. You and this potential acquisition are conversing. Perhaps it will make a stunning first impression, then again, it may take some time to see its virtues. Once you have fine-tuned your perception, through experience, you will be able to listen harder and perceive potential, even when the message is muffled by the ravages of time. And, as I often do, you will realize that this object needs you, for you, alone, can understand it, and see beyond its rough exterior, the remnants if its faded beauty that only you possess the skills required to renew. And if you embrace and adopt it, the object, itself, will speak to you, and guide you, and tell you what it wants you to do to bring it back to life again.
In the world of the inanimate, restoration is the highest form of communication. Most collectors, myself included, aspire to find objects in so-called “mint condition”. When this happens, there is a brief period of elation, then the object is placed on a shelf, or in a showcase, and usually not touched again, lest its mintiness might become degraded. And it is soon forgotten. The object is dismissed as perfect, before you ever really get to know it. End of story! Over time, I came to realize that objects in need of restoration are more gratifying, in the end, than those that are perfection, to begin with. Throughout the process of restoration, one is able to trace the steps that the artist who created the object followed on his journey of creation, and thus, experience a heightened level of appreciation.
If you open both your mind and eyes, you will understand that the object is talking to you, guiding you, and telling you exactly what it wants you to do. Listen carefully to what it tells you, for not every object wants to be mint again. A perfect restoration should not erase the rich patina that can only be gained through gentle aging. Sometimes, I can take one look at a new acquisition and know, instantly, what to do. But if I am in doubt, I take my time, and listen harder. And, in an hour, or a day, or a week, or two, the object will convey to me how to continue. I’ve learned to be patient and take no chances, secure in the knowledge that, eventually, the answer will be revealed to me.
At times like this, the object in need of restoration is truly communicating. Lest you doubt what I am saying, I actually have proof. Long ago, in the beginning of my adventures in collecting, I too wondered if I was experiencing true communication, or if it was just my imagination, until I discovered certain rare toys, toys that neither I, nor anyone I knew, had ever seen before. I had the foresight to snap them up, even though, significant parts were missing. I undertook their restoration with unusually deep concentration. And miraculously, the toys, themselves, conveyed to me, exactly, how the missing pieces should look.
Years later, when other more complete example of these toys turned up, I discovered that I had reproduced the unknown pieces perfectly. So much so that there is no need to reveal the fact that the parts are not original. Set next to the newly discovered originals, nobody could ever tell. There is no need to disclose these details, now, for, hopefully, these toys will never be for sale. And in a way the restorations are more amazing than if the once missing pieces were real.
How good am I at restoration? Only my close friends know. I am probably foolish to reveal this, but at my age, I suppose it really doesn’t matter. The fact is, I have, to some degree, refreshed most of the items in my collection. More often than not, I didn’t need to actually retouch an object. All I needed to do was touch it, and it was subtly transformed. It is uncanny, and somewhat mystical. At times, this “Gift”, which is a bit like healing, has cost me money. I would find myself at a show or flea market with a potential purchase in my hands, while the dealer decided on a price. As I held it, the object began to look better and better, until, at last, it began to glow! And I could sense that, all the while, the observant dealer took this into account, and as the object grew brighter, the price he had in mind was getting higher. And if it was a doll or jointed figure, I began to unconsciously pose it, unaware that it was visibly coming to life. I later learned to keep my hands off items, until the price was decided, and the deal was done.
Over time, I discovered that I could rescue an object from the brink of oblivion, and, sometimes, even “restore” a toy that didn’t exist. And thus, starting from nothing, conjure it up. And so it was that: Once upon a time, at the very beginning of my adventures in collecting, when my friend Richard Merkin and I were the only Mickey mouse collectors that we knew, Richard got a Mouse that was terrific. A pot metal Mickey made in Germany, sitting in an an oversized easy chair. At that moment in time, I was convinced that it was the most marvelous Mickey in the World, and my chances of ever getting one like it were nil. Richard generosity loaned it to me, and I made myself a copy, reproducing it perfectly, right down to every chip in the patina. When the job was finished, I asked Richard to pick the one he thought was his. He studied them both intently and then chose the wrong one.
As the years rolled on, more of these German Mickeys came along, and I had several opportunities to purchase a real one. But I never saw the need, as having the image, was enough for me, and in some respects, the one I made was more extraordinary. Here are some photos I shot at the time. The year was 1967. I long ago forgot which one is Richard’s mouse, and which is mine.
My friend Noel Barrett once told me that in the Golden Age of toy collecting, when I was better known, there was a statement he repeated frequently. He’d advise many a collector: “Never repair, repaint, retouch, or restore anything... unless you are Mel Birnkrant.”
More often than not, the multitude of objects that vie for your attention at shows and flea markets, and these days on eBay, are not for you. The fact is, you may be better at communicating with inanimate objects than you realize. When you rush through an antique show or a flea market, or even a Walmart store, you are interviewing thousands of objects, instantly, and deciding that only a few, if any, speak to you. Then, suddenly, some object, often one you least expected, will attract your attention. Your eyes will hear it calling out to you, and when you get closer, and meet it eye to eye, it happens: Love at first sight!
When I sit downstairs, on certain nights, and turn on all the lights, and tune the rheostats just right, a thousand silent voices resonate in my eyes. It is a cacophony of sights, a thousand objects, all babbling at the same time. Some are simply saying “Look at me!” others are seeking sympathy, “You haven’t admired me for a long time.” “You never talk to me!” “Did you forget me?” “Do you still love me?” “ Am I happy?” “I am lonely!” “I am beautiful!” “Thanks to you, I look brand new.” “A crack is beginning to appear, right here!” Every one of them has something different to say, something unique to see. But I would like to think that there is one thing on which they all unanimously agree : that they feel safe, and are content to be living here in "Mouse Heaven" with me.
There is a rather well-worn corner of the big couch in the large room that I think of as "my place", my favorite spot in all the Universe. I love the view from there. And I also have a favorite time, which, alas, is often brief, and happens all too seldom, lately. But Ah!, in the old days, before our dear friend Dewey Owens passed away, he and a gang of close friends, warm and comfortable companions, all, would visit, at least, two or three evenings a week. And, on those occasions, my favorite times were those exquisite moments, just before the guests arrived. By then, everything was ready, and the stage was set, as close to perfection as it could get. And all the lights, throughout the house were lit. Added to the enchanting glow of several hundred hidden bulbs and spotlights, and two neon clocks that filled the distant corners of the hall with pink and purple light, there were often tiny votive candles, flickering, everywhere. And to make the Magic Spell complete, the perfect music, playing at the perfect volume, filled the air. As Dewey was a harpist and composer, it was often flute and harp duets, the most appropriate “furniture music” to suit the room, and the occasion.
And, as Eunice made last minute preparations in the kitchen, I would pour myself a glass of gin, and go into the large room alone, and park myself in my favorite corner or the couch. Spread out before me, in all its incandescent glory, was the entire expanse of the Great Wall of China, Celluloid, Wood, Cloth, Tin, and Plexiglas. And it was then, after just a sip or two, that everything began to radiate with an aura of enchantment that happened only on such occasions. And my heart would swell with exaltation, beholding this glorious accumulation, glowing with a kind of Magic, reminiscent of a combination of all the Christmas Windows that I ever gazed into, awe struck, in my lifetime.
It is at such rare delicious times as this that the inanimate objects before me, and all around me, speak to me, loudly and clearly. They become as one with each other, and with me, as they raise their silent voices in unity, performing a choral Symphony of things to see, a colossal Cantata, made up of a thousand divergent inanimate objects, singing visually, and inaudibly, in perfect harmony.
That is how they speak to me, how they sing to me!
Do I reply? Not really! Inanimate objects are not good listeners. I "talk" to them, by taking care of them, and do my best to keep them warm and safe, and protect them from dust, and the sun’s fading rays, and mend them, when, God forbid, they break, and nurse them back to health again, when they are sick. Most of their ailments, by the way, can be cured by cosmetic surgery. And sometimes, in some corner of my mind, where logic has been banished, long ago, the thought occurs to me that after all these years of constant care, they hear me “speak” to them, as well, and understand that I care for them, because I care for them.