The Stupid Brothers Go Skipping Along
© Mark Gatter, 2005

You can never tell just where an interesting find is going to turn up. For instance, a friend of ours decided some time ago that he would help out a local charity with the proceeds of 'skipping' at the local rubbish tip. This is a highly rewarding pursuit which involves scouring what we regard as trash to see if it actually contains things out which might be considered to be valuable antiques elsewhere in the in the USA, for example.

Every month or so, a man knocks on Mike's door and buys the whole lot from him, cash down.

Apparently this fellow sends an entire container-full across the Atlantic every couple of months, representing a huge influx of rare cultural assets to their eventual buyers, whereas to us they are merely another way of dealing with the landfill problem - and, in Mike's case, a good way of supporting a local charity, too.

Of course, I draw no conclusions here about the relative states of stupidity to be found in either the UK or the US, especially as I am married to one of 'them'. In fact, let me make it quite clear that, with the possible exception of George W. Bush and just about everyone who works for him, I'm sure that all the inhabitants of the USA are just wonderful, intelligent people.

So, it was with some surprise that I had a look through the collection of stuff which Mike was putting together for his next shipment.

I held up an old, battered and far from beautiful sheet-metal watering can. 'You've got to be kidding...?'

'No, really,' said Mike, 'they just LOVE those. They think they're Victorian, or something. So long as it says 'made in England' on it, they just don't seem to care.'

I remember seeing, while I lived in California, a shop front which read 'We Buy Junk and Sell Antiques', which seemed a rather honest way of putting it. Of course, over there if it's 20 years old, it's legally an antique and can be sold as such. Another sign, over a restaurant, advertised 'Oriental Cuisine' at one end, and 'American Food' at the other. Again, probably an honest distinction between Peking Duck and all the trimmings on the one hand, and 'do you want fries with that?' on the other.

The thing is, the American view of 'antiques' can venture into realms which we find utterly incredible. One Californian I spoke to, just back from a holiday in the UK with his family, was completely convinced that all our old churches, castles and so forth were not, in fact, the real thing, but very, very good modern reconstructions instead. It was inconceivable to him that there really could be buildings that old, anywhere. As far as he was concerned, the UK was just one big Disneyland - but it didn't detract from his enjoyment of the whole experience at all. Quite the opposite.

'I just gotta to hand it to you guys,' he gushed. 'Your fakes are so much better than our fakes! They are incredible - you'd think they are the real thing, even when you're up close!

Absolutely speechless, I just smiled and nodded in a disparaging, 'well, you know' sort of a way.

'And I just couldn't believe the craftsmanship!' he continued, 'over here, you couldn't find anyone who could build stuff to look like that! It's just amazing! I'm so impressed that you've managed to figure out all those old ways of doing things!'

I had to agree that I, too was amazed - I just didn't tell him quite what it was that I was amazed by. I sincerely wished that I had a bridge to sell him, as I'm sure he would have bought it like a shot.

This is the kind of attitude which says, of Windsor Castle, 'Why on earth did you guys build it in the flight path?'

And yes, there actually are people over there who say everything as if it requires an exclamation mark at the end of it...

The ability of many Americans to firmly believe that the entire world shares their values has been much in the news lately, but my favourite example of it was when I was cheerily asked how we celebrated the 4th of July, American Independence day, in the UK. 'Oh,' I replied, 'we just turn west and wave.' The smile turned to a look of utter confusion.

Anyway, back to the dump. On his travels through the skips, Mike had found an old, battered chest of drawers.

'Hmmm...' he thought to himself. 'Definitely looks as if it could be a valuable antique...somewhere!' He heaved it out for a better look. Clearly a handmade Georgian family heirloom, cunningly disguised as a cheap, badly made, late 20th Century object, he was sure it would find a good home on the other side of The Pond. However, always careful, Mike decided to take a closer look. After all, there might be spiders...or hidden treasure...or...?

In the top draw was a small box, inside which was what looked like a small, bronze ring, together with some other junk - oh, sorry, I mean 'other valuable antiques'. However, this ring didn't look like the sort of thing he could sell as a valuable antique - in fact, it looked like someone's garden-shed attempt at casting, and a pretty poor attempt at that. The inside of the hole into which a finger might have been supposed to insert itself was quite sharp and jagged, and not the sort of thing into which anyone in their right mind would want to insert anything other than a file. Mike was quite perplexed by it, and the next time he saw me he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it across.

'Do you think it's Victorian?' he asked, hopefully. 'Er...well, it might be,' I replied, thinking that it was actually the genuine article - real junk. However, I could have been wrong, and I didn't want to deflate his obvious optimism.

'Why not take it over to the (Dorset County) Museum?' I suggested. 'They're very keen on seeing things that people have turned up, and they might be able to identify it properly.'

Mike thought that was a cracking idea, and our conversation soon turned to other important Dorchester topics: the weather, the date of the next public execution, that sort of thing. I had completely forgotten about his find when he saw me in the street a few days later.

'I took it to the Museum, like you suggested,' he began, 'and they were very keen, very keen indeed. They think it's a sort of handle or something.'

He pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to me. On it was written the following:

'Your 'ring' cast in bronze with a boss is probably a late medieval purse / bridle fitting like a toggle but fixed or sewn, opposite the boss side. The ring would allow a trace, thong or tie to pass through with the boss acting as the decorative side.'

A drawing accompanied the above to show how it might have been used.

'The thing is,' Mike continued, 'he wanted to know where I found it, and I didn't really want to tell him - I was too embarrassed. Then he asked me how deep it was. Well, it was only about a foot down, but that was right at the top of the household skip, which made it about 8 feet in the air! But I couldn't really tell him that, could I?'

By this time I was leaning on the wall, I was laughing too hard.

'In the end, I thought it might shut him up if I told him I'd send him a map reference, but then he pulled out a map!' So I figured out where the household skip was, and read out the numbers. He wrote it all down, very carefully, then had a look at the map himself.' Mike was grinning from ear to ear. 'He sort of stared at it, and his eyebrows went right up into his hair. "Are you sure?" he said - and I nodded. "Really?" I nodded again. "Amazing..." and off he went, scratching his head!'

He's thinking of taking them one of his valuable Georgian watering cans, next time.

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