Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
My brother, Pieter, and his friends Klaus and Jacob
and Gerard and I as well, we worked in the back-back after business hours. Gerard was a photographer, and his job in the back-back room was to photograph the paintings before they were put into the crates. He had for these secret purposes a small darkroom that was hidden also. This is where Gerard developed his pictures. Sometimes Pieter's friends stayed all the night, but my brother Pieter would send me up to bed by midnight because in those years I was a schoolboy still.
In the year 1940, on May 10, Germany took occupation of the Netherlands without declaring war. Four days later, they bombed our city Rotterdam and destroyed it. Dutch forces surrendered on the day of May 15, 1940. Queen Wilhelmina and our royal family fled to London and our country became Occupied.
The whole time the Rijksmuseum stayed open but of course without those famous works of art which my brother had helped to move out in time. The director of the Rijksmuseum now filled in the empty spaces with minor works which he took out from storage.
The next bad year was 1942. Here comes now the story of how came I to America, and I became from Johannes to John and from the three words
van der Waal,
I became one word
van der Bilt
But never so rich or famous.
The writing stopped in the middle of the page.
Peter hurriedly flipped to the end of the tablet. There was nothing more. None of the other pages had been written on. He folded the sheets back and laid the yellow tablet on top of the other papers in the gray metal box.
He was closing the box when he glanced to the right and left and saw that those seats had emptied. People were boarding. He checked the gate assignment. It was his flight. He hurriedly locked the box, rummaged in two jacket pockets before finding his boarding pass, and dashed across the waiting room. He presented his boarding pass and put its stub in his mouth as he ran down the jetway with his carry-on in one hand and the gray metal box in the other. Right and left, they bumped against his thighs and his reading glasses slid down his nose. By the time he got to his seat, he was exhausted and haunted. His father had briefly come back to life in that unfinished memoir. He felt that he had lost him again.
MEDEO ALWAYS GOT OFF THE
bus first. william followed, and by some unspoken agreement, they wouldn't catch up with each other until they were well down the block, and the bus was out of sight. They walked together to the end of Mrs. Zender's driveway, said, “See ya,” and parted.
Before they would start their work, they shared a snack, which Mrs. Wilcox had prepared. It seemed there was no end to the work in the kitchen. The room was quiet except for the sounds of their voices as they talked and the groaning of the air conditioner. There was no music inside the kitchen until Mrs. Zender pushed open the door, and they would hear a slice of sound, sometimes a measure and sometimes a melodyâdepending on how much clothing had to follow her through the door. Sometimes Mrs. Zender stayed long enough to drink a glass and a refill of the champagne she kept chilled in the
refrigerator. Sometimes she stayed and talked; they were pleased and flattered when she did.
It was hot at the top of the ladder, and they took turns climbing up and handing down. They worked well together. William washed; Amedeo dried. Or Amedeo washed, William dried. They stacked and counted dishes. They polished silver and brass. William inspected. Amedeo inspected. They looked for cracks and chips in cheap coffee mugs and delicate champagne glasses. William had a china marking pen to circle any cracks or chips they found, and he used that same pen to mark prices on old Pyrex dishes and bake tins. William got to do all the marking.
With his china marking pen, William wrote 50Â¢ smack in the center of an old pie tin. He said, “Sometimes the kitchen is the most work and the least profitable of all the rooms in our sale.”
Amedeo asked, “If these old pie tins are so much bother, wouldn't it definitely be better to donate them to that Emerson House?”
“We have to leave some stuff heaped up like this in the kitchen. Some liquidators leave all their stuff piled up, dusty and tarnished so that people can sort it out for theirselves and think they have found a prince among frogs.”
“Isn't any of this stuff valuable?”
William used a customary long pause to walk over to a cabinet in the far corner of the room. On a shelf at eye level there was a pair of candlesticks. He very carefully removed one and handed it to Amedeo. “Turn it over,” he said. “Look on the bottom. See that mark? See those crossed swords?” Amedeo nodded. “That's for Meissen. German. Valuable.” He turned back to the cabinet. “This one has a match, and they're both in very good shape. Probably worth a whole lot.” After Amedeo checked them out, William returned them to the cupboard. “Very valuable. We won't even begin to wash them until everything is cleared outta here. We'll hafta line the sink with towels.
“After we clean them up, Ma'll study them marks on the bottom. She'll study all them marks, not just the crossed swords. She'll study the big ones, the little ones, the blue onesâwhat color of blue they areâthe ones that are pressed in. By the time she's done, she'll know the name of the person who painted them and the year they were painted and probably will even know if the painter took a bathroom break between painting one and then the other.”
“These will probably be the first things that Bert and Ray will buy.”
“Who are Bob and Ray?” Amedeo asked.
and Ray. Better remember those names. Bert and Ray.”
“Who are they?”
“They're antique dealers. They have a shop over in the part of town called Huntington. They used to manage house sales themselves, and actually, they are the guys who got Ma started in the business. When they got too busy in their antique business and didn't want to spend their time managing house sales, they turned their calls over to Ma. Then after a while, people started calling Ma directly. Word-of-mouth recommendations. About then, Bert and Ray stopped doing house sales altogether, but they've kept up their contact with Ma. They like Ma to let them in first; that is, before the sale is open to the public.”
“Will Bob and Ray get their things wholesale?” he asked.
and Ray,” William corrected. He turned away, exasperated, but when he looked back, he saw that Amedeo was smiling.
William waited a second more, then said,”
and Ray will get a discount. All antique dealers like
“âhere he smiled at the angel on his shoulderâ“and Ray get what is called a âprofessional discount.' As long as they have a
dealer's license. When it comes to quality antiques, it's harder to buy them at a good price than to sell them, so that's why Bert and Ray want to get in before the sale is open to the public. Ma always lets them in first.”
“Didn't she let Bert and Ray in first at the Birchfield sale when she found the Chinese silk screen?”
William interrupted a long silence to say, “'Course she did, but they didn't want any part of it.”
When Mrs. Wilcox told Bert and Ray that she thought the screen was “something good,” they said that they wouldn't have it even if she gave it to them. Bert, who was an ex-Marine, said that when he was in the service, every other sailor who hit Hong Kong had brought home at least two.
When the Freer required that Mrs. Wilcox provide a written offer, proving that she had an authentic bid of twenty thousand dollars for the screen, Mrs. Wilcox called Bert and Ray and asked them to send her such an offer, written on their Huntington Antiques letterhead. Worried that they could possibly be made to honor such a bid, Bert and Ray were reluctant to do it. William took the phone from his mother, and with the same dignified determination that persuaded the receptionist at the Freer to call the curator and the same perseverance that persuaded the
curator to look at his photos, William convinced Bert and Ray to send his mother a letter offering her twenty thousand dollars for the Chinese silk screen that they didn't want even if she had given it to them.
When the Freer Gallery purchased the screen and William called the
with the news, Mrs. Wilcox got many phone calls of congratulations from other dealers as well as from other people who had things they wanted her to sell. But for many days neither Bert nor Ray called. When finally they did, Mrs. Wilcox said, “I found out that that there screen was really worth twenty-five thousand. Guess I just still got a lot to learn.”
When Bert and Ray teased Mrs. Wilcox about how she got “taken” by the Freer, Mrs. Wilcox laughed at herself right along with them.
That was her way.
Mrs. Wilcox had figured out that Bert and Ray were having a difficult time accepting the fact that she, Dora Ellen Wilcox, who had once been their student, already knew more than they did. And she had also figured out how to turn away their subconscious anger.
“Bert and Ray can't but admit to theirselves that they made a mistake about that Chinese screen. But Ma is still
grateful, so when she's doing a big sale like this one, she keeps a list of special stuff for them.”
“Stuff like those candlesticks?”
“Yeah, they'll be right up there near the top of Ma's list. And in this business you also have to know
Vintage means it's old, but not as old as
Like that big stove over there. Someone's gonna buy it. There's a big market for old bathroom stuff, too. Bathtubs with claw feet are very popular. And people even buy old toilets. That's because new toilets are made to
to save water, and sometimes, they just don'tâflush, that is. But mostly people like these big old appliances. Appliances don't get to be old. They get to be
“You just said
kitchen stuff and
toilets, and big
“But to the customers we say
Amedeo repeated, “Vintage.”
William motioned to Amedeo to follow him to the other side of the room. From the bottom cabinet of the center island, he pulled out a heavy, metal, domed object. It was covered with a thick layer of sticky dust. “Now, take this here waffle iron. It must be older than toothache.” He pulled the cord from the base and began to wind it into a figure eight. The cord resisted; it was thick as a garden hose and the black-and-yellow cotton insulation
was stiff and dry; the plug that connected to the appliance was as big as a hockey puck, and the plug that went into the wall as big as a doorknob. “Somebody's going to want this old dinosaur of a waffle iron. They'll get it all rewired and have the neighbors over for a waffle brunch.”