The Gift by Trevor Plumbly
Some years ago, during a TV programme on antiques, I made the comment that an interesting or family story behind an item was its greatest value. Shortly after the show was aired, I received a letter from a viewer asking if I would visit and look at her mother’s desk. Such letters weren’t rare at the time and I generally politely sidestepped them by a phone call or letter requesting photographs. Betty Dingle’s letter was different from the norm; it had a sort of polite instructive tone to it, more maiden aunt than TV fan. Shortly after the letter arrived, I was due to appear in a series in Auckland, and driven as much by her obvious sincerity on the telephone as by my own curiosity, I arrived at her apartment in a rather up-market retirement village, feeling more like a dutiful nephew than a visiting antique dealer. Betty was correct but not formal; she had that mixture of grace and internal steel that seems unique to elderly middle and upper class English ladies. Following the social niceties and afternoon tea (with biscuits of course), she decided it was time for me to view the desk.
It looked like a standard Sheraton Revival lady’s desk, elegant and in beautiful condition. As she explained its history, I was beginning to realise that casual homilies can come back and bite. Her father had made the desk as a wedding gift for her mother in 1910, during his time as a cabinet maker for Maples of London, and it was clear how much a treasured part of her life it was. She had obviously parted with the majority of her possessions prior to entering the facility, but just couldn’t bear to let the desk go. That presented a problem for me: was I expected to appreciate the craftsmanship and the sentiment or, God forbid, put some sort of value on it, which was the last thing I wanted to do? In an effort to avoid that, I said how nice it was that the desk and the story could be passed on in the family. She explained that she had no family left and hoped I would accept the desk as a gift because she felt sure I would continue to enjoy owning and caring for it.
Betty and I spoke on the phone a number of times until she passed away. I learned of her death via a letter from her trustee along with her mother’s jewel casket, also made by her father as an engagement present. With the casket was an envelope containing her father’s apprenticeship bond to Maples of London, together with a history and a short note from Betty which reads: ‘Please always treat these pieces with the same loving care and devotion that went into their craftsmanship. A devoted daughter, Betty Dingle, Auckland, New Zealand.’
Sitting now at ‘Betty’s desk’, I can’t help thinking what an extraordinary gift it was for anyone to receive. For Edward Dingle to devote so much time to creating the desk for his young bride, for his daughter to treasure it for so long and then for it to be entrusted to me. Most desks carry the scars of carelessness, a scrape or a stain of spilt liquid; Edward would be pleased to know that his desk is in practically the same condition as the day he gave it to his young wife. The family ownership may have changed, but the regard remains exactly the same. It’s an odd feeling owning something that represents a hundred years of another family’s memories, a relic of a more gentle age perhaps, but more important, a reminder of Betty’s open trust. The story is important and deserves to continue beyond me. I’ve never been in favour of hanging unwanted heirlooms round children’s necks, but these pieces are owed a special home and caretaker. So Sarah, dear daughter-in-law, when you sit at the desk or delve into the jewel box, if it’s inhumanly possible, Betty and I will be watching.