The new British Galleries at the Met are full of marvels, but this striking display of doll-house miniatures reminded me of a time I attended a cow, tractor, and household goods auction in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I found, in a box of silverplated spoons (lot 86), an extremely rare, fully hallmarked miniature hearth, London, 1705 by George Manjoy—the very one illustrated in the book on the subject. I’d recently bought one in London for something like $16,000, and here it was with an estimate of $50-100. As the auctioneer was loosening up his patter with the first few lots, I saw another dealer—with whom I occasionally butted heads—menacingly enter the arena. He walked straight over to the silver, and in a minute or two picked up the fire-grate, louped the marks, and with what I took to be a performative lack of interest, dropped it back into the bin. “Damn,” I thought to myself, using a much worse word.
In short order, the crying of lot 86: “Twenty-fie dollas thirty dollas do I hear forty dollas” and so on up to $300…when it was hammered down to me. Not only was it hammered down to me, but a girl brought the whole box over to me, handed it to me, and said “$330 dollars please”—immediate payment, apparently, being the custom of the country. My business done, and turning to go, my rival dealer accosted me with: “what the hell are you doing buying a bunch of plated spoons and—what is that—a busted up piece of old Judaica?”
It surprises us now, but these miniatures were not for children. Whole houses full of furniture, rugs, curtains, paintings, and porcelains were commissioned piece by piece, and to the most exacting standards, by adults as a hobby—a way to pass time, but also a way to engage with friends and family. Then as now, silver miniatures were expensive luxuries. Petronella Oortman’s famous doll-house (now at the Rijksmuseum) cost as much to make and furnish as it would have cost to buy and furnish a real house on an Amsterdam canal.
So, as we are all house-bound and perhaps gathering hearthside to talk, read, watch TV, let’s hope staying home is its own delight. It may help to think that we can’t have changed that much since the seventeenth century, when people built dollhouses because staying home was so delightful they wanted to do it for real, and do it again in “a world of pure imagination.”