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Charismatic, inquisitive, intelligent, enthusiastic – did I neglect to say telegenic? – Elyse Luray, like her three fellow investigators on the PBS series “History Detectives”, brings to the field of history all the energy, relevance and wonder that somehow got bled out of too many junior high and high school classrooms.
You can tell I’m big on “History Detectives,” as a history buff and as a collector – although the folks who submit mysteries aren’t necessarily either: Someone in Oregon opens a trunk and finds a Revolutionary War–era poem apparently written by an American prisoner of war in Mother England; a guy in Seattle receives from his father a baseball signed and dated July 12, 1944 by former Major League pitcher Dizzy Dean, along his dad’s account of playing in an uncharacteristically integrated wartime Air Force ball game with Dean and Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige … These are human-interest stories more than anything, but they demonstrate the kind of investigatory skills – the adventure of real research – that is part and parcel of world-class collecting.
What’s more, I note that “History Detectives” investigations often have a genealogical element. While many people think of genealogists as spidery and schoolmarmish, good ones know their beans about history and are as tenacious about pursuing a lead as Arnold Schwarzenegger was about tracking down Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator.” That’s an inspiration for collectors seeking as much knowledge about their treasures as they possibly can.
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But I digress: Back to Elyse …
Originally from Baltimore, Elyse Luray graduated with a degree in art history from Newcomb College Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her creds in the auction and collectibles world – what you won’t know just from seeing her on PBS – is extensive. For example, she was animation art specialist, managed the Popular Culture department and set up the Arms & Armor and American Indian Art departments at Christie’s, where she worked as a licensed auctioneer and appraiser for 11 years (in 2000 she auctioned one of the pairs of ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz” for $666,000). She has captained the block for a host of other auction houses (Steiner Sports, Grey Flannel Auctions, Bertoia Auctions, etc.) and charitable causes as well. Elyse has appeared and appraised on the Home & Garden Television show “If Walls Could Talk,” HGTV’s “Endless Yard Sale,” “The Early Show” on CBS and “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS; and she has evaluated the personal collection of cartoonist/animator/producer/all-around creative genius Chuck Jones and the archives and collections of such little-known startups as Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Lucasfilm and Hanna-Barbera Productions. The list goes on …
So imagine MY elation when Elyse agreed to talk about her personal collections with AmeriCollector.com! Here’s our interview from earlier in this month.
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AmeriCollector: You must collect a lot of things. What’s your main collecting interest?
Elyse: My main collection is actually Marx Brothers posters: one-sheets and inserts, not reproductions. My children’s last name is Marx and I have two boys, so they’re “the Marx brothers.” (Laughs.) All over my house are Marx Brothers posters. I got my first one maybe 25 years ago, before my children where born; but then I actually had boys, whose last name is Marx, and I started collecting more and more and more. The prices got really high, but then they went down again. So that’s probably my biggest collection.
It’s also hard, because you need to have the space for posters, and I don’t really have that much space anymore, so that limits my buying.
I went through a big stage of collecting bulldogs, since I had one – anything with a bulldog – and I probably ended up with a couple of hundred pieces of bulldog paraphernalia, things with an image of a bulldog and mainly old advertising pieces.
AC: So you don’t necessarily collect antiques.
Elyse: Well, you know, it’s funny you say that. I mean, I don’t consider my bulldog collection or Marx Brothers posters antiques, but nothing is later then 1950; in fact, some pieces are from the turn of the 20th century. Each is one-of-a-kind, and I stay away from limited editions. So I guess they are antiques. I also collect sterling silver serving pieces and trays, both American and European, and I don’t buy anything new. I don’t buy contemporary.
I don’t feel I collect that much because, with my show and with my work, I’m constantly around collections. It’s really weird for me, but when I work on an appraisal or a story, I feel like I’m sharing the collection with the owner for a while. Because of what I do and the nature of my business, I feel like I’m around collections all the time … Actually, I AM around collections all the time! (Laughs.)
AC: I know you were at Christie’s for a long time, and I think you were working in the areas of pop culture and art, so I assumed you collected art.
Elyse: Well, I have a lot of Western art in my house, which came from my parents, and I did help help set up the American Indian Art department at Christie’s. One area of art that I actually bought and collected recently with my mother: the “Les Maîtres de l’Affiche” series; they’re prints and posters from the turn of the century. Lautrec, Mucha and Cheret were some of the more known illustrators. And it’s a series of prints produced in the early 1900s. The whole series is about …I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head: Let’s say 350, 400. My mom has them, each framed on one entire wall in her dining room and I have a couple scattered through out my house. And that’s definitely artwork, but it’s more of what we call a “multiple” market, because prints are multiples, meaning they are produced in a series and there is more then one. Prints, posters, photography – they fall into the multiple category.
AC: How do you build your collections?
Elyse: If you want me to give advice on how to collect, these are my key points:
BUY WHAT YOU LOVE – hands down, buy what you love. If you find a passion, follow it. Anything that you want to collect is OK. If you want to collect Hawaiian shirts, ashtrays, bells – anything that what you find interesting – then that’s what you should collect. There’s nothing you can’t collect, because that’s the beauty of it. Follow your passion, follow your dreams …
When you do find that one thing that gives you some type of emotional satisfaction that you want to start collecting it, my biggest piece of advice, besides buy what you like, is BUY GOOD: Buy things that are in good condition, buy things that are not going to fall apart or have a lot of damage or have a lot of restoration on them, because I find that those are the things that sustain themselves the longest. And I hate to tell to buy things for value, but if you do ever need to sell your collection or want to sell your collection, you want to have things in it that are actually the best of the best. If you can’t afford to do that in the beginning, then “buy up”: Buy what you can afford and then trade it when you can get to the next better piece.
AC: Is there any particular “holy grail” that you’re looking for, in terms of posters or even bulldogs?
Elyse: No, I haven’t really found my “holy grail” yet.
I wish I DID have a “holy grail”: I always want more. I’d like to collect other things, actually, at this point.
I’m not sure that anyone should have a “holy grail,” because after you get it, then you’re kind of, like, what do I do now? You know what I mean? (Laughs.) I would hate for someone to stop collecting.
AC: What would you collect?
Elyse: Too many things to really answer. I love antique advertising. I love old jars: I kind of started to collect them; they’re not expensive, they look really good and they’re very decorative in your house.
I don’t have the room for it, but if I had room, I’d collect a million other things. I’d love to collect old photography – black-and-white – and when I say “old,” I mean early-20th-century photography, not contemporary.
The problem – and you would probably be the same way, because you’re a collector – is that you don’t think of some things, and then you walk into somebody’s house and you see what they collect, and you think: “That’s the greatest idea! That’s brilliant! I love it!”
I was just in Sun Valley, Idaho, on vacation over Christmas, and I walked into somebody’s house, and they collect nutcrackers. They were exceptional cast-iron nutcrackers, and they must have had 200 of them, and you know, the characters that were used and the mechanics of the nutcrackers – it was just a brilliant thing to collect! I would never have thought of that before.
The beauty is that there is always something to collect!
Images courtesy of Elyse Luray
Visit the History Detectives on PBS online at: www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives
Visit Elyse’s Web site: www.ElyseLuray.com.