She tracks down bad seeds, beatniks, and sassy broads—and Miriam Linna is never beaten to the pulp.
Miriam linna refers to women as “dames” and to rock music as “rock and roll,” and just about everything that interests her is classified as “cool.” In her converted-classroom apartment, surrounded by shelves and boxes of paperback books with saucy covers and titles like Swamp Lust and A Pound of Flesh, the fifties vernacular begins to make sense. “I’ve been looking at this stuff for a long time, and nothing looks particularly tawdry to me,” she says, picking up one whose cover features a scantily clad, well-proportioned woman draped over a velvet chair. She has about 15,000 books.Linna, a former member of punk band the Cramps who now runs a label called Norton Records, has been collecting vintage paperbacks since she worked at the Strand Book Store in 1976. “They weren’t resalable at the time. They went to the quarter table outside, and with the employee discount, they were a dime apiece. It seemed like such a waste.” Their throwaway nature poses the biggest challenge for collectors today. “Getting mint-condition copies is tough, because people didn’t bother to take care of them. A lot of times the covers are torn off—men hiding the books from their wives.”The paperback craze started in 1939, when Pocket Books released The Good Earth, and exploded after World War II. “Today, a lot of collectors specialize in a specific genre: true-crime, crime fiction, sci-fi, hard-boiled,” she explains. “I love it all. But right now I’m really into juvenile delinquency. I’ve got over 500 JDs,” she says, pointing out The Young Punks and Hot Rod Angels.
Beyond the thrill of completion—she’s got every volume by Avon, Beacon, Signet, and others—Linna gets a kick out of the practical side of her collection: She’s read hundreds, maybe thousands, of the books. “Action. Raunchiness. Deceit. Grrrr. It doesn’t get any better.” – Tara Mandy
RAREST ITEM Sex Gang, by Paul Merchant (a.k.a. Harlan Ellison).
FIRST ITEM The Amboy Dukes, by Irving Shulman.
DEALER OF CHOICE “Chris Eckoff in Brooklyn, hands down. He shares his knowledge with anyone who cares.”
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY “In 1978, I found a test copy of the first mass-market paperback, The Good Earth. I was erroneously informed that it was a stock copy, and I traded it.”
THE HOLY GRAIL A paperback vending machine. “They used to have ‘em in the subways. But I’ve never seen a real one.”
A midtown physician specializes in pictures of (un)health.
’I was a quiz kid, always curious about how the body functions,” recalls Stanley B. Burns, a 64-year-old ophthalmologist who lives and works in a Murray Hill brownstone where, naturally, the walls are dotted with optical gear and images of eye maladies. But how about the portrait of a woman with legs swollen from elephantiasis? The photo of a guy with horns growing from his face? Burns, who has dark hair pulled into a ponytail and intense blue eyes, is fascinated by medical history. He owns more than 50,000 photographs, from instructional material to images of medical anomalies, ghastly wounds, and freakish malformations. If one includes his other interests (Judaica, African-Americana, travel), his collection tops 700,000 pieces. Fortunately for him, family members share his instinct: His wife, Sara, collects wedding pictures and images of dogs and children—”the lighter side of life,” as he puts it. His daughter Elizabeth is his full-time collaborator.
His favorites are the unexpectedly peaceful postmortem photographs of children, posed as if napping, that were often commissioned by grieving parents; he’s compiled these into a series of books titled Sleeping Beauty. Publishers regularly borrow from the online Burns Archive, and he’s just opened a gallery. It’s all cut into his practice enough that he sees patients just two days a week.
Precious as they are (daguerreotypes he bought for $300 can now cost $30,000 each), many leave his collection nearly as quickly as they’re acquired, as they’re donated to museums and universities. “When you contribute to an exhibition, it draws people in,” Burns reasons. “Every time I’ve given something really important, more stuff comes back to me. I’m the Johnny Appleseed of photography.”– Betsy Goldberg
FIRST ITEM A daguerreotype of a South American Indian with a tumor of the jaw.
MOST VALUABLE ITEM A May 1848 daguerreotype of the freeing of the slaves in the French colonies.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY “A series of police identification photographs by Bertillon. I lost them in 1993 when I said I’d think about it, and it never showed up again.”
For Randy Ostrow, the Cold War is hot stuff.
At a Hartsdale store in 1961, Randy Ostrow dropped a penny into a machine and pulled out a plastic case holding two tiny rubber skeletons topped with the heads of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. “I couldn’t have been more than 6,” says Ostrow, displaying them in his palm. “I remember thinking even then, This is sick.” And a bizarre habit was born.
Ostrow’s most recent obsession involves a line of Cold War–era German bottle stoppers, sculpted like the heads of figures from Adolf Hitler to Jackie Kennedy. But his big collection (numbering “in the low thousands”) consists of John F. Kennedy memorabilia, ranging from valuable Wedgwood to a cheap painted bust that looks a lot more like Teddy.
More than twenty years ago, in his MacDougal Street apartment, Ostrow turned a breakfront into a JFK shrine, with accompanying figurines of Boo Berry and the Pillsbury Doughboy. “I had somebody rig up a fan so that when you turned the lights on, it made two American flags wave. It looked like something that a 22-year-old with too much time on his hands might do.”
Five years ago, Ostrow’s growing family forced him to give up that apartment—crammed with fifties telephones and Camelot kitsch—in favor of spacious Brooklyn digs. (The old space was “a little scary,” his wife confides.) Most of his stuff is now in storage. Still, Ostrow can’t help trawling eBay. “Genetically, I’m a victim of this collecting disease that my father passed on to me,” Ostrow says.
Dad collected Remington woodcuts, terra cotta, and bronzes by Rodin teacher Antoine Louis Barye. “There’s a big difference between an ugly chalk sculpture of JFK and a Barye mountain lion. But I don’t know whether the pleasure my father got out of those bronzes was any greater than the pleasure I get out of my JFK dolls.” – Boris Kachka
TOUGHEST FIND A two-faced (“Janus”) Khrushchev head. “By the time someone came up with it, I had ceased believing it existed—and I’d actually seen a picture of it.”
DREAM ITEM An Orson Welles stopper, or the Patrice Lumumba. “But I’d settle for the Charles Laughton, or George Bernard Shaw.”
Marilynn Karp collects collections—300 and counting.
“It’s totally not p.c.,” says sculptor Marilynn Gelfman Karp, picking up one of her “naughty Nellies” from a cabinet. The colorful iron castings—shaped like busty women with legs splayed and arms akimbo—are nineteenth-century bootjacks. “You step on her face with one foot,” she says, “and put the back of the other foot between her legs. Then you pull.” One Nellie wears a chastity belt; another has a cesarean scar. Karp’s collection of about 50 is the world’s second largest, “next to a Jesuit priest who teaches at Loyola.”
They’re just one of 300 collections that Karp and her husband Ivan C. Karp, the legendary modern-art dealer who owns the OK Harris gallery, have amassed, from the conventional (nineteenth-century paintings) to the truly obscure (hat-box papers). They’re immaculately stored and displayed in the Karps’ Soho loft, alongside Lichtensteins and Warhols, one of which is a portrait of Marilynn. “There is a collection in every drawer,” says Karp, pulling one open to reveal trays of premium spoons from the thirties, promoting characters like the Campbell’s Soup kids. A cabinet is filled with 1939 World’s Fair dishes. Wooden washboards line one room’s walls. It might be overwhelming, but Karp’s cataloguing—it is no accident that she is the founder of a master’s program in collecting and dealing at NYU—is itself art.
She cites two eccentric collections as her most beloved. “Unintended survivors” is made up of things meant to be destroyed (fireworks, foil trinkets to bake into a cake). “Poignant repairs” is a motley crew of broken objects fixed in inventive ways: a porcelain teapot for which someone fashioned an elaborate metal corset and handle, a tortoiseshell comb strengthened with engraved silver. “There are collectors of things with intrinsic value—gold or diamonds or baseball cards. Then there’s another group of people who love the unloved,” she says. “These are the purest kind.” – Sarah Bernard
HOW SHE STARTED As a child, with bottle caps and Dixie-cup lids. Mom discarded her first lid collection; Karp’s been rebuilding it.
DEALER OF CHOICE Richard Axtell in Deposit, New York, for Americana.The one that got away “Warner LeRoy wanted our collection of glass figural candy dispensers. I was testing myself, and sold it. Now I want that collection back!”
Want a piece of Mars? This guy beat you to it.
Darryl Pitt manages jazz stars like Michael Brecker and Andreas Vollenweider. But when another kind of star falls to earth, he’s immediately on the phone, booking plane tickets. Pitt collects meteorites, which look very different from terrestrial stones, pockmarked and melted from billions of years in space and a fiery fall to earth. In his West Side two-bedroom, he’s got chunks of the moon and even Mars.
Meteorite collectors go to astonishing lengths to bag their rare quarry. In the early nineties, when Pitt started, there were “a couple dozen serious collectors in the world.” At the far-flung sites of meteorite strikes, he’d meet the same bunch of Indiana Jones types. “Now there are a couple hundred.”
Pitt’s collection includes tiny fragments that cost far more than comparable amounts of gold, as well as large specimens, like a 1,200-pound South American meteorite that reminds him of a Henry Moore sculpture. A gram of the moon averages around $2,500, while plain old iron meteorites are about $2 per gram. With the rise of the Internet, even remote Third Worlders can wheel and deal, and prices have soared. “In Namibia, locals used iron meteorites as spearpoints 100 years ago. Now their ancestors use metal detectors to look for iron meteorites to sell.”
Steven Spielberg, Nicolas Cage, and James Taylor have all bought high-quality specimens. As for Pitt, so far he’s sold 7,000 Planet Mars cubes, which he calls “the world’s first interplanetary collectible.” They come with a Mars Owner’s Manual. – Jennifer Gould
MOST VALUABLE ITEM A chunk of the Willamette meteorite, the centerpiece of the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center.
TOUGHEST FIND A Martian meteorite. “It’s one of the Holy Grails.”
WEBSITE OF CHOICE Macovich.com, a virtual museum and auction site.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAYA Namibian meteorite. “I bought it, but the dealer shipped me the wrong one after someone else offered more.”
For Amy Fine Collins, vintage couture means just one man: Geoffrey Beene.
Amy Fine Collins is in her “horst-inspired” living room, bedecked with purple silk banquettes, Venetian mirrors, and vases of pink feathers that would have made the late photographer swoon. Hanging from a pair of theatrical wooden doors are highlights from her Geoffrey Beene couture collection, a feast of colors, patterns, sequins, and plumes. There’s the dance dress concocted of layers of red, green, and purple lace (“I wore it to a wedding a couple of weeks ago,” she says); a suit splashed with Technicolor palm trees (“for Palm Beach”); a jacket printed with playing cards ("wore it to the collections”) and—one of her most treasured items—a red plaid feather-trimmed coat that she wore to a recent costume party. “If there’s ever a party with a theme,” she says, “I know I can find something.” How many such outfits does she own? “I counted my shoes once, and it still haunts me,” she says. “There are certainly more Beene pieces than shoes.”
Collins, a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, “started with Beene,” as she puts it, when she wrote about his retrospective at the National Academy of Design in 1989. Beene thanked her with a beguiling note: “How is it possible that you know me better than I know myself?” Shortly thereafter, Collins donated her wardrobe of edgy, arty Azzedine Alaïa, Romeo Gigli, and Christian Francis Roth to the Costume Institute, and became a muse to one of fashion’s most revered stars. For over a decade, she has worn nothing but Beene (on weekends, it’s “old Beene”; when she was pregnant, it was blousy Beene). As she talks of “the intelligence and the clarity” of these clothes, and “the perfection in how they correspond to the body,” it’s easy to feel that the current fashion moment is irrelevant. “That’s part of the attraction with these clothes,” she says. “You’re never in fashion or out of fashion. You’re in Beene.” – Shyama Patel
RAREST ITEM A gray flannel dress from 1967, worn by Vanessa Redgrave to the Oscars.
DEALER OF CHOICE Donald Portlock.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY A white coat embroidered with ostriches in bow ties that she gave to charity. “I know who bought it, but she won’t discuss my buying it back.”
Ron Warren’s collecting motives are nearly transparent.
’Glass and i go back a long way,” says Ron Warren. Originally from southeastern Ohio, a center of the glassmaking industry, Warren grew up with the stuff, even attending glassblowing camp when he was 17. “That was my idea of a good summer,” he recalls. Today, Warren—the director of the Mary Boone Gallery—is content just collecting it, specifically the mid-century Italian variety.
Filling a wall in the West Chelsea townhouse he shares with partner Joshua Mack, Warren’s collection includes more than 50 vases, bowls, and other vessels from such renowned Murano factories as Fratelli Toso, Seguso, and especially Venini. Most are from the fifties, and many were designed by the likes of Fulvio Bianconi and Gio Ponti.
“I especially like the exuberance of the forms that express that period,” Warren notes. Two Venini fazzoletto (“handkerchief”) vases, of glass gently wrinkled like fabric—one in Technicolor yellow, another in black and white—may be Warren’s most iconic acquisitions. But they still have to vie for attention with several Seguso a piume (“feather”) pieces characterized by their richly hued plumes of embedded glass, and any number of vessels with kaleidoscopic murrina and millefiore patterns. As with all things mid-century, prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Values at auction typically fall between $7,000 and $12,000, though pieces can go for much less or much, much more.
Warren bought his first Venini piece in 1982, and he’s clearly a born collector. His immense accumulation of sock monkeys is the subject of a book, Sock Monkeys (200 Out of 1,863), that’s due out this spring. “I remember this beautiful bowl at my grandmother’s house that I always admired when I was a kid,” he says. It turned out to be a forties Venini piece by the legendary Italian designer Carlo Scarpa, and Warren inherited it a few years ago. “In my mind,” Warren admits, “it was mine a long time before that.” – Aric Chen
MOST VALUABLE His grandmother’s forties bowl by Carlo Scarpa. “Looking at it transports me.”
RAREST ITEM A black plate with a spectacular rooster murrina made in the twenties for the Benetton family.
DEALER OF CHOICE Mark McDonald, at 330 Modern Design in Hudson, New York (518-828-6320).
WEBSITE OF CHOICE “I’ve never looked for glass online. I need to hold it.”
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY “A very flamboyant apricot-and-pale-green fazzoletto that I saw in Milan. I convinced myself that it was too unsophisticated. By the time I got back to New York, it was gone.”
If it floats, rolls, or flies, Jack Herbert has to have it.
’I love all things that seem to be going somewhere,” says Jack Herbert, who collects toys that transport: ships, cars, airplanes, omnibuses, trackless trains, even the odd zeppelin or hot-air balloon. His two-room West Village house, a tiny freestanding building hidden behind a block of brownstones, is a miniature-transportation museum. Downstairs are a bed, a desk, and a small television set; the rest of the room is occupied by shelves of gleaming antique cars from France, Germany, and Australia, nineteenth-century horse-drawn omnibuses with doors that open and close to let tiny passengers in and out, and hollow tin buses that once served as biscuit tins. The upstairs is devoted mainly to ships—an 1895 warship, a 1912 ocean liner similar in design to the Titanic, an 1875 German sailboat. Virtually every toy actually runs, by windup or steam, and the ships can still be floated on water, although Herbert blanches when asked if he’s tried any out.
“All toy collectors are basically kids at heart,” the semiretired restaurant owner says, showing me his favorite new object, which sits next to his bed: a nunchuck-twirling hamster that sings the seventies hit “Kung Fu Fighting” when its arm is pressed, available for $9.99. “Last month, I had about 100 members of Antique Toy Collectors of America over, to tour my collection,” he says. “But the hamster was the biggest hit.” Emily Gitter
MOST VALUABLE ITEM A horse-drawn omnibus from the 1850s, worth about $50,000.
DEALER OF CHOICE Sotheby’s and Christie’s, plus the specialty auction houses: Randy Inman Auctions in Maine, Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey, and Noel Barrett in Pennsylvania. For beginner collectors, he recommends Second Childhood (283 Bleecker Street; 212-989-6140).
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY “Some items are just too expensive. To get them, you have to sell the children.”
WEBSITE OF CHOICE eBay, but not often, since “condition is 50 percent of the value.”
For Barbara Flood, rhinestones are the good stuff.
In the living room of her vast Upper East Side apartment, Barbara Flood—a lithe former Rudi Gernreich model and actress, reborn as a stylist with her own company, Flood’s Closet—is showing off items she uses to dress clients. “But these I keep for myself,” she says, smiling, as she sweeps her arm over several display boxes. They contain 42 splashy oversize brooches by Eisenberg, costume-jeweler to Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner. For many, the first-name-less Eisenberg, who favored huge Austrian crystals, epitomizes forties Hollywood.
“I always loved fashion,” recalls Flood. “In college, I read movie-star magazines and was hypnotized by those elegant dresses with these huge things right at the cleavage. Then about eight years ago, I started collecting them.” Flood found some pieces in shops, but most have come to her from private owners. “Once word got out that I collected it, I would get calls saying My mother died and left me all this Eisenberg jewelry; do you want it?”
Some people pooh-pooh costume pieces, but Flood disagrees. “If I were dressing someone for the Oscars, I wouldn’t put them in Harry Winston—I would use an Eisenberg. It’s unique, plus it lights up the room, so it can be even more glamorous than the real thing.” Unlike many jewelry collectors, Flood doesn’t save her Eisenbergs for big occasions: She wears them every day. “I don’t go out without an Eisenberg,” she says with a flip of her red highlights. “I wear a sweater and tights and plunk a big Eisenberg in the middle.” As if expecting protest, Flood points to a photograph of her hero, Frida Kahlo. “Frida knew about style; she wasn’t demure. I’m with her—I like things that are over-the-top.” – Ada Calhoun
PRICE RANGE “Max is about $1,200. Minimum, $300.”
RAREST ITEMS “Flower pins.”
FAVORITE ITEMS “There are gold ones, but I don’t collect those. I like the glitter and the color.”
WEBSITE OF CHOICE “I don’t like the Internet. I like real people and real things.”
Black history is everyone’s history—but especially Sample Pittman’s.
For Sample Pittman, the urge to amass the more than 10,000 objects crowded into his Harlem brownstone was born not of affection or nostalgia but of a need to document the history that, says the bow-tied 70-year-old community-college professor, “you can’t find in history books.” The drive, he explains, “comes from coming out of the Army with a chestful of medals and not being able to find employment at anything but washing dishes or shining shoes.”
Pittman’s collection—from lithographs of lynchings to dolls of the Williams sisters—documents the slave trade and the African-American experience. The rusted iron rod with an R on the end? Used to brand the foreheads of runaway slaves. The battered leather saddle hanging in the corner? “Belonged to a Buffalo soldier in 1865,” he says. “Black soldiers—that’s how the West was won.” The tins of “hair grower” and “glossine”? Precursors to Jheri Curl from Madam C. J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire, black or white. The we serve colored—carry out only signs? Just like the ones Pittman encountered on road trips as a boy in Texas.
And while his grandchildren may not be eager to decorate their apartments with shackles, lawn jockeys, four original volumes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, spoons bearing images of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and three proclamations of emancipation signed before Lincoln’s, they will make no mistake about their grandfather’s identity. “Who is Sam Pittman?” he asks. “Any part of this house you look at, I’ll show you. He is somebody with a very proud history.” – Jada Yuan
RAREST ITEM A 150-year-old carved elephant tusk—one of three in the world depicting the overland journey of slaves from Africa to their eventual sale.
TOUGHEST FIND A $100 bill with an image of Abraham Lincoln and an African-American signature. It cost Pittman $7,000 and took his dealer three years to turn one up; Pittman now owns examples of nearly every piece of currency or coinage bearing an African-American signature or portrait.
DEALER OF CHOICE Thomas Panichella at Stack’s, the coin dealer: “He’s my Captain Ahab.”
WEBSITE OF CHOICE “Please, girl, I just changed my phone from the dial to the push button.”