What’s Old?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 4, 2022

One personal favorite of my epigrams says: “There’s nothing wrong with growing older – but where does it lead?” There are more answers to that than you might think. To my friends in the “antiques” trade, older usually means more valuable. “Antiques,” which used to require an age of at least a century, is now much more flexible. And dealers, at least in America, talk in terms of “vintage,” which used to apply only to wines, but now refers to anything 60, 50, or even just 40 years old. Which, if you’ll permit another self-quote, reminds me that I once said, “Live long enough, and you may find your entire life in a museum.”

Speaking of that, I once actually did find myself in a museum, not as an exhibit, but as a member of the staff. With a PhD in History from Berkeley, I was unsatisfied, after several years in the business world, and aspired to return to academia. But the hiring market for college teachers was particularly tight that year (1970), and, after going all the way to Washington, D.C., to attend the American Historical Association’s annual convention, and failing even there to find a job, I was finally forced to accept a position as an “Associate Curator of History,” at the Oakland Museum in Oakland, California. My career there could hardly be called a triumph, but I did at least attempt to accomplish one memorable feat.  

It happened that, at that time, the state of California was seriously considering abolishing the death penalty — which was sometimes administered as poison gas, in special sealed chamber, located in San Quentin Prison, wherein the condemned person was strapped in a special chair. (There was a window through which their final moments could be witnessed.) I had seen this “artifact” (a sort of sealable metal booth, inside a much larger room) on a tour of San Quentin. It was constructed in 1938, so was nearly my own age, and, under current guidelines, we both would qualify as antiques. And, in my new curatorial position, it occurred to me (apparently before anybody else had the idea) that it might make a fascinating new attraction in the History Section of the Oakland Museum.

Accordingly, on museum stationery, I wrote a very formal letter (dated September 21, 1970) to the warden of San Quentin, asking that, if and when this object became available, we might be on record as having lodged a first claim for it.

The reply I received was not from the warden, but from Mr. R.K. Procunier, director of the California Department of Corrections. As expected, it was very non-committal, since nothing had yet been legally decided, but simply said that our request would be put on file.

Unfortunately, at least from our point of view, California voters approved the resumption of the death penalty in 1972. The gas chamber is still there in San Quentin and was last used at least as recently as August 1993.

After only a few museum months, as a result of feeling that I was in a place where I just did not belong, my curatorial career suffered its own demise, and I resumed my role as the world’s only full-time professional epigrammatist.

But, getting back to the question of oldness, “antiques,” historically speaking, really belong to antiquity, which takes us back, at least in common usage, to a much earlier time. One thing that interests me is that even truly ancient artifacts which have survived into our own time are not necessarily of great value today. For example, there are good specimens of coins from the Roman Empire, and even earlier which can still be purchased today for a few dollars. Of course, it’s really a matter of rarity. Metal coins, by their very nature, tend to survive much longer than materials of wood, fabric, or paper, so there are still plenty of them around. On the other hand, children’s toys are a good example of common items which tend not to last, and so can often, especially if long bygone, and in good condition, be extremely valuable today. It’s a good argument for holding on to the relics of your childhood.

Of course, whether we like it or not, oldness eventually afflicts those of us who get that far. It does have some advantages. Financial value isn’t usually among them — but we do tend to become more precious to each other. So, whatever your age, here’s wishing you a vintage year.


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