My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has, as we say, an eye. For many years she collected antiques, including a wide variety of treasures and particular specialties like shoe-shaped snuffboxes. Among her finest pieces were outstanding examples of porcelain. I used to dismiss them as “dishes” just to tease her, but I knew they were referred to as “plates,” and from her I learned terms like “reticulated” and “Chinese export.” The antique china was beautifully displayed in our old house, in two cabinets that were built into the corners of the dining room, with little lights installed to illuminate them so they glowed.
Mom never studied antiques formally. A lot of reading, a lot of poking through dusty shops that spelled “junk” with a “que,” and, above all, that good eye made her so knowledgeable that shopping with her is like our own “Antiques Roadshow.” She can find the one gem hiding in shelves of chipped ashtrays and brooches missing half of their rhinestones. She can instantly spot a fake or a flaw. Mom was, I can attest, equally good at spotting a daughter who had not finished her homework or, even more important, her thank you notes.
My mother inherited her discerning eye from her father, who died before I was born. She adored him. He never went to high school, but he was a true intellectual who read every book in the library and became a successful businessman of endless urbanity, sophistication, and wit. He was also a great collector, with impeccable style, and some of the rarest and most beautiful pieces he found are on display in my parents’ apartment. I think one thing my mother loves about collecting is that it keeps her close to him.
He inspired her curiosity and eclecticism and, above all, the fearlessness of her choices. She likes a good bargain and is proud that the increased value of her collection has frequently out-performed the stock market. But she selects items that meet her own standards of excellence, whether the rest of the world agrees with her or not.
When I was 12, I won a prize at a booth on the carnival midway at Chicago’s Riverview amusement park. It was a little cream pitcher, and I thought it was very elegant. I showed it to Mom, waiting for her verdict as she looked it over speculatively. “I think this would look very nice on the shelf with the rest of the china,” she said, and she put it next to her most priceless pieces, over a century old.
There were many dinner parties while that Riverview pitcher sat on the shelf, and many connoisseurs who noticed her collection. My mother never once put it away or joked about the pitcher, even if someone admired it. She always tells us, “If anyone pays you a compliment, just lower your eyes and say, ‘Thank you.’” The pitcher stayed there until my sisters and I grew up and my parents sold the house.
I did not take many things when my parents moved out, but I did ask for the little pitcher. It now stays on my own shelf of precious ceramics, clay creations made by our children when they were in grade school. I still think it looks elegant.
I wish I had inherited my mother’s eye. My greatest achievement in the realm of fashion is “doesn’t clash,” unless I have been lucky enough to raid her closet. Fortunately, Mom’s sense of style was passed on to my daughter. I love watching her look through items in a store with that same laser focus I recognize from shopping with Mom.
I’m grateful for that gift she passed on to my daughter, and for showing me that the small gesture of giving my prize a place of honor could be so meaningful. But I am most grateful for her lesson that the value of anything does not depend on what other people think it is worth but on what it means to you.