PG: How did you get your start?
MR. My first job was at R.H. Macy and Company. And I went in just before Christmas, thinking that it would be a Christmas job -- it was meant to be. And I stayed for seven years. I learned a tremendous amount, mostly in the glass and china department, which was on the eighth floor.
PG: How old were you?
MR: That's a secret!! I was just past sixteen when I got the job. But, I had told them that I was older, and it was the first white lie I ever told in my life.
When I was hired, the person that interviewed me said I didn't look twenty one (which I had said I was). I said "Well, when I put some makeup on, and put my hair up, you'll see I look my age." And I was hired. And I fully expected to be fired at Christmas time, which never happened. So, for seven years, I was on the eighth floor. And my lunch hours were spent on the ninth floor, where the Macy's antique shop was. And I learned a great deal there. I loved it. I knew I loved the old things. I liked them much better than the new things. And it stood me in good stead.
Well, from Macy's, I left there because I was married, and I had my family, and never really had very much money. And I used to invite some of my sisters' friends over. We had a little one-family house on Stuart Street [in Brooklyn], which had a basement. And we would lay out a whole series of their possessions, which I would poke around, and show them what to do with it. And they would use them as wall arrangements in their house.
My sister's friend finally said to me one day "Min, you don't really have a penny to spare. Why don't you do this professionally?" It had never entered my mind to charge anybody for this kind of advice. But all I needed was a little encouragement and before too long, my basement was full of objects that could be used, that could be sold and so forth.
I used to go to the Salvation Army to buy things. That's how I really, really started in this business. There was a woman who always got there before I did. I used to traipse down to the Salvation Army and invariably, she would get there a few minutes before me, and buy all the goodies.
The reason she was buying was that she and her grandmother were gonna open an antique shop in Nebraska. One day she called me and she said "Min, my grandmother died, if you wanna buy everything, you can buy it. Come down and we'll settle on a price." I called my husband, Sidney, and he went down with me, and it was eight-hundred and fifty dollars for everything she had. And we didn't have eight-hundred and fifty cents! But, we managed to scrape the money together and Sid said, "this is something you want, I mean, I can't refuse you. If you absolutely insist upon going into business, this is a good beginning." And we bought it. And we moved everything to the basement, and that was the beginning of the antique business.
And I began to do shows. I did one show in Long Beach, out on the island. And I did a couple of shows in New York and Chicago, and this came to pass. We had a neighbor next door who was a very, very unfriendly person. And she reported to the building department that I was selling things from the basement (which I was not). And the next day I went out, and I rented a little shop on Flatbush Avenue. That was my first shop. It was a little, long narrow shop and I had there all of the things that I was interested in and that I liked.
PG: About what year was that?
MR: It had to be forty-five years ago, approximately forty-five, maybe more. Because Danny [my youngest son] was a baby. And I did not want any of my friends exposed to nonsense from the building department. So, I opened the shop. The first Tiffany that I ever bought, I bought for that shop. I had been in to Lillian Nassau's and I saw a set of forty-eight pieces of stemware. Amethyst to white, from goblets to wine glasses to plates, to bowls, the entire thing. And I called my husband about it; he was working for Parade Magazine at the time, so he was near there. He went to see it, and we bought it. And once I knew I had bought it, we called somebody that Sidney had met on one of his stories in California and told her about it. And she bought it over the phone. We went home that night, and we packed forty eight pieces of very delicate stemware in these china barrels and shipped them out to California. And, after that happened, I said "I don't need this little shop to sell penny things."
And Sidney encouraged me and he said "you should specialize in the best things, and buy art glass." And every time he did a story, when he finished working = he went all over the country = he would go and look for things to buy for me. And he started buying Tiffany for me. His taste was very good, and he came back with wonderful things.
Once, I needed a left-handed shaving cup for somebody. And that's a rarity, because most shaving cups are right-handed. So, I asked him to find one. He came back with fourteen left-handed shaving cups. And that was his nature, he was a reporter and he found things. He discovered things. Well, once this happened, I started doing more shows. I did Madison Square Garden. I did other shows.
PG: So, you actually gave up the shop then, at that point?
MR: Yes. Yes.
PG: How long would you say you had the shop?
MR: Maybe six months. Eight months. Not very long. And I began to specialize, and that was the beginning of my venture into Tiffany. George Richard [my oldest son] was very young. He would run around on the floor and find Tiffany lamps for me that I couldn't afford to buy. But, he had a wonderful eye. And as it turned out, my son has been a very important part of the business for the past 17 years. If I had had the money at that time, I would've been into Tiffany lamps sooner than I was. But, one of the things that Sidney found, which is rather a funny story = he had done a story on a farmer [for Parade]. And in this farmer's barn, he found a Tiffany lamp turned upside down, on the floor, full of straw, with a hen sitting on her eggs. And he asked the farmer if he would sell it. It couldn't have been for very much money. But, that was one of the first lamps.
I had a little shop in the country, in Walker Valley, where our summer house is, where I sold things to the people down the road who went to a hotel, a few hundred yards away from us. And, the women would come in and I had jewelry, and I had other things that I sold. It was just a summer thing. But, after a while, it was all art glass. And Sidney was a great help to me. He would come after work and help me. He helped me pack the things to go to the show, and helped me break down the show to go home. And my children suffered, I think, as a result of it. Because I didn't have the time to devote to them as I should have. But, it was a way of making a living. I started out slowly with very little money, and borrowed a few dollars here and there from Sid. But, I paid it all back pretty quickly. And I began to be more and more interested in the 20th Century Decorative Arts.
Imagine! It all started with the Salvation Army and the Goodwill.
PG: And you can't forget the good eye. That's very important.
MR: I wish I had a couple of good eyes now! I'm having some trouble with my eyes. At any rate, one thing led to another. It was hard work and I enjoyed every single minute of it. And still do. And I'm very sad about giving it up. But, it's got to be. Everything comes to an end at one time or another.
PG: Tell us about some of the favorite things you've handled.
MR: Well, I always loved the French glass, the cameo glass. And there I had a problem. I never had a problem with my husband, until I wanted to buy the French glass. And he thought it was terrible and hated it. And every piece that I bought was a fight. But, I stuck with it and I really made myself a name and a following with the French glass that I handled.
I don't ever forget a piece of glass. I don't remember names, but, if a piece of glass has gone through my hands, I know.
PG: You've been in the business fifty-three years now, and you've seen a lot of changes in it. What would you say are the most surprising or the most significant changes?
MR: Well, several times, during the times when there were recessions, and people were frightened, and they dropped out of business, and they gave up their shops, I always had the courage to stay with it. And people said "you're crazy." But, I did and I overcame those last, those few months, maybe a year, and things began to turn around and pick up again. And the same thing happened just this last period. That's why I hope that people don't think I went out of business because of the economic situation.
PG: How did you get from having your little antique store in the country to moving to Madison Avenue? When did that happen?
MR: Well, that. I remember distinctly when that happened. Leo Kaplan was giving up a shop on Madison Avenue. Lillian Nassau approached me. And she said "I know I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face, and I shouldn't do this, but Leo is giving up his shop, and you should think about taking it." So, I called Sidney and he said "Well, I haven't thought about this, but I guess you would want to do it. If you want to do it, let's do it." And that was the first one. That was 808 [Madison Avenue]. It was tiny little, oh, maybe a ten-foot square shop. And I lined it with showcases and put my things into it.
And then the person in the next shop to this little tiny shop was moving to a larger space. And she was gonna put an ad in the paper, but she told me about it. So, again, I approached Sid. And I said "Look, this is gonna be available, we really need the space." We took the larger space. And that was 816. And we stayed there for a while.
I had been trying to get a space in The Westbury [844 Madison Avenue]. Finally, Sidney and I were going to Europe, the very next day, and they called me and said "Well, we were going to rent the shop to Cartier, but if you want the shop, you can have it." And I had the lease at The Westbury before I left for Europe. I stayed there until The Westbury was sold and turned into condominiums. And I was forced to look for another spot. And we found 961 Madison, finally. And I stayed there until now.
In the process of being in this business, I've met many people from all over the world and I've made many contacts and it's been a very, very gratifying experience to me. I have lots of friends who when they come to New York, come to see me, and, I feel like I've established myself.
PG: You know, one thing that George Richard said to me fairly recently, which I find so interesting , is that you never had to advertise.
PG: You never placed any kind of advertisement, but it's all based on your reputation and word of mouth.
MR: At the very beginning, we would have an ad maybe in Arts and Antiques. But, very temporary. I think my brother-in-law did one advertisement that went to Germany. But, I did very little advertising. It was mostly by word of mouth. And the fact that I did the few shows, including the Armory. People met me that way.
If they wanted Tiffany, there were only a few places they could go. They could go to Lillian Nassau or they could come to me. By that time, [Lloyd] Macklowe had not yet started. I sold him his first piece of Tiffany.
PG. It's funny that the beginnings of the Tiffany market were established by a group of women. You and Lillian Nassau, Maude Feld, Bea Weiss and Gladys Koch. You were all contemporaries.
MR: That's right.
PG: Was it very competitive or was it kind of a sisterhood?
MR: Oh, it wasn't a sisterhood! It was very competitive. It's a very hard business to be in because everybody wants the same thing. And there's very little of the best thing available.
PG: Is there anything you would like to add for the record?
MR: By the time I started buying Tiffany, everybody knew what Tiffany was. And the price began to escalate and escalate. And each auction that took place, the prices rose. So that now if I want something, I have to pay full price to get it and I do. I usually do. I was always willing to pay to get the best things. And that's why I have them.