It started with a blurry photograph on the local Craigslist. Two chairs—Kagan? Wormley? Schlock?—pictured at a 45-degree angle and half out of frame had me firing off an email as quickly as my jittery fingers could type. Obsessive beavering on Craigslist, eBay and local auction houses has resulted in many a misadventure, but it’s also filled this writer's 1860 Victorian with some amazing 1960s furniture and lighting, and some equally cool stories: An $8 Hans Wegner for C.M. Madsen chair. A side-of-the-highway rendezvous to pick up a Pearsall lounge chair and ottoman. An Arne Jacobsen Swan chair traded for $150, a Made in China lamp, and a cup of coffee. It’s rewarding to look around the house and see not only great stuff but also recall fond memories (admittedly, often tinged with the thrill of legal larceny).
The prompt email reply from the seller, "Jack," that the chairs were still available filled my heart with the familiar joy usually that usually disproportionate. An hour later, I was at an adult living community in Cornwall, N.Y. Jack, a warm, friendly man in his late 60s, led me to his deceased parents’ old apartment, whereupon he lit up a Marlboro Red. The whole place smelled of smoke. Uh oh.
He showed me the chairs. My first reaction: Damn. They’re not just smoky, they’re shot. The furry fabric, no doubt once plush and fun, now more closely resembled road kill.
"I’ve had a lot of interest in these chairs," Jack said. "But I’m going to make you a deal."
Now that I’ve driven all the way here for these cigarette-sponge wrecks, he wants to renegotiate.
"If you also take that bar"—he pointed to a very handsome black-lacquer-and-frosted-glass piece straight out of Mad Men—"and those end tables and planter"—homemade, with marble tops and brass-tipped legs—"I’ll give it all to you for $80."
This was $20 less than his asking price for the chairs alone. He wanted to be rid of the stuff—save a $20,000 grand piano, understandably—and I was preferable to the dump. I was conflicted, as it still felt like more heavy lifting than merited, more hauling than haul. But Jack was a nice guy, and what the hell.
"Sold," I said.
I couldn’t fit it all in my SUV, so I loaded up the chairs and we agreed to meet again the next day. I had mentioned to Jack that I’d found my Hudson Valley home on an auction site where I’d gone in search of the mid-century lighting I collect; when I met him the parking lot the next day, he told me he had a surprise in the trunk of his car. And so he did: A 24-arm vintage Sputnik chandelier that he wanted me to have as a gift. When I offered him money, he waved me away.
"It’s sitting in my basement collecting dust," he said. "Better you should use it."
I tried to pay forward his kindness as best I could. The bar was gifted to a friend who had helped me with some work around the house. I immediately rewired the Sputnik, found the appropriate bulbs on eBay, hung the fixture and sent a picture of it in situ to Jack. He pronounced himself thrilled.
The chairs, however, languished for a year in my workshop. I’d just invested in reupholstering the Swan, which was a budget-buster. Eventually, however, the planets aligned. A 1stdibs.com search ultimately solved the mystery of my furry friends’ provenance: They were Italian (and, it goes without saying given their presence on the website, very expensive). That made me feel better about the rehabbing cost. So, too, did finding a good eBay deal on a bolt of Knoll mohair fabric. Complete trust in a superb upholsterer—Andrew Ditscher, of Upholstery by Andrew in Danbury, Conn., who took the following pictures—never hurts. I’m proud to say these chairs now deserve to be in clear focus. Take a look at the process:
Evan Rothman is a Hudson Valley, New York–based freelance writer and former executive editor of Golf Magazine.