An heirloom with quite a history


NEW YORK -- For the last 20 years, the priciest curio from what was called the biggest yard sale of the 20th century lay undiscovered, but not unappreciated, in Barry Lubetkin's apartment on the Upper East Side.

Jammed in a stack of contemporary art was a painted wood panel bearing the images of a cherub, a spaniel and a small girl in a filmy blue dress. Mounted in the middle of this sentimental grouping was a clock face missing its hands.

Barry Lubetkin displays a storied clock that he inherited.  (New York Times photo)

Barry Lubetkin displays a storied clock that he inherited.
(New York Times photo)

The fragment of Victoriana had been bequeathed to Lubetkin by his father, Jack, onetime proprietor of Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe in Greenwich Village.

"Other people get left stock and bonds," said Lubetkin, a 69-year-old psychologist. "I got tchotchkes."

Most he sold on eBay. But he held on to the panel.

A few weeks ago, Lubetkin was idly trawling the Internet for information on Homer and Langley Collyer, urban hoarders known in the 1930s and '40s as the Hermits of Harlem.

Elderly scions of an upper-class Manhattan family, the brothers had barricaded themselves in a sanctuary of clutter at a corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Wary of intruders, they had rigged booby traps of debris, one of which triggered accidentally during the spring of 1947. Langley was entombed in a junk avalanche, leaving the bedridden Homer to starve.

During his online search for the Collyers, Lubetkin stumbled on a newspaper photo of the police investigation. Amid bundles of newspapers and mounds of rubbish, an officer pointed at a grandfather clock. "I looked closely at the clock," Lubetkin said, "and I thought, 'My God, that looks familiar!'"

Sure enough, the panel was identical to the one in his living room stack, even down to the handless clock face.

"I suddenly realized my panel had belonged to the Collyers," Lubetkin said. "This is particularly ironic, since I am the director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy, where we treat many hoarders."

As borne out in newspaper accounts of the time, Jack Lubetkin bought the panel at an auction held to dispose of the brothers' effects. According to estimates of the time, the worldly goods in their four-story brownstone weighed in at 180 tons.

Workmen carted out pianos, cornets, bugles, lamps, chandeliers, bowling balls, plaster busts, baby carriages, toy railroad trains, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, the chassis of a Ford Model T, dressmaker dummies, the brothers' stockpile of books and their mother's hope chests of monogrammed linen.

The first sale of the "Collyer Collection" drew 300 people to a seventh-floor loft at the old Journal-American Building on Williams Street, near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The $310 that Jack Lubetkin bid for the clock turned out to be the highest price fetched by any Collyer relic. (The auction and another a week later brought a little more than $2,000.) Lubetkin reckoned he would put the clock in the window of his store.

Barry Lubetkin does not remember seeing the clock in the window of the store, which was one floor below his family's apartment. "Then again," he said, "I was 3 years old when the Collyers died." He has no idea what happened to the rest of the clock.

He does recall his old man regaling him with tales of the Collyers. "My father referred to the brothers as 'crazy,'" Lubetkin said. "But I think he had a secret place in his heart for them. His store looked like their house."

As for the Collyer panel?

"I plan to keep it in my living room," said Lubetkin, who has taped hands to the clock, on which time now stands still. "Now that I know that the panel belonged to the Collyer brothers, I'll build an altar to it."

Last modified: February 21, 2014
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