Sandwiched between wealthy collectors such as the Annenbergs and the Taubmans on Art & Antique magazine’s annual list of the top 100 collectors in America is George Way--not bad for a supermarket deli man making $40,000 a year.
Over the last two decades, the self-educated collector has amassed an impressive assortment of 17th-Century English furniture literally worth a king’s ransom.
There is enough to fill a castle, but Way hasn’t gotten that far yet. For the time being, his multimillion-dollar collection is stuffed into a 2 1/2-room apartment.
“I could sell everything and retire a millionaire today,” said the 41-year-old delicatessen worker. “My friends keep telling me I should. For them, it’s the money. For me, it’s the environment. I love living and using things from the past.”
Besides, he said, “I feel I’m already a millionaire in the sense I’m rich with a lot of beautiful things.”
How does a supermarket slicer from Staten Island amass such a valuable collection?
“I have the knowledge. I know what I’m looking for. I know what’s real--and I find things at a fraction of their value,” Way said with a satisfied smile.
Like a 17th-Century portrait of Rembrandt that he found in a secondhand shop for $400. He refused to give its exact worth but hinted it was in the seven-figure range.
Way, who spends nearly every spare moment browsing in antique shops and flea markets from Boston to Greenwich Village, said the most he’s ever paid for a piece is $1,500.
Walking into his apartment is like being transported back in time. Lime-green walls are peppered with pictures of one-time viscounts and duchesses. A baroque Charles II mirror dominates one wall, and a mammoth 1690 cupboard with carved tulips takes up another.
But the centerpiece is a dark oak trestle table so rich in history that it wouldn’t be too startling to look up and see a bloomered English count seated in the walnut Charles II armchair drinking a hearty mug of ale.
Way’s collection consists of two banquet tables, 52 Charles II and William and Mary chairs, a dozen Jacobean blanket chests and cupboards, eight Bible boxes, two caned daybeds and 40 old-master portraits.
The portraits are on temporary exhibit at Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Pa. More than a dozen of Way’s chairs also are on loan to museums. Others are stuffed in closets, and several more are at friends’ homes.
“You’d think I would have more room,” Way said. “But every time one goes out the door, I replace it with something new. I just can’t help myself.”
Among Way’s most treasured pieces is an eye-boggling Elizabethan canopy bed. “I call it my oh-my-God bed because that’s what people say when they first see it,” he said.
It is an appropriate reaction.
The elaborate nine-foot-high bed has a paneled canopy and a massive coat of arms with detailed carvings of a curly maned lion and tooth-baring dragon supporting the Order of the Garter. The initial E is above the lion and a chiseled R tops the scaled dragon.
After some sleuthing, Way discovered “E.R.” was Elizabeth I and that the design was her personal coat of arms.
He got the stately bed, which is circa 1570, in a swap with an antique dealer, and strongly believes it was an act of fate, not luck:
“I found out the bed once belonged to a 16th-Century family called Chomley and that two members of that family married people named Way. Coincidence? Probably. But I prefer to believe that bed was meant for me.”
Way began collecting as a teen-ager.
“My first real experience was when I was 16 and I discovered an old chair in the basement of my church,” he said. “It had a carved lion on it, and I thought looking at it that it must have been the oldest chair in the world.”
Way said he pestered the parish priest relentlessly until the priest agreed to sell it to him for $50. “I immediately took it home and buffed it with Kiwi shoe polish. What did I know?”
“I was sure it belonged to royalty, but of course it turned out to be a copy of a 19th-Century piece.” Nevertheless, Way was hooked.
He began going to museums, haunting the rooms filled with period furniture.
“The guards at the New York Historical Museum knew me so well they would turn the furniture upside down so I could look at the detail and construction,” he said.
Today, he is considered an expert on Jacobean furniture, brass, iron, pewter and glass, and he works as a consultant for Christie’s auction house.
As for finding himself on this year’s top collectors list alongside celebrity buyers such as Madonna and wealthy society collectors such as the Annenbergs (Walter H., founder of TV Guide) and the Taubmans (A. Alfred, owner of Sotheby’s auction house), Way is unimpressed.
“They have the money and can send someone out to buy this or that, but do they really know deep down what they’re buying? I love each piece I buy. I care about it, cherish it.”