Published: October 23, 2007
By Laura Beach
People who say that there are no characters left in the antiques business do not know Carl L. Crossman, the grand master of the China Trade for the past 40 years.
Crossman was only two years out of Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he initially roomed with Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing when he first published on the China Trade, an evocative term used by collectors to describe the luxury goods and household staples brought home by merchant seamen. A Design Catalogue of Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Market, 1785 to 1840 followed by two years Crossman’s debut publication, his 1962 essay on the family portraits of Boston’s Saltonstalls.
The Peabody Essex Museum, as it is now called, printed these booklets along with a third, A Catalogue of Chinese Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver, and Other Objects, 1785 to 1865. The latter foreshadowed Crossman’s first hardcover book, The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver and Other Objects, 1785-1865, published in 1972. A Book of The Month Club selection, The China Trade sold out quickly. It was reprinted several times before a substantially updated version, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade: Paintings, Furnishings and Exotic Curiosities, appeared in 1993.
Since then, many scholars William R. Sargent, Christiaan J.A. Jörg, David Sanctuary Howard, Patrick Conner and Kee Il Choi, among them have delved deeply into Asian export art, but Crossman’s well-worn references, offering an overview of the field, are still on every specialist’s bookshelf. Crossman himself keeps a high profile. He lectures regularly and for eight seasons was a guest appraiser on Public Broadcasting Service’s television series Antiques Roadshow.
“In some ways, Carl has done more than all of us to promote interest in the field. He has a passion for the people behind the objects. He brings the subject to life,” says Sargent, curator of Asian export art at the Peabody Essex Museum.
When Jean Gordon Lee published Philadelphians and The China Trade, 1784-1844, in 1984, she dedicated her regional study to two pioneers: H.A. Crosby Forbes, a porcelain expert and founder of the China Trade Museum, whose collections merged with those of the Peabody Essex Museum in 1984, and Crossman, who, as she put it, “wrote the seminal book in the field.”
A consultant to Northeast Auctions, Crossman plays a key role in the company’s annual marine and China Trade sale, which this past August generated $6.23 million and included a Sunqua portrait of a Newburyport, Mass., ship off Whampoa anchorage. It sold for $226,000, not a record, but still a handsome price. Broadly knowledgeable, Crossman is a superb cataloger and the resident house resource.
Before her recent death, Merrilee J. Possner, Northeast’s longtime Americana specialist, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly that Crossman’s talent lay in his ability to see every object as if for the first time, appraising its essential character and exceptional qualities, while at the same time locating its precise historical context.
“He was always generous with information, enthusiasm and design suggestions,” Possner said last summer.
“Carl’s knowledge and enthusiasm are two of his greatest qualities,” agrees Northeast Auctions President Ron Bourgeault. “Some people are born with an intuitive understanding of objects. The late Cora Ginsburg and Dean Fales come to mind immediately. So does Carl Crossman.”
“More than anyone I have ever known, Carl has an almost magical instinct for quality. He feels the essence of an object, something he can’t always intellectualize. It will take someone else ten years to prove what Carl said as a snap judgment and was correct,” says D. Roger Howlett, president of Childs Gallery in Boston and Crossman’s former partner.
On the podium in August, Crossman is Bourgeault’s sidekick, there to spot bids and, in the name of good fun, endure a bit of ribbing. Crossman gives a stylish performance. He is known for a dramatic flair that extends to his entertaining, decorating and grooming. Fair and fine boned, he is, at 67, still slim enough to slip into his timeless wardrobe of impeccably tailored suits and thrift shop finds. Years ago, when he exhibited at the Winter Antiques Show, his antique silk-embroidered vests were the talk of opening night.
By the time they were in their teens, Crossman and Bourgeault both knew that they wanted to work with antiques. “I must have been 15 when I met Carl at the Ipswich Antiques Show and sold him a piece of porcelain,” Bourgeault recalls. Sotheby’s auctioned some of Crossman’s things in January 1977, but the habitual collector has kept on building.
Now mostly displayed in his Florida home, the assemblage is rich in Chinese porcelain, mainly blue and white and blanc de chine; English creamware; and other ceramics that might have been found in coastal Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Crossman is also fond of antique silver and glass, which he uses for entertaining.
Like Thoreau, Crossman has traveled widely but never strayed far from home. Eight voyages through China, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia provided lasting inspiration, mainly as a mirror to his beloved New England, with its historical ties to Asia.
As a senior research fellow in archaeology, Crossman worked extensively with Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H. Nearly 600 pieces from his collection, mainly tea wares and other objects that an early Nineteenth Century merchant trader in Portsmouth would have assembled on his travels, have been on view at Strawbery Banke in recent seasons. In August 2000, in honor of Crossman’s 60th birthday, the museum created the Carl L. Crossman Fund for Acquisitions. The fund seeks objects having a history of having been made or owned in the Piscataqua/Portsmouth area, that match archaeological pieces or that relate to local household inventories and period newspaper advertisements. The first donation came from Bourgeault.
“Working with the archaeological department at Strawbery Banke, he was able to discover Batavia ware dating to the 1720s. He has located whole pieces to match shards excavated on or near Strawbery Banke property,” says Jane C. Nylander, the museum’s former director.
Crossman was born in Danvers, Mass., a coastal town halfway between Boston and Portsmouth. His mother, Hazel Crossman, was an avid student of music and art who took special pleasure in her children’s accomplishments. Her husband, Lester F. Crossman, was passionate about polo.
“He spent all his spare time in the stables. We were led to believe that it was contributing to the coffers, but it was the opposite,” says Carl’s sister, Christine Crossman Vining.
When Lester died in 1999, his compatriots at the Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Mass., organized a polo game in tribute. The Crossman children grew up riding and are still regulars at the International Polo Club in Florida, near their winter homes. Vining, in fact, is building a first-rate polo library for the club.
Competitive as children, Crossman and Vining are now close. Both are nonconformists.
“We don’t sit back and worry about whether it’s the right thing. We just do it,” says Vining, an antiques dealer who plays poker semiprofessionally.
“I was my father’s daughter and Carl was my mother’s son. They would be off looking at antiques while I would be tossing back a Bud in the stables with my father,” Vining continues.
Polo introduced the Crossmans to a world they otherwise might not have known. “The joke is that what Crosby Forbes and Carl Crossman really have in common is fathers who played polo,” Crossman says with a laugh.
With her brother’s encouragement, Vining opened her first antiques shop, Jeremiah’s, in Marblehead, Mass., in 1972. For the past 35 years, she has managed the Peabody Essex Museum Antiques Show, where Crossman resumed exhibiting last year.
Crossman’s introduction to the museum world was in high school, when he volunteered at the Peabody Museum. After college, museum director Ernest L. Dodge gave Crossman his first job. In 1964, Crossman organized “Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Market: 1785-1840” with Harriet Shreve, the wife of Shreve, Crump & Low partner William Shreve. Crossman was one of 28 lenders to the presentation.
The exhibition of Canton, Fitzhugh, Rose Mandarin, Rose Medallion and Celadon filled the Peabody’s Crowninshield and Loring Rooms. Dodge wrote supporters that it was “the most extensive exhibition of Chinese Export ware ever shown in this area.” Rather than feature large dinner sets, as was the norm for such displays, the organizers arrayed as many patterns and forms as they could find in an attempt to illustrate the evolution of style. After giving his young curator free reign, Dodge was understandably upset when Crossman submitted his resignation in 1964, prior to the exhibition opening.
A tiny Italian painting that still hangs in Crossman’s home provided his first introduction to Charles D. Childs.
“One day I took the painting, the first landscape I ever bought, to Childs Gallery to have it restored. Charley looked at me and said, ‘Wherever did you get this? It’s Seventeenth Century.’ I said, ‘Well, I thought so.'”
At the end of their conversation, Childs said, “If you ever leave the Peabody, I’d like to interview you.”
Childs regarded Crossman’s continued involvement with the Peabody Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum as advantageous to the gallery. He financed Crossman’s first trip abroad over the New Year’s holidays in 1967. Crossman traveled with Catherine Bullard, a collector and museum benefactor, and Admiral and Mrs Samuel Eliot Morrison. They stayed at The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair.
“I’ve covered the museums, 11 of them, especially the porcelain departments. Tomorrow I am off to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to meet the director, Basil Greenhill, and talk ships’ portraits. Hope something good will come of it,” Crossman wrote home. While in London, he also managed to squeeze in theater and T.S. Eliot’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey.
In 1969, on an Antiques Magazine lecture cruise, Crossman explored the South China Seas. “It was exciting to be with him and personally witness his discovery of a place he had previously only read about,” remembers his colleague, Nylander.
Childs saw Crossman off to Asia with the casual aside, “Carl, enjoy the trip. When you come back, I’m retiring and I want you to run the gallery.” Crossman was 29 and had been with Childs for five years.
A Hamilton College graduate with a degree in museum studies from Cooperstown, Roger Howlett was working in Yale’s Garvan Collection when he first met Crossman at the New Haven Colony Historical Society. In August 1970, Howlett visited Childs Gallery in Boston, having been directed to it by art dealer Warren Adelson. Howlett wanted to get Crossman’s opinion on two William Rimmer drawings that he had purchased from The Old Print Shop in New York City.
“It was getting on 4:30 and Carl was sitting alone at the back desk. I showed him photocopies. He said, ‘Oh, you bought those from The Old Print Shop. You see these marks? Childs owns a half-share in them.’ I was astounded that Carl knew,” Howlett recalls.
Howlett soon came to work for Crossman at Childs. The two men lived above the shop until 1973, when they bought a house, 257 Commonwealth Avenue, for $155,000 with the idea that it might serve as a private gallery. After the couple separated, Crossman eventually sold the house, for $1.2 million. Divided into apartments, the building is today worth about $20 million.
McKim, Mead & White completed 257 Commonwealth Avenue around 1887 for industrialist Alexander Cochrane and his family. Cochrane, whose estate was valued at $2 million in 1919, achieved later renown as the grandfather of the socialite Lucy Douglas Cochrane, known as C.Z. Guest. When Crossman and Howlett acquired the mansion, it was a 34-room, 20,000-square-foot American Legion post, dirty but intact.
“Nobody had been upstairs for years. I ended up painting 17 of the rooms. By the time we got done, it looked spectacular,” Crossman recalls. They furnished 257 Commonwealth with two truckloads of furniture from a Long Island house call. Crossman’s decorating style vaguely recalls Henry Davis Sleeper’s atmospheric arrangements at Beauport in Gloucester, Mass.
“Beauport had a tremendous influence on me. I admired Sleeper’s use of color, his arrangement of rooms and the importance he put on having lots of dining spaces,” acknowledges Crossman, who serves on the board of the property managed by Historic New England.
The Commonwealth Avenue house possessed a library and a music room. A magnificent staircase led to a second-floor balcony. To the left of the entrance was a 50-by-25-foot ballroom with a 30-foot-high glass ceiling, architectural features that Crossman and Howlett used to advantage in their lavish entertaining.
“Carl is an incomparable host,” says author Elisabeth D. Garrett, remembering a surprise party for Carl and Roger’s good friend and client, folk art collector Nina Fletcher Little. Crossman created a dramatic mask for each person. Dinner was served on Chinese Export plates comparable to those that had come down in Bert Little’s family.
“They had formal dinner parties for 12 to 20 people a couple times a month. The Christmas balls were for as many as 300,” says Vining, describing a Babes in Toyland ball, with little shop fronts lit from behind; and a Girl In The Velvet Swing ball, an homage to Stanford White’s fatal mistress, Evelyn Nesbit.
For Nylander, nothing surpassed the China Trade costume ball, celebrated at Hamilton Hall in Salem, Mass., to mark the publication of Crossman’s first book. “One person came as a scrimshaw tooth, another as a Canton plate. It was rather wonderful,” says Nylander. A replica of a Hong painting by Charles F. Allen of Marblehead, Mass., was pasted to the floor. A local newspaper published a photograph captioned “Mrs Albert Goodhue of Marblehead wears china spoons on her ears.”
Most famous is the Bicentennial Ball, celebrated at 257 Commonwealth in 1976. At the stroke of midnight, members of the US Dance Champions on Skates, dressed as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, took to the dance floor.
“They never got the grooves out,” Vining recalls.
“Never mind the grooves. The dry cleaner complained of rosin-coated clothes for days,” answers Howlett.
Tucked away in a long-forgotten album are Crossman’s instructions for his final party, to be celebrated posthumously: “No more than three (underlined twice) speakers ‘who have something to say.’ Lots of dramatic music. Late in the day, followed by a big party at home (the estate can afford it) with orchestra, food, bar. No mention of it ‘being a time of rejoicing.’ That’s baloney unless I’m dying of something horrible.”
With Howlett minding Childs Gallery, as well as reading and correcting his friend’s manuscripts, Crossman was free to devote a year to writing The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver and Other Objects, 1785-1865. Separated by 19 years, Crossman’s two books remain remarkable, not only for their breadth but for Crossman’s animated opinion and easy familiarity with his subject.
China Trade literature is unusually rich with period accounts, mostly diaries, letters and memoirs written by merchants and their families who appreciated the importance of the cultural exchange they fostered. Crossman made use of these accounts. He also studied earlier efforts to document and display Asian export art in the United States, among them Foster Rhea Dulles’s The Old China Trade, published in 1930; Joseph Downs and Margaret R. Scherer’s “The China Trade and Its Influences,” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1941; and Gregor Norman-Wilcox’s “American Ships to the China Trade” of 1955, the first important show of its kind on the West Coast.
Crossman mildly regrets not having had time to read every scrap of documentary evidence, such as the papers of the Boston traders Russell & Company. Even so, he finds his current project, a series of novels based on England and America’s Nineteenth Century trade with Asia, more satisfying. One of his chief inspirations for the novels are the journals of Harriet Low, first published as The China Trade Post-Bag of the Seth Low Family of Salem and New York 1829-1873.
“Writing novels has made me a better-rounded scholar. I am researching costumes, food, lifestyles, houses all the things that interest me on a daily basis,” he says. The saga describes life in Canton and Macao before the Opium Wars, the founding of Hong Kong and the difficulties encountered by his Western and Eurasian characters. Pirates are a problem. The second book ends with characters sailing from Hong Kong to Indonesia. In the third volume, Crossman’s main character leaves for Penang to buy a spice plantation. Then it is off to Calcutta and on to London.
Has Crossman limned a self-portrait?
“Originally, I was Joshua Sturgis, but he died in the first book. The mystery of Joshua’s trading is that he was very secretive. I have a big mystery side myself,” the author confides with a smile, leaving readers to await the next swashbuckling chapter in the life of Carl L. Crossman.
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