It never ceases to amaze me how many of Mr. Eastman’s belongings find their way back home again.
On Thursday May 29, 2008 at about lunch time I received a call from our Admission staff informing me that a man had stopped by the museum to speak to me about an object he believed he owned that once belonged to George Eastman. I dropped what I was doing and went downstairs to meet with him.
Donald Connell of Scottsville, New York had brought with him a digital photo of a very old black leather chair with oak arms and trim. On further inspection you could see lovely hand painted trim work in red, green and gold and the chair was not a typical arm chair it was actually designed to be in a permanent reclining position. The chair would need major restoration work since the leather seat was torn and you could see that horse hair had probably been used to stuff the seat since some of it was showing.
Having studied many historic photos of the rooms in Mr. Eastman’s home I knew I had never seen a chair like it in the house but the fact that it was upholstered in black leather meant it could have been used in Eastman’s Billiard room where there is a black leather sofa or in one of his third floor recreation rooms. More research would be necessary.
I asked Mr. Connell how he acquired the chair and its history. He explained that his uncle Neal Wessi was an electrician and he was doing some work at 900 East Avenue when it was owned by the University of Rochester Presidents. He saw the chair in either a barn or garage on the property admired it and was given it by an employee of the U of R at the time. Mr. Connell got the chair from his uncle. Knowing how the house had changed owners over the years the provenance was believable and I started to get excited.
When George Eastman died in 1932 he left his home and most of its contents to the University of Rochester to be the home of the University’s Presidents. Two Presidents lived here from about 1933 until 1946 and then the property became a museum of photography and film and a memorial to George Eastman. Many of Eastman’s original belongings were used by the U of R families that lived in the house but many of them also left the home when they redecorated.
Now that the provenance was reasonable I had to prove that this chair really was George Eastman’s. I knew my work was cut out for me. When furnishings are not depicted in original photos left behind by GE I have two recourses. One- lots of research in GE’s personal correspondence to see if I can find an order or a receipt for a black leather recliner that fits the description of the chair in question or see if the item has an original canvas tag on it that was placed on all pieces in GE home after his death as part of his estate inventory.
I asked Mr. Connell to look under the chair when he returned home and see if he could find the telltale tag I had described to him. Within an hour of his departure he called me and informed me he had found the tag. Now I was sure of the provenance and could take the chair. I would need to get approval of its acceptance into the collection at my next George Eastman Legacy Acquisition meeting which was scheduled for July.
Mr. Connell delivered the chair on Monday June 2, 2008. I did the appropriate paperwork with our Registrars office and then had the chair photographed. The chair sat in the George Eastman study center for about 6 weeks before our acquisition committee actually met to approve its addition into the collection. During that time I answered innumerable questions from visitors about the piece. Many were curious about how it was made and where it would be placed once repaired and others were just fascinated that original items once belonging to GE were still out there and being returned. One person actually made a donation towards repair of the chair once it was officially in the collection.
The chair was officially accepted into the collection on July 23, 2008. Now my work begins. The chair will need to be cleaned, accessioned, professionally photographed and cataloged and then sent out for re-upholstery and repair. When it is returned looking like it would have in GE time it will be again put on display in its rightful place in one of GE restored rooms.
Kathy Connor is the Curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection. She oversees the care & maintenance of George Eastman's 50 room Colonial Revival mansion & the George Eastman Archive which contains over 162,000 other artifacts that tell the history of the Eastman Kodak Company and its founder George Eastman. Connor joined the museum staff in 1982 as the museum's Education & Volunteer coordinator.
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