What They Bought
Russell Whitmore, Owner of Erie Basin

Certain areas in the Northeast are generally regarded as nirvana for antique collectors: Hudson, New York; Lambertville, New Jersey; Adamstown, Pennsylvania; Brimfield, Massachusetts. Red Hook, Brooklyn, isn’t one of them. But that’s where 29-year-old Russell Whitmore decided to set up shop three years ago, on a corner just a few blocks from the East River wharfs. His much-loved store, Erie Basin, specializes in Victorian- and Georgian-era jewelry, furniture, and curiosities, with a dash of 20th century thrown in — think cameo rings, hair combs, snuff boxes, old mourning jewelry, ephemera recovered from the headquarters of fraternal orders, snowy porcelain wares by Ted Muehling, and vintage-inspired engagement rings by the Brooklyn duo Conroy & Wilcox. “I actually started out thinking I would do furniture and decorative arts, but that means you need a lot of space, and the problem in New York is real estate,” Whitmore says. “Besides, 19th-century jewelry has the same motifs and styles as the furniture and architecture of that time, so it wasn’t a big leap.”

Whitmore caught the antiquarian bug early. Growing up outside Chicago, his parents were antique hobbyists, and he had little else to do while studying studio art at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, a town of “maybe 100 people without the college,” he says. These days, he makes about a trip per week, traveling up and down the Northeast corridor and occasionally into the Midwest to check in with around 30 dealers who clear estates, buy from auctions, or have collections themselves. His taste in jewelry runs to the darkly romantic, and in furniture to the slightly battered. Like any collector, he can be sentimental about some finds, and once in a while, things somehow find their way to the Brooklyn Heights home he shares with his girlfriend, Sara. We asked Whitmore to share some recent buys, for the shop and for himself. Here are his selections.


19th-century sterling silver vulture brooch. "There are a few people in England I buy from, nice ladies who live in rural areas who can find better prices than I probably could. This brooch is my favorite new arrival. It’s the total opposite of most Victorian bird jewelry, which typically has sentimental and romantic symbolism with depictions of swallows and doves. This guy is huge and mean — there’s nothing romantic about a scavenger."


1765 urn-shaped amethyst mourning ring, 12K gold. "This is the best mourning ring I’ve ever found. I’ve had it for at least a year, but never photographed it — maybe out of reluctance to part with it. The first three months I had it, I didn’t even show it to anyone. It’s rose-cut amethyst and modeled to look like an urn. Behind the head of the ring is a crystal covering a lock of hair. And there’s flawless enamel work around the band that reads 'Jane Knight, Died 19 Nov 1765, Aged 55.'"


18th-century Hudson Valley map. "I got this beautiful map over the summer from a woman who found it folded inside an old family bible. Coordinates were recorded on the back in ink. I can’t quite bring myself to put it out in the shop yet."


Japanese porcelain creamer shaped like a dog. "I got this in Illinois this fall. It’s 1950s Japanese hand-painted porcelain, and it definitely transcends kitsch. It’s so bizarrely formed — like it started out as an ordinary creamer that all the sudden grew fur and sprouted a dog head. This was clearly made for a Western market (who else but Americans would want a dog-shaped creamer?), but the styling has a distinct Japanese influence. If you look closely at the dog’s face, it almost looks like a dragon."


1910 photograph, Louis Bostwick. "I found this last summer when my girlfriend Sara and I were on vacation in the Adirondacks. I have a fondness for old architectural photos and thought this old Greek revival mansion was gorgeous. The photograph was taken by Louis Bostwick, who was primarily known for his architectural photography. This made it even better since it seems pretty clear that he was hired to photograph this group of men but was more concerned with capturing the house behind them. It’s a great shot of the house and kind of a terrible portrait. I had to bring it home, and now it hangs in our dining room."


19th-century Oddfellows finial, carved and painted wood. "I really like old fraternal-order stuff, stuff that came out of lodges — it’s always a bit primitive but with interesting motifs. This is a finial from an Oddfellows lodge, my favorite 19th-century fraternal order. They produced some of the most amazing-looking things."


Mid-19th-century Masonic hand mirror. "The idea that a fraternal order would produce a hand mirror, or anything so well crafted, is amazing to me."


Ancient Roman amphorae, terracotta. "I think I regret putting these out for sale. I got them at an estate sale in Brooklyn a few months ago. The owner’s ex-husband was a recreational diver who went on archaeological diving trips in the 1960s. He pulled these out of the Mediterranean in 1961 and sent them back to Brooklyn. The family even had the original export documents and a postcard he sent to his wife from Spain when he found them."


1888 black enamel snake ring with diamond eyes. "Rings are my probably my favorite thing to buy. This snake is from an estate sale in England."


1873 mine-cut diamond ring, 18K gold. "I was very excited about finding this. Solitaire diamond rings from the 19th century are extremely difficult to find, and this one is so well designed. The cuts are less sophisticated than modern diamonds, and the sparkle is different, but the old ones just have a nice glow."


Early 1900s baby elephant match holder. "My girlfriend Sara requested that this one be brought home, and I gladly obliged. It's darling, but also a little bizarre."


1880s yarn art. "I bought this out of a dusty, dark barn upstate the summer before the store opened, and considered it one of the best finds of the day. After we were done antiquing, we went swimming in a lake. I decided to keep it about a year ago, as a souvenir of that day."


Victorian Boston terrier pillow. "Sara loves Boston terriers, and when I saw this at Brimfield, the antique fair in Massachusetts, I thought it should be hers. I love that they included the leash in his depiction. And he has great little Victorian glass taxidermy eyes."