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From Off

When asked for a recommendation on a restaurant, I invariably suggest the tried and true. Jane and I live and work here and, like most folks we know, tend to eat at home. My knowledge of the new places seems to derive from the stories I hear from those who visit with us. “Outside-in” works, of course, but I take pleasure in sharing what I do know of this wonderful town with these same visitors.

For all its status as a tourist destination, Charleston is wonderfully intimate. The two blocks between our home and gallery—as well as a single block in either direction, east or west from Church Street—are patterned with houses on the National Register, our church and my club, and the homes of many of our friends. I know many of the inhabitants and all of the characters. On one lovely morning recently, I spoke with a friend by cell for most of the seven or eight minute hike to work. As we neared the end of our conversation, he commented that heard me greet five different people by name. What a privilege!

Here as everywhere, goodwill breeds good business. The “come here’s” are my established clients; they want to acquire the indigenous production of Hutty, Verner, Taylor, and Smith. The “been here’s” already have it and, on occasion, wish to sell it. Very early on in my tenure here, I was asked for an opinion on the offer someone had made on a fine work by one of the Renaissance painters. I felt the offer was low and squarely offered the party a fair market price, with allowance for a reasonable profit for my enterprise. The person doing the asking, prominent in business and social circles, appreciated the honesty, and his recommendation has made a difference. The doors of many of these storied houses have been opened to me by the success of that first purchase, often by those among us who have a last name for a first.

Truth be told, it has worked to my advantage that I am “from off,” my arrival falling on this side of Hurricane Hugo, the great dividing line in all things related to modern-day Charleston. It is presumed that I simply could not know enough of the friends and relatives of any particular Charleston surname doing the selling to portend indiscretion. After all, there is always room in a picture’s provenance for strategic omission. In the wake of Hugo’s destruction and so much lost, what had been treasured as indigenous to Charleston—Alfred Hutty’s depictions of its architectural icons and Gullah inhabitants, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s flower ladies and the majestic oaks at Middleton Place, Alice Smith’s watercolors of all that is this city and the countryside around it, and Anna Heyward Taylor’s watercolors and woodblocks—are now worth serious money. There is, for all of us, a right time to sell.

Death, debt, and divorce historically drive supply in my business, no matter where you hang your shingle. But to profit from any of these three, there is a fourth and far more critical element: discretion. Discretion within walls, within clans, and always around town. Such prudence between relatives has served me well at times. It would seem, for instance, that one of the pillars of the Charleston Renaissance left a number of collateral descendants. We tend to buy the work from the closer progeny who thereby inherited more of the artist’s works and sell it to the kin further afield, second cousins perhaps. I hope these folks never have a family reunion.

Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937)
St. Philip’s Church, Charleston (1913)
Mixed media
18 1⁄4 x 15 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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