London — News of undiscovered masterpieces coming to light continues to fall upon our ears each season. Record prices for objects picked up for a song on market stalls or at jumble sales stiffen the resolve to watch ever more diligently - or at least to hover over more market stalls and jumble sales. How can people fail to see what is in front of their very eyes? Apart from the public's excusable failure to recognize some of the more esoteric byways of art, even experts sometimes find it hard to see what they do not expect to be there.
I have just proved that it is possible to even own an antique without recognizing it as such. Not only that: I have often stood on it, thrown it down, knocked it over, splashed paint on it, and left it in the garden for days on end. ``Vandal!'' you may cry. But I didn't know better. What's more, you may well be making the same mistake. ``What? Where?'' you demand. Well, take a look at your stepladder.
My trusty ladder was much in evidence during a recent holidays. Having put the final touch one last white wall, I descended from its heights and dropped into an armchair to survey my handiwork. Perhaps because it was the sole object standing in relief against the anonymity of the flawless wall, I really looked at the ladder for the first time in over 20 years. It is a masterpiece of timber construction - and it is old.
I leaped up from my chair to examine it for identifying marks and discovered that it even has a name, The Hatherley Patent Lattistep. I turned it upside down. There, inscribed on the top riser, I found the words ``Jones Patent 3928, 1882.''
I soon called the Patent Office in London for more information. The Historical Records Department could not have been more helpful. Yes, 1882 was the date of the patent. On Aug. 16 that year one Charles Allan Jones applied for patent protection for his invention.
My embarrassment at my failure to recognize my antique stepladder is compounded by the fact that I still dine out on the story of finding a superb George III library staircase in a garden in Leeds. All such staircases are rarities, but this one was special. It turned gracefully through 180 degrees with a long curved handrail supported on slender turned balusters. Its owner found it perfect for reaching the top of a high privet hedge; it had languished in the garden for years. Alas, discovery came too late and it disintegrated into a heap of rotting timber at the first touch.
This will not be the fate of my late Victorian stepladder. But what is one to do with a stepladder that can no longer be stepped on? One suggestion put forward is that we repaint it, in a single color to replace the mottled finish it has acquired. We might choose a bright red to ensure it will never be overlooked again.