Historical Antiques: Writer combines research with artifact business

It would seem natural for a history buff to deal in historical antiques. William H. Guthman of Westport, Conn., does just that, combining historical research and writing with the buying and selling of antiques that pertain to history.

His business, which he conducts by appointment frm his home, is known as Guthman Americana. He also exhibits annually at the prestigious Winter Antiques Show in New York as well as at two summer shows in Kent and Essex, both in Connecticut.

In 1966 Mr. Guthman took a leave of absence from his job in manufacturing to research and write a book on one phase of Colonial history. "I then decided as the work progressed that it was a good time to embark on a whole new career," he recalls. "I never went back to manufacturing."

The book, "March to Massacre" -- a history of the first seven years of the United States Army (from 1784 to 1791) --was published by McGraw Hill in 1975. It is now out of print, but its preparation launched the author on his present career of writing on historical subjects for various publications, and of collecting and selling historical artifacts and documents from the late 17th, 18 th, and early 19th centuries. These include many objects from early militia days, including old firearms, swords, powder horns, canteens, clay pipes, compasses, sextons, and many items of personal use, including button hooks and shaving equipment.

The author has also searched out many documents pertaining to the military during the Colonial and Federal periods. These include old leatherbound volumes , journals, diaries, orderly books, manuscripts, maps, letters, and account books. His collection of beaded Indian moccasins, pouches, and vests dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries. One very special parchment document, dated December 1828 and signed by President John Quincy Adams, names Chief Nawkaw of the Winnebago Indian tribe as a good friend of the white people. The citation was presented to Chief Nawkaw in Washington, D.C., and is today available from Mr. Guthman for $15,000.

To satisfy a growing number of collectors of the beautifully hand-decorated militia drums from the 18th and 19th centuries, the Connecticut dealer has located assorted items which sell today between $350 and $3,500 and are sought for their decorative value as well as their historical importance.

At the recent Winter Antiques Show Mr. Guthman's stock included an 1800 Masonic apron, marked $350, a 1780 battle plan copied by one of Gen. George Washington's aides, a 17th-century English sundial, historic proclamations and military commissions, as well as artfully framed arrangements of army insignia.

Mr. Guthman finds his greatest satisfaction in the superb craftsmanship expressed in the objects he sells. "These things were all made before the Industrial Revolution, and each is skillfully handmade and one of a kind," he explains, calling them "bits of history." His research is continuous, and he says he is always discovering new pages of history as he examines and learns about his artifacts. He continually discovers new material at auctions, flea markets, through other dealers, and from people across the country who write him to offer documents or artifacts. He also sells to many collectors, as well as to museums, libraries, and schools.

William Guthman's advice to beginner collectors is to look at as many things as possible, and to read widely in the areas that seem to interest the most. Even the most junior collectors, he says, should begin to establish a reference library as soon as they begin to acquire objects. Learning how and where things fit in historically and what they mean are important parts of the fun and the excitement of collecting, he believes.

Children and young parents, he says, can still find historical antiques for under $10 (such as excavated buttons) or documents such as Revolutionary War receipts and Colonial currency for $15 to $20. He encourages such collecting as a good adjunct to the study of history.

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