The There Were Marbles

THE closest I had ever come to collecting anything was craving a half-inch-high iron rabbit in a blue vest. The antique dealer wanted $30 for him. ``Turn of some century,'' he said.

Thirty dollars seemed a lot, but what decided the issue was a sudden vision of myself as someone who collected half-inch rabbits. No one owns just one half-inch of anything. There would have to be more. They would need a shelf. A mental image of Laura Wingfield caressing her glass animals one by one in Tennessee Williams's ``The Glass Menagerie'' clinched it. No, the rabbit could stay under glass with the silver thimbles and tiny ceramic pugs, thank you.

Then there were marbles.

It began with a call from friends two time zones away. Would I go to an auction and bid on some marbles for them? All I had to do was look at the marbles and phone in a description. They'd tell me how much to bid.

``They're glass and round,'' I cried into a pay phone over the din of the auction. ``Except that some of them aren't glass.''

``Those are clay,'' the friend hollered back. ``Forget those, they're worthless. But tell me about the glass. Did you see any onionskins or lutzes? How about slags, oxbloods, swirls, guineas, flames, or corkscrews?''

``The marbles are round,'' I said. ``They have colors in them.''

I could hear her sigh even over a bad line. This was not the keen report she had hoped for. ``Go to $100,'' she said. ``Don't bid on the clays.''

Three hours of abandoned bank furniture, bad art, and 1950s memorabilia later, both boxes of marbles were mine. The auctioneer had insisted on selling the clay and glass lots together. Only one man bid against me. He'd come down from Keene, N.H., the day before to take a closer look at the marbles.

``You have 200 clays, one banded in purple, all worth about $25; 50 nice glass from the '40s and '50s; a few from the '30s, worth about $100; 400 others worth about 10 cents apiece,'' he said. ``You did OK, but I'm a dealer and have to make a profit on these. You went over my limit.''

Sensing a wall of ignorance, he pressed on. ``There's a popeye in here, mint condition,'' he said, rummaging through the box of glass marbles until he found it. ``See these three colors? They wrap around but never cross. It's a type of corkscrew, worth about $10. If you ever want to sell it, let me know.'' He scribbled his name and phone number on a scrap of paper.

He didn't have to be so generous. He had wasted a day and a tank of gas, only to lose the lot to someone who clearly didn't have a clue what she was bidding on. He just seemed to love to share what he knew.

As time rolled on, other collectors' cards would join this improvised one. But not right away. First, I mailed the glass marbles to my friends. ``Keep the clays for your trouble,'' they said.

I didn't say so at the time, but I'd have traded a dozen half-inch rabbits for that box of nicked and faded clays. They may not be ``collectible,'' but clearly these had been loved. While the glass marbles were heaped in a shoe box, the clays had a lacquered box of their own, with a lid and a keyhole. All were irregular in shape, not a straight shooter in the lot. Their surface dyes had long since worn down to bare earth after decades of hard play and rattling around in boxes, but bits of rose, teal, and wisteria were still visible.

Consider just the one with a painted stripe. Who had added that jaunty dash of purple to this humblest of toys? Why had the marble lasted all these years in such good shape? When schoolyard marble tournaments began in the spring, had a small hand tucked that one away in a pocket to avoid dinging it or, worse, losing it in a game ``for keeps?''

I bought my first book on marbles and began to study the marbles I now possessed. Marbles, I found, have been traced back to Egyptian pyramids, the ruins of Pompeii, 15th-century German villages, and colonial America. The earliest were made of stone, then clay or earthenware. My purple-striped masterwork turned out to be a rolled commie, likely made in Akron, Ohio, about a century ago. Akron resident Matthew Lang developed a patent for rolling marbles down a series of trays with color to produce this distinctive striped pattern, I read in Paul Baumann's ``Collecting Antique Marbles.''

I didn't set out to find more marbles right away. My next batch came from a Saturday auction that was next door to my husband's office, where he was puzzling through a crisis computer problem. The auction was down to bric-a-brac, and the crowd was thinning out as I walked in. ``Here's an old tin,'' the auctioneer called out. ``I think it has marbles in it.''

You think? How could anyone not look? He sold the tin without opening the lid. I had to know. So did two other bidders, but apparently not as much as I did. I sent the contents (125 marbles, eight corkscrews) to the friends out West as a surprise, but set one aside. It had character: milky translucent glass with bold, brick-red tracings on the surface; inside, a few tiny bubbles and a black speck of something that likely fell into the molten glass during production. It said, ``Keep me.''

Several thousand marbles later, I still shun the term collector. Serious marble hunting can swallow up hours, mornings, days in a gulp. Hard-core collectors can be found digging around abandoned school-yards, scouring Saturday-morning yard sales, and haunting flea markets.

A friend recalls driving into the night to be first past the post at the Brimfield Fair in western Massachusetts, a mecca for marbles. She left home at 11 p.m., arrived at the fair gate at 1 a.m., and settled down for a few hours of sleep before the fair opened at dawn. She recognized fellow marble collectors bunking down in cars beside her - all but one - who spent the night tapping on car windows asking, ``Do you have any marbles?''

My own strategy is simple: Take the back roads and remember that marbles are a game. I've found marbles in coffee tins, canning jars, a printer's type case, a cardboard pencil box with the note ``my marbles'' written in a child's hand, the floor of a barn, and the back of a drawer in an old house. My favorites sit in a box by the phone. (Tip for ``on-hold'' telephone waits: Lift a silver oxblood up to the light.)

I returned home recently to find a message on the answering machine next to that marble box: ``Called to be sure you'd heard that there are some bogus amber sulphides showing up on the market,'' she said. ``People are paying more than $2,000 for them. Just didn't want you to be fooled.''

Two thousand dollars? That's 66 half-inch rabbits. Not to worry.

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