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< Echoes of Memory



By Louise Lawrence-Israëls

The German term sachwerte means “non-cash value.” The term was often used in Germany and countries around Germany after World War I. The economic depression made cash lose its value soon after it was printed.

How could families buy food? Every day you needed more cash for the same loaf of bread. So the old idea came back to life to use cash to buy other assets. You could invest in land, houses, a business, or “things.” “Things” meaning jewelry, silver, gold, art, or antiques to use as cash.

Growing up after World War II, I heard the term sachwerte a lot. My father used to come home with “things” and said one word “sachwerte.” When I got older, I understood that it had been sachwerte that kept us from starving to death during the Nazi occupation of my country, the Netherlands. We were in hiding, and there was no income. All the beautiful things my family had collected before the war were being used to barter for food, medicine, or other necessities. After five years of occupation, there were only a few collectables left, including some small silver serving pieces.

When you have experienced conflicts, you will never forget it and you will always fear that it will happen again. Having learned the lessons of surviving from my family, it was important to start collecting again. First it was to be safe, but it was also a hobby.

Of course, it took some years after the war before my father was able to buy “things” again—feeding the family and buying warm clothing for all came first and collectables could only be bought with specially saved money. As children, my father took us to antique stores. We heard him discussing certain objects with the shopkeepers, and then bargaining about the price, and sometimes making a purchase. We loved going, and it put a seed in our minds for later.

We grew up with books; my parents always said if you collect, you have to know what you collect. Also by studying certain objects, you would recognize them in stores; not all objects are obvious. For example, a miniature domino set comes in a certain little box, like a big domino set. You might see it and think what a cute box. If you have studied it, you might know that there actually is a miniature domino set inside that cute box. When my father came home with a new treasure, he always asked what we thought about it. 

The first time I visited London, I could not get enough of all the old silver at the London Silver Vaults and the outdoor antique markets. I could only afford small objects like salt spoons, mustard jars, and small cups. To find an object that interests you, then bargain about the price, and realize that you can just afford it, it gives you a magical feeling. Once you know that special feeling, you want to look for more finds. On my birthday after my visit to London, my parents gave me a book about old silver and a book about hallmarks. When you study the hallmarks on the silver, you learn who made the piece, and in what year, and where it was made.

When I met Sidney, my husband, collecting antiques was a new concept for him, but he learned quickly. I gave him an old brass English weight for his birthday and he got interested in old weights and scales. It did not take long before we started antiquing together, and he, too, loves it. 

For more than 50 years, we have collected beautiful things. We have an eclectic collection, but in the last few years we have focused on smaller pieces, since we live in an apartment now. We enjoy going to antique fairs, and antiquing in Europe, especially in London and Denmark. We love Danish silver and porcelain. To find a special piece now gives both of us that magical feeling. Danish friends visited us a couple of weeks ago. I served cheese and crackers and used our beautiful handmade Danish silver knives.

A week later we received a small package from our friends in the mail. When we opened it, there was a small silver lemon fork the same pattern as the silver knives we had used for cheese. We felt the same magic when we saw that thoughtful gift. When times are not so secure, it is comforting to have sachwerte—to know that you have “things” to barter with, so that your family can eat.

Tags:   louise lawrence-israëlsechoes of memory, volume 13

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