BY ROBERT KNIGHT
A display of 17th and 18th century Dutch antiques, collectibles and everyday artifacts from both Holland the Hudson River Valley has been drawing crowds since the show opened three weeks ago at the Orangetown Museum and Archives in Orangeburg.
Called “From Holland to Here,” the exhibit features a few items from the museum’s own collection but mostly artifacts from the world-renowned collection of Staten Island collector George Way.
The display, which opened April 18 and will run through November 15, examines the Dutch heritage of the Town of Orangetown (named in the 1600s for the Duke of Orange) and Rockland County through Way’s personal collection of 17th century Dutch art and artifacts, deemed one of the most extensive and significant such collections anywhere in America.
The exhibit is open three days a week, Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Sundays from 1p.m. – 4 p.m., with museum board members, staff and docents as hosts, hostesses and guides. The exhibit is free of charge, but donations are accepted. Refreshments are frequently served, such as punch and cookies, and the exhibit is also available for private groups, families, schools and other organizations on other days and hours by appointment.
One such tour already scheduled is by the Association of Blauvelt Descendants, which will hold its annual convention and meeting in Orangeburg and Tappan, including a tour of the Dutch exhibit at the Isaac DePew House, headquarters of the town’s archives and museum center located at 196 Chief Bill Harris way (formerly Blasdell Road) at the corner of Orangeburg Road, four blocks east of Town Hall.
On loan for this exhibit, the largest Way has made during his half-century of collecting Dutch artifacts, are a stunning display of paintings, miniatures, silver, brass, delftware, prints, drawings and furniture.
The collection significantly contributes to the back story of who the Dutch were in the 1680s (and most particularly the large Blauvelt family, which settled much of Orangetown, along with descendants of Gerrit Hendricksen), when a group of Dutch farmers left their “Boweries” off Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan to settle here in Orangetown, according to museum director and town historian Mary Cardenas.
Spirited, adventurous and descended from a highly developed culture, these earliest residents got out of Manhattan, explains museum curator Elizabeth Skrabonja. They re-settled their families, maintaining their language, religion and traditions away from the scrutiny of the English who by then had wrested control of New York City from its Dutch founders.
The current exhibit, she says, gives residents today an extraordinary opportunity to examine the background of a people who, through their efforts, have distinguished Orangetown as a place “rich in history,” which is the town’s current official motto.
George Way may live on Staten Island, but his heart is clearly in the Netherlands.
A collector since the age of 15, an interest quickly became a passion as he was drawn in to the golden age of Dutch culture. From a novice, to a collector to a connoisseur, his collection has grown to become the most definitive private collection of 17th century Dutch art and artifacts in the United States.
His assistance has been sought out by such institutions as Christie’s Auction House, Pennsbury Manor, Coe Hall, Folger Shakespeare Library and the Snug Harbor Cultural Center among others.
In an interview with the Rockland County Times, Way said he is a lifelong Staten Islander who is now 65 and retired from Pathmark after a career as a deli butcher.
His interest in artifacts began when he was eight and on a family vacation to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he discovered a Revolutionary War button peeking out from a tree’s roots. He was bitten, he said, and has been collecting ever since. His first formal studies began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) when he began studying colonial furniture, he said, and he learned to distinguish between English, Dutch and American construction techniques.
He quickly graduated to the 17th century Pilgrim Room at the Met, and also began collecting any artifacts he could find at flea markets, yard sales, antique stores and the ruins of demolished estates.
He quickly realized that he knew far more about the history of Dutch artifacts than most sellers did, and he was thus able to start amassing his huge collection at little cost. “I thrived on the dealers’ lack of intimate knowledge of furniture styles and history of antiques, and was able to get stuff very cheaply,” he recalled.
Years later, he was able to parlay that specialized knowledge of early English and Dutch furniture’s styles into a job as a consultant for Christies Auction House in New York City. He was first hired by Brian Cole, president of Christies East, he remembered, and quickly parlayed that expertise into guest appearances on Oprah Winfrey, the Today Show, Tom Brokaw and numerous other TV shows as one of America’s leading experts in 17th century furniture.
He also wrote numerous articles on Dutch furniture and antiques for a multitude of arts, crafts, antiques and furniture magazines and other publications, and has won numerous awards for his knowledgeable writing skills. He is currently one of only five Americans to be acknowledged as experts in 17th century Dutch antiques and furniture, and so is frequently consulted by estates, courts, auctioneers and others in need of expert knowledge that can withstand cross examination an discovery.
He also frequently loans parts of his extensive collection to various museums, currently having 20 pieces on display at Pennsbury Manor Museum in Pennsylvania and a 1690 Dutch day bed on display at the Trent House Museum in Trenton, New Jersey.
For the Orangetown exhibit, the largest he has ever done, he has both furniture and artifacts, including brass, silver, iron and wood, along with large and small paintings, drawings and etchings, candlesticks, kitchen artifacts, silverware, pottery and similar household objects from estates large and small.
“I love sharing my collection with people, that’s what it’s all about,” Way said of his display currently in Orangetown, which occupies four rooms of the Dutch colonial DePew house.
His own residence in Staten Island is small, Way said, being a typical apartment. His goal is to eventually find a repository for his collection, so he can be assured of its permanence when he is longer able to care for it and expand it. (Which he still does, by way of flea markets, auctions and the Internet, and referrals by his network of friends).
Way came to Orangetown by way of Skrabonja, who was surfing the internet a couple of months ago, seeking sources of Dutch colonial artifacts for the museum’s exhibit in conjunction with the Blauvelt family reunion. She found several references to his writings and exhibits, and decided to contact him directly.
“The rest is history,” Way said. “I was delighted when she contacted me and asked if I could assist her in preparing a 16th and 17th century Dutch exhibit in Orangetown, and I immediately offered my assistance. We met in person; I showed her my collection; and the result in now on display here in Orangeburg through the fall for everyone to look at.”
“What makes my collection so unique and so important is the condition of each item in the collection,” he explained. “I only acquire pieces that are already in excellent condition, and then I restore them to their full glory. Every piece in my collection is pristine, and could easily be sold at auction to the most discriminating collectors and museums.”
Among the items he says people may want to view in Orangeburg are fireplace equipment, early portraits including one of King William III and another of Frederick Prince of Orange, a full-length portrait of a wealthy merchant, a set of 16th century Dutch walnut chairs, a 1,747 foot warmer, an assortment of 17th century Dutch medals, coins and other small objects, a sampling of authentic Dutch delft pottery and a collection of early brass tobacco boxes, among other artifacts.
Skrabonja eagerly commented on her search for information about early Dutch settlement in Rockland County, tying it in to the Blauvelt Association’s plans to hold their annual meeting in Orangetown this fall.
“What brought an adventurous group of Dutch farmers to Orangetown,” she asked rhetorically, were “a lush forest, fertile farmland, wildlife and the Hudson River were just the beginning.”
Once the British ousted the Dutch from rule in Manhattan in 1664, life was constricted for the Dutch settlers there. Used to their own ways, many Dutch farmers sought out a new life, and found that in the Hudson Valley, where the English had not yet settled.
Skrabonja describes these Dutch settlers as “economically driven, uniquely secular yet particularly devoted to family. The Dutch presented a sharp contrast to their British neighbors. The fabric of their culture, the genius of their entrepreneurship and the beauty of the objects they possessed speak to how the Dutch crafted their lives.
“While the Pilgrims in New England were escaping religious persecution, the Dutch had been enjoying a Golden Age,” she continued. “Their relationship with the New World was a reflection of their multi-cultural orientation, sense of adventure and passion for trade.”
“Products of an already highly developed culture, our Dutch farmers brought with them a specific admixture of qualities particularly suited to succeed in Orangetown.”
The Orangetown Historical Museum and Archives was founded in 1992 to acquire, preserve and exhibit objects that reflect primarily the history of the Town of Orangetown, the first recognized government in what is now Rockland County.
The museum’s additional, but not lesser mission, according to Director Mary Cardenas, is to document, research, promote and publicize the rich historical heritage of the town for the people of Orangetown.
Its first headquarters was the Dutch sandstone Salyer House on Blue Hill Road in Pearl River, which Orangetown had acquired years earlier from the United Water Company. That house, on the banks of the water company’s Lake Tappan reservoir and on the front lawn of the Blue Hill Golf Course, sat vacant for years until the museum converted it into a headquarters and museum.
Orangetown later acquired additional land from New York State’s shrinking Rockland Psychiatric Center, including the Isaac DePew House on Blasdell road. The DePew House is also a Dutch sandstone colonial, and had housed hospital staff for 70 years until it was bought by Orangetown.
The town gave that house to the museum as well, and it became the group’s new headquarters, offices and exhibit space for rotating displays. The Salyer House, in the meantime, is used for permanent displays in town history and for holiday programs such as elaborate Christmas displays and performances.