Treasures of a Pastrami Slicer

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

QUEEN ELIZABETH I NEVER WOKE UP awash in sandwich crumbs (mainly because she ruled England two centuries before the sandwich's invention). But the current owner of one of Bess's beds—George Way, 41, who dishes up lox and slaw at the deli of a Pathmark on his native Staten Island, N.Y.—doesn't mind littering it with the fallout from his own belly bursters, even though he recently rejected an offer of $400,000 for the antique.

"Some people say I should sell so I can buy more," Way explains. "But you don't take away a piece from a good collection—you add to it by finding other good pieces at cheap prices." Heeding his own advice and combing antique shops and flea markets for 16th- and 17th-century works (furniture and formal paintings that few are currently collecting), the self-schooled connoisseur has, over 25 years, slowly created one of America's foremost private Elizabethan and Jacobean collections. Despite never paying more than $1,800 for any of his goodies, Way, who takes a bus to his $650-a-week job, has a $1.5 million trove that leaves little room to navigate in his one-bedroom bachelor's pad.

Among the finds: some 50 portraits (of which 30 are on loan to museums); two baronial banquet tables (the smaller seats eight); more than four dozen Charles II and William and Mary chairs (19 other chairs are on loan); cupboards and chests, and such bric-a-brac as delft tiles.

Way's expertise has earned him a board seat at Staten Island's Alice Austen museum and a trusteeship at another on Long Island. It has also won him such moonlighting gigs as contributing editor to Arts & Antiques magazine; lecturer at New York galleries and colleges, and consultant in Jacobean furniture to Christie's East. Says Kathleen Guzman, president of the Manhattan auction house: "It is a business where you need to touch, feel, smell, look and compare. Some people like George have minds able to remember everything."

"I was destined to become a collector," claims Way. "As a kid, my head was always down—I was always looking for something." Indeed, on a family trip to Valley Forge, Pa., when he was 10, George spotted a pewter button under a tree and took it to the on-site museum. It was a genuine pre—Revolutionary War—era relic. Way was a "class clown" at Curtis High School, but all business in museums. "I went to the New-York Historical Society every Sunday," he recalls. "And I used to be the first one in the Metropolitan Museum. That's how I acquired the eye—by studying the construction of pieces. There are many people with master's degrees working in museums who don't know a lot. I may not have a formal education, but I can detect restoration, what's been played with. I know what a period piece is."

Way has no plans to hang up his deli apron to enter the antiques trade (just collecting is "more fun"), but he dreams of buying a Tudor-style house to properly display his collection. And to allow expansion—at the right price. "I've seen people pay up to $2,000 for a joint stool," says Way. "I bought one the other weekend for $500, and it's all original. When you have more knowledge than the next person, you are going to find bargains. They're out there to be found."

—T.C.; DENISE LYNCH in Staten Island

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