Treasures of a Pastrami Slicer
"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