While some might deride it as dumpster diving, Greg Van Antwerp sees historical “gold in them thar” junk piles.
Greg Van Antwerp: urban archaeologist. Contributed photo
And on Sunday, Van Antwerp, a self-proclaimed urban archaeologist, will share some of his most interesting discoveries at the Westport Historical Society (WHS) from 3 to 4 p.m.
According to Antwerp, objects found in bottle dumps, at garage and estate sales, can be like messages in a bottle in that they have fascinating stories to tell.
Among the find he blogs about under the banner of Confessions of an Urban Archeologist: news clippings of a Connecticut soldier lost in World War II; the childhood home movies of a Broadway playwright; and memories of Westport.
He says one of his favorite finds was a glass negative that came out of a Danbury estate. He taught himself to process the image.
“Oh my God,” Van Antwerp said. “It was a 19th century farmer and his wife, like American Gothic, but with no identification.”
Found images and icons like these, he said, represents “the fabric of existence,” and instilled in him a desire to find answers to the silent questions these items pose.
Glass negatives, used by photographers before the development of photographic paper, can be valuable because they’re scarce, fragile and represent “original content,” he said.
Van Antwerp began lending his expertise to historical societies, assisting them with their collections of negatives.
In Monroe, he was introduced to the work of Frederick Sherman, a schoolteacher and town clerk who traveled up and down the Housatonic Valley taking pictures to sell for postcards.
Sherman, who died in 1941, left behind a large collection of negatives that were sold off with only some going to local historical societies.
Van Antwerp produced a brief documentary of Sherman’s evocative early 1900s work with a goal to find negatives still out in the wild and have them returned to the towns for their historic value.
He said his goal is to find something that was left or hidden somewhere in a house hosting an estate sale and return it.
“I enjoy the hunt,” he says, adding that he’s not looking for the Holy Grail, so he can sell and retire.
“This is a personal life journey for me,” he said. “I’m looking to learn something new and find a good story to share”
A $5 donation is requested and reservations are suggested for the lecture. For further information call the WHS at (203) 222-1424. or visit westporthistory.org.