About ten years ago, on a weekend trip to Staunton, VA, I was browsing around in an antique shop called The Jolly Roger Haggle Shop. On a bottom shelf, way in the back, I thought I spotted something. It was a very old looking box and was in terrible condition. The entire box seemed to be covered in pine sap or some other sticky, grimy substance. Inside, the box was lined in blue silk and had an oval mirror in the lid. I licked my thumb and rubbed it across the lid. The lid was inlaid with small squares, and once I wiped away some grime, I immediately recognized that the inlay I had cleaned was tortoise shell. Although it was in terrible condition, I wanted it. No price, of course. So, I took it up to the front counter and inquired.
"Where did you find that?" The owner asked.
"It was over there on the shelf gathering dust. What do you want on it?" I replied.
I continued to clean it up a bit, but knew that it would require more cleaning and work to bring it back. As I fiddled with the lid, the mirror busted through the old horse glue that affixed it to the top and it was now loose inside the lid...Great, just great I thought. I played with the mirror a bit and it rocked. I suddenly realized that there was something behind it. What could it be? Very carefully, I lifted apart the old nails of the lid and discovered that there was paper inside. And, with a pair of tweezers, I very slowly removed it, hoping it was full of gold certificates or confederate cash. But, it was just a newspaper. I decided to see where it was from and when. Would it help me to date the box? As I pulled it out, I was stunned. The newspaper was from Vallejo, CA and was dated from the 1850's. Remarkable. The owner of the box, some time after it was made, had wedged the newspaper into the lid to hold the mirror when the glue broke. This dated the box in my estimate to somewhere between 1800 and 1830. What a journey! This box must have made quite a journey before it found me. I put the newspaper back inside the lid.
Over the years, I have worked on the box on and off and replaced some of the missing inlays. For the ivory, which is difficult if not impossible to acquire, I used 1850's piano keys. Ebony veneer too, is impossible to find. I used a false ebony. It was also missing the escutcheon and the medallion on the top. Replacing these was difficult.
These had to be hand made. I purchased a 1 oz .999 silver coin to make them. I melted down the coin and hammered it out into a large oval blank. Then, I traced the shape of the medallion and cut a piece of paper to an exact fit. I applied the piece of paper to the silver blank I had made and etched the shape into it. Now I began the process of hand filling it into shape. It took many hours of hammering and filing, but ultimately, I had a piece that was a fairly close fit. This, I polished and applied to the box lid. The escutcheon was made similarly and was a very difficult piece to make. Getting an antique key was simply a matter of going to a locksmith. They completed it in less than 24 hours and for under ten bucks.