Chasing the Past: Re-writing the History of a Mysterious Antiques Collector

Joanna Scott

Throughout my childhood, a portrait of my mother’s grandfather, Armand de Potter, hung on our living room wall. My mother always referred to him simply as “Granddaddy,” though she had never met him. He had died suddenly in the early years of the twentieth century, disappearing from the deck of a passenger ship. What caused him to go overboard, no one could say. There were no witnesses. He had left his steamer trunk in his cabin, but his wallet was never found.

De Potter's Portrait

According to my mother, there was some suspicion in the family that he’d been murdered. He was a rich man. Maybe a thief robbed him and then pushed him overboard. More likely, though, it was a tragic accident. He may have gone out to the deck for a breath of the cool night air and lost his balance. The rails on ships were lower back then, my mother would point out.

It never occurred to me that there might be more that could be known beyond the speculations reported by my mother. Like her, I thought that the truth had disappeared into the sea with Granddaddy, and I was reminded of the mystery every time I looked at his portrait.

De Potter's Grand Tour by Joanna Scott
Barnes and Noble

My mother and her sister had been raised by their grandmother—the widow of Armand de Potter—and they’d divided her possessions between them after her death. Mom had inherited enough antiques and paintings to clutter a small house. She had also kept her grandfather’s steamer trunk. It followed her from her house to her condominium to her apartment, where it was relegated to the basement storage unit and forgotten for half a century.

Then one day five years ago, my mother asked me to help her find her college diploma. She thought it might be in the steamer trunk, so we went down to the basement. We found the diploma right away, but also plastic bags full of papers and books. My mother left me in the basement while she went to make dinner, and I began sifting through the bags in the steamer trunk.

Among the papers I found legal documents:

De Potter's Legal Documents

There were dozens of itineraries, including one marked mysteriously by a handwritten exclamation in French:

De Potter's Itinerary

There were albums full of photographs of travels from around the world:

De Potter's Travel Photograph

De Potter's Travel Photographs

There were journals with messages written on their inside covers:

Armand De Potter's Journal

There were postcards, letters, wills, and a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings dating back to the 1870’s. There was an old belted leather wallet containing a card for a parfumerie in Nice. A pamphlet catalogued something called “The De Potter Collection,” listing over three hundred pieces of ancient Egyptian art, including a decorated sarcophagus and mummy.

The materials gave me a sense of the major events in the lives of my great-grandparents: I read about their wedding in the Hudson Valley in 1879, about Armand’s Belgian heritage, his success as a proprietor of a travel business, and his extensive dealings in the antiquities trade.

I felt like I was having a murky dream about the past. Why had everything been kept closed up in the trunk for so long? What were these ancestors trying to tell me? I wouldn’t have been able to guess if I hadn’t found a set of journals—A Line a Day books produced by the Samuel Ward Company, each with a prefatory advertisement that couldn’t have been more apt: “Such a book will be of the greatest value in after years. What a record of events, incidents, joys, sorrows, successes, failures, things accomplished, things attempted.” These were the diaries that Armand’s wife, Aimée, had kept over a period of thirty years.

Aimee De Potter's Diary

I took all the materials home to my study. My great-grandparents left so many testimonies that I was convinced they had wanted their secrets to survive them. It seemed that I had come upon a history that was begging to be written. I started a family biography, intending to solve the mystery surrounding Armand de Potter. Yet the more I pored over it all, the more stymied I felt by the missing pieces. Aimée had indicated in her diary that she’d lost the packet of her husband’s letters. Where were those letters? What had Armand said in them? As I speculated, I couldn’t resist writing the possibilities as imagined scenes. My search kept pushing me away from history, and closer to fiction. The true story may have been more powerful, full of more beauty, love, whimsy and heartbreak than anything I could have invented, but it was partial. After spending two years on the book I’d conceived of as nonfiction, I decided to recast it as a novel.

Still, I remained fixated on uncovering evidence. I spent hours in the Egyptian Galleries at the Brooklyn Museum, staring at an illustrated sarcophagus that had once been in the De Potter Collection. I went to the Hudson Valley and knocked on the door of the house where Aimée de Potter had lived out her life after her husband’s disappearance. The owner graciously invited me inside and showed me around. As I was leaving, he told me that he thought the house was haunted. I put my ear against the wall and heard a distant knocking—the sound made by mice, perhaps? Or ghosts?

But no matter how hard I peered into the past, I just could not imagine the central piece in the narrative—that point in Armand’s last days when he made the decision not to return home to his villa in Cannes. The book I was writing was like the steamer chest: full of pictures and snippets that didn’t cohere.

Then I went to Philadelphia, to the museum at the University of Pennsylvania, where Armand’s collection of Egyptian antiquities had once been on loan. I had a notion that a curator there at the turn of the century, Sara Yorke Stevenson, was important to the story. I visited the archives and wandered through the galleries, searching for clues.

I knew from Aimée’s diaries that Armand had written his last two letters to her in Constantinople. She’d scrawled a lamentation next to the name of the city on an itinerary: Pays de malheur, city of doom. What happened to Armand in Constantinople? I had to figure it out. By the end of the day, though, I hadn’t found any relevant information, and my imagination would go only so far before it dissolved in a fog of uncertainty.

It seemed I would never finish the book I’d begun. All I wanted was to get out of there. Where was the exit? I turned the wrong way, then the right way. Oh, there it was, and look, beside the door was the entrance to a small exhibition called Archeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands. Why not take a quick peak? Maybe I wasn’t in such a hurry after all.

Archeologists and Travelers in Ottoman Lands Exhibit

How interesting to discover that it was an exhibition about the antiquities trade, featuring a professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Hermann V. Hilprecht. And in the display case, a letter sent from Constantinople, postmarked June 8, 1905, caught my eye. That was the same day Armand led his final tour through Constantinople!

I’d intended to spend five minutes in the exhibition. I stayed until closing, reading about false claims the arrogant Professor Hilprecht made regarding excavations in the ancient holy city of Nippur. I learned that he had been hired by the University of Pennsylvania as a lecturer in Egyptology before becoming a professor of Assyriology. He must have been familiar with Armand’s collection. And he had been in Constantinople when Armand was there.

While I didn’t find the absolute solution to the mystery of Armand’s disappearance, I found something else in that exhibition: stories that ignited my sputtering imagination and gave me the means and energy to continue the novel I’d begun.

I’d wondered throughout my life about the bearded man in the portrait in our living room. He was at the height of his career, in love with his wife, and devoted to his son when he set off on his last tour. A century later, I took off after him. De Potter’s Grand Tour is my pursuit of a man who had clearly wanted to be remembered and yet, as I discovered, was reluctant to be found.

Armand de Potter's Back

Joanna Scott is the author of eleven books, including De Potter’s Grand Tour. Her novel The Manikin was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and both Various Antidotes and Arrogance were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Award.