LAST SUMMER, with the cash running out and no job in sight, a certain lady of Georgetown by the name of Miller sold first her car and then a silver tray and, finally, four chairs, French and old, to a certain antique dealer of Georgetown, Peter Mack Brown by name. He came by the house and took them all for $475, leaving, she clearly remembers, in a jubilant mood. It was then that she suspected something.
"He had this big smile on his face," said Janie Leighton Miller, the seller of the chairs. "He and this other guy went hopping out of here as if they had made a big deal."
This winter, still out of work but with a houseful of Georgetown University students paying rent for their rooms, Janie Leighton Miller and a friend form back home in Wichita went shopping in Georgetown. They hit all the stores and then they walked into the shop owned by Peter Mack Brown. Miller saw the chairs. She went over to inspect. She read the tag: "Four Polished Beechwood and Cane Louis XVI Side Chairs. French; Last Quarter of the 18th Century: $3,500."
Janie Leighton Miller screamed -- the saleswoman remembers that -- and accused Peter Mack Brown of ripping her off. She bolted from the store and ran like in one of those movies -- the cold and wind in her face, her eyes tearing, maybe -- to the drugstore of one Doc Dalinsky, the last person in Georgetown with any heart. He comforted her and it was later that she called me.
Now that we are back to me, maybe I should say that I feel a bit defensive about the subject of this column -- not Georgetown, where I feel obliged to point out I do not live, but antiques and Frenchy stuff and things like that. Therefore, I hasten to point out that there is a universal experience here. The reason I went to see Miller is not that I care about antiques, but because the same thing more or less happened to me with a used car. I bought it one week and sold it back to the dealer the next, getting a lot less than I had paid for it originally. He explained that the car had been in an accident before I bought it.
"You didn't tell me that when I bought it," I said
"I didn't have to," the salesman said.
This was a place called Fifth Avenue Volkswagen in New York. It's on Sixth Avenue. That should have told me something.
Back to Janie Leighton Miller. She called and told me her story and I dined out on it. People were first shocked and then intrigued and then, always, they asked what I would do if someone offered me a $100,000 house for $50,000. No one asked what I would do if I was, say, in some poor foreign country and I saw that famous stamp, the one all kids are told about when they first start collecting, the one from Guyana or someplace, and I asked the person who owned it how much he wanted, and the poor, ignorant peasant said $5. No one, thank God, asked me that.
Here, though, is what Peter Mack Brown said:
"She called me and offered me the chairs and I bought them. She is a free agent. She took my price. She didn't haveto." He said also that he put some time into the chairs, regluing them and doing some other things, but he in no way backed off the notion that he had, in essence, taken advantage of Miller. It was, he said, a regrettable part of his business.
"I don't see how else it could happen," he said. "I don't make a lot of money at the end of the year. I live comfortably. It's the name of the game. I think one almost survives on the few good deals you get."
Earlier, in the living room of Miller's house, we had been discussing the situation. I said something about how this was always happening to me because I, unlike, say, my mother, cannot bargain, having somehow subscribed to the belief that to haggle over money is tacky -- old country, immigrant, ethnic and all that. You know what I mean, and so do the people who always take me. They fix me with their third generation stares, lock their jaws, and say, "We're not going to haggle over money, are we?" And I say no, of course not. Certainly not.
Miller understood none of that. She does not feel that way herself. She feels that she was taken, but that she contributed to it. She should have called in independent appraisers and done some research -- gone to the library or something.
"Obviously, I didn't do it right," she said. "Obviously."
And that is what a lot of people say. But this is not a situation where a buyer and a seller are dealing over a house -- equals dealing with equals -- but something different. This is a situation where someone turned to an expert, someone certified by, at the very least, an ad in the yellow pages, and got treated as an easy mark instead of a customer.
Miller thinks it's wrong, Brown thinks it's the American Way, and Cohen, who has his own way of looking at things, knows only one thing for sure: This could never happen to his mother.