Text by Katherine Cloninger Ellis • Photography by John O’Hagan
How one man’s passion for fine English boxes turned into a successful business
At the young age of 16, Dr. John E. Crews excitedly purchased his very first antique—a Grand Tour bronze (a sculpture of sorts) made in the 1880s. It was perhaps a peculiar acquisition for an Indiana farm boy, but there was something special about the object that spoke to him. “I saw it, and I could immediately appreciate the object aesthetically,” he recalls. “It really captured my imagination, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell you why I bought it.” Little did he know that this initial antique purchase would be the first of many for decades to come and would ultimately turn into an extensive and lucrative collection of fine English boxes.
After spending 20 years working as a research scientist for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (commonly known as the CDC), Dr. Crews began his retirement in 2017 and pondered how we would spend this next chapter of his life. The forthcoming free time in question did not last long, as he surveyed his living room and witnessed almost 100 beautiful boxes seemly staring back at him. The answer was quickly clear that his beloved hobby of discovering and collecting fine English boxes could feasibly turn into a business venture. And so, he did just that!
Dr. Crews’ incredible inventory of “clever and interesting things” typically consists of 350 to 400 items, dating from 1770 to circa 1820. The collection includes everything under the “box” umbrella, so to speak, from gorgeous Chippendale tea chests and stationery boxes to remarkable tortoiseshell tea caddies, portable writing desks, and beyond. Most of his treasured finds are of English heritage, as domestic boxes in good condition are extremely hard to come by in part because of the historic evolution of this country. The maritime history of England and the abundance of merchants on the coast made way for seafarers passing through to trade stunningly crafted wares from around the world. “Over time, I have acquired seven buyers in England,” Dr. Crews notes. “They have impeccable knowledge and discriminating taste. They find the boxes for me through their networks and by attending numerous booth sales, estate sales, and auctions.”