King Tut’s Tomb of the Preppy Era

Nine years ago this month, I wrote a story for The Rake on The Cary Collection. Inspired by a post by Unabashedly Prep’s Fred Castleberry (who supplied the photos), I made an appointment with Thomas Cary and proceeded to crawl through what he calls “the King Tut’s tomb of the preppy era,” trying not to knock anything over.

* * *

Cary the Load:
Aesthete and dealer extraordinaire Thomas Cary’s New York apartment is a veritable museum of a vast array of antique, eclectic and eminently collectible treasures
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, issue 14

Thomas Cary is one of those guys who knows the price of everything and the value of — well, everything.

Using a phrase like “one of those guys” when talking about Thomas Cary, however, suggests there’s someone else like him. You don’t need to meet the planet’s six billion other “individuals” to know he’s sui generis.

Fifty-five-year-old Cary is creator and curator of The Cary Collection, his eponymous hoard of stylish goodies he sells from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It is the result of a lifetime’s collecting: The precocious ferreter of collectibles began as a boyhood philatelist and started dealing 15 years ago. He now presides over what he calls the “King Tut’s tomb of the preppy era.”

One of Polo Ralph Lauren’s sources for antique bric-a-brac with which to decorate its retail mansions, The Cary Collection is a kind of Ali Baba’s cave of vintage baubles and bibelots. Countless thousands of collectibles — with an estimated value of $5-$10 million, Cary says — are stacked pell-mell floor to ceiling. Cary also has five warehouses full of curios. And everything’s for sale, he assures:  There’s not a single thing he wouldn’t part with. “I’d love to have an empty flat,” says Cary, perhaps disingenuously. “I’d love for Sir Ralph or a billionaire to buy me out.”

Any tireless dealer can create a trove of intriguing stuff. What distinguishes The Cary Collection is its curator’s taste, whose guiding principles are masculine panache, elegant whimsy and urbane swankness. James Bond collectibles are a major focus, and include a 14-volume set of Fleming’s novels bound in moroccan leather by Asprey, price $28,000. Then there are the spoils of legendary Manhattan institutions such as 21, The Stork Club, and Abercrombie & Fitch, as well as what Cary calls one of the world’s largest collections of both velvet slippers and vintage cocktail books. “I try to panache everything I deal in,” he says.

Hardcover tomes — Cary has 15,000, and says he used to spend $250,000 a year just at New York’s Strand bookstore — are another specialty. Assouline just scooped up $30,000 in rare books to spice up the shelves of its store in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, Cary says. And when Madonna and Guy Ritchie bought Cecil Beaton’s Ashcombe House — “for 10 million pounds” — they stopped by for a rare set of Beaton’s diaries.

One can hardly keep up with the flurry of numbers and name-dropping ever on the tip of Cary’s tongue. “That’s by Paul Sandby,” he says, pointing through the stacks. “His works are in the Queen’s Collection at Windsor Castle. And these needlepoint pillows are by Brigid Berlin, a buxom muse of Andy Warhol’s. She did this for Martha Stewart when she was in jail. I also sell to Reed Krakoff, the global head of Coach, who makes $46 million a year, and to Mrs. Stephen Schwarzman, whose husband donated $100 million to the New York Public Library.”

The aesthete-cum-accountant continues: “I just sold a book to a billionaire for $18,000 that I’d bought two weeks prior for $2,000 — and 18 was a bargain. Oh, and Kate Spade recently spent $200,000 in props for her worldwide retail stores.”

When we say Cary has a head for numbers, we’re not kidding. Of the thousands of items in his inventory, nothing carries a price tag. How does he know what to charge? “I just know what things are worth because I’ve been in retail for 30 years,” he says, “so I know what I can sell things for.” This may sound arbitrary, but his customers clearly don’t mind. Cary is the one who loves the hunt; his clients are the ones for whom time is money and would rather just write a check.

Although Cary claims to be liquidating rather than acquiring, even the most passing glance at these photos would suggest someone for whom collecting is a compulsion. Those who’ve sold to him know him as an inveterate bargainer ever on the lookout. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” says Cary. “It’s like panning for gold or something.”

And he’s one prodigious prospector. The kitchen is so packed with spoils as to render it useless. “So long as I can make a gin and tonic,” Cary smiles.

7 Comments on "King Tut’s Tomb of the Preppy Era"

  1. Michael Mattis | March 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm |

    I often love spiteful vitriol. It can be fun. But the spineless vitriol of trolls posting under pseudonyms? Tacky.

  2. I like to say:

    1) If you post anonymous negative remarks on the web, you are by definition a coward.

    2) If you post anonymous negative remarks every day, see a therapist.

    3) If you’ve posted anonymous negative remarks every day for several years, see a priest.


    The previous is a link to A&E’s casting page for their Hoarders series.

  4. Umm… I was just gonna say sumpin’ ’bout the slippers, but since it seems that commenting on the content of the site is no longer stylish, I’ll pass.

  5. Really? Well, in that case…

    After seeing enough dress slippers on-line, I have come to the conclusion that someday, maybe, I might own and wear a pair. However, I could never wear any of the gaudy things in this photo, except maybe the “stars and moons” ones–but only as part of a wizard outfit for Halloween.

  6. I realize it’s several years too late to contribute to copy-editing the piece, but you didn’t mean “horde”, you meant “hoard”.

    “Hoard” is a Germanic word of ancient English provenance. “Horde” is a Turkic word, borrowed into English a few centuries ago. They sound the same, but shouldn’t be confused.

  7. Good catch, Cameron, and thanks for the explanation.

Comments are closed.