On a summer vacation in 1995, in Providence, Rhode Island, Hugo Kohl noticed an intriguing item on a local tourist map. A pictorial inset, blown up to highlight a piece of the city’s historical center, read “Providence Jewelry District.” Kohl happened to have been working in the jewelry business at the time, as a goldsmith back in Harrisonburg, Virginia. With his wife and daughter out shopping on the town, Kohl hopped in his car. Once he reached the Jewelry District, he discovered… nothing: just some dilapidated old factories and run-down warehouses. Something, he thought, is not adding up.
This was a decade before Google Maps, so Kohl’s most immediate mode of assistance was a nearby telephone booth. Flipping through the Providence Yellow Pages, Kohl unearthed a few jewelry businesses still in existence and made some calls. One was a company that dealt with factory-scale jewelry manufacturing equipment, and he persuaded the owner to let him visit. After a quick tour, the factory owner left Kohl on his own to “snoop around.”
Kohl soon happened upon a team of warehouse workers with a forklift who were heaving broken boxes of steel parts into a dump truck. While one load was going into the truck bed, a small, rusted, antique metal cabinet fell apart, and a bunch of dirty metal trinkets spilled out. Some fell on the ground right at Kohl’s feet. As the workers were scooping up the spill and throwing the pieces into the dump truck, Kohl picked up a few, then stood there in awe. “Each one of these pieces was like a little mini-Michelangelo,” Kohl recalls. “They were beautiful carvings. I knew nothing of what I had, but I did intimately know the jewelry connected to this art.”
Hugo Kohl. | (Preston Slaughter/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
For Kohl, this was an out-of-body moment — a combination of shock, surprise, amazement, and confusion. Why would anyone throw away such masterful tiny sculptures? “To factory owners, it was just stuff,” he says. “It was nothing. It was trash. The only value it held for them was what it could sell for, as scrap.”
As the truck drove away from the warehouse, Kohl panicked. “I ran, hopped in my car, and followed the dump truck onto the highway. It was summer. My windows were down. I was speeding down Interstate 95. Cars were zooming all around me, and I pulled up alongside the truck, blasting my horn, trying to catch the driver’s attention. I waved him down, pointing to the back of his truck. He thought I was telling him something was wrong with his truck, that there was an emergency, so he pulled over.”
As soon as they both got out of their vehicles, Kohl made the driver an offer. “You’ve got some stuff on the back of your truck that I’d like to buy,” he said. Fortunately (or unfortunately, for his wife) Kohl had a large portion of his family’s vacation fund in his pocket — about $1,500 in cash. In his eyes, however, this was a chance for a priceless deal, far more valuable than a handful of gourmet dinners. Kohl laid 10 hundred-dollar bills on the hood of his car, methodically placing one bill on top of the other. He wanted the driver to see the money, to take it all in. Then Kohl grabbed the stack of cash, ripped the bills in half, placed one half in the driver’s hand, held the other half in his own hand, and said, “If you let me get something from the back of your truck, I’ll give you the other half.”
Incredulous but curious, the driver agreed. For the next couple of hours, in the humid New England summer heat, Kohl hauled stuff off the dump truck in search of his hoped-for treasures. Once he gathered these little nuggets, he gave the driver the second half of the money, threw the loot in his truck, finished up his vacation (his wife was bemused, yet supportive of this whimsy), and went home to Harrisonburg to unearth his stash. “All this stuff was rusted,” Kohl said. “It was nasty, disgusting, gross. I cleaned it off, looked at these tiny pieces of steel, unsure what I just bought. I had no answers, but I knew I had something very special.” Eventually, Kohl figured it out. “What I stumbled into,” he now says, “was the very end of this industry coming undone. If I’d been a year later, none of this would be here. I ended up there at the exact right moment to intervene.”
The search, stage one
To put the puzzle together, Kohl embarked on an epic quest for information. He bought a digital camera, piles of blank CD-ROMs (the photo transfer technology of the day), and took photo after photo of his decaying booty. After burning them onto the CDs and composing query letters, he spent months mailing it all to jewelry experts and academics. He called Sotheby’s, Christie’s, The Smithsonian. “I put hundreds of these CDs out there in the world,” Kohl recalls. They’re still out there. I sent them to every university that had a metals and jewelry department.” In his letters, Kohl asked, “What is this? How was it used?” The response: Zilch. No answers. No leads.
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