Teacher can't shake his handclasp habit

ANTIQUES

April 19, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Some collectors set their sights on collecting in a category, such as Chippendale furniture or Depression glass. Others choose a theme, like royalty or frogs, and search out things touching upon it, no matter when they were made or what forms they take. For Brian Burke, who teaches Latin, history and English to high school students, the theme of his extensive collection goes hand-in-hand with his teaching.

Brian Burke collects handclasps.

Not just any handclasp. Mr. Burke collects every handclasp he can find and afford. This esoteric passion has taken hold of his life.

Mr. Burke uses his collection to help students come to grips with his theory that the outstretched clasped hand is one of the most important symbols in Western literature, history and art, dating back to biblical times, and possibly the most misunderstood and trivialized. He said, "The handshake has extended to me a wealth of human wisdom."

He had collected Roman coins for some time before realizing that clasped hands appeared on many. Then he found an early 20th century glass paperweight with a similar image. "I have spent the last 20 years filling in what goes between, still asking the same question: What is the difference between the handclasps on the coins and the paperweight?"

Mr. Burke doesn't simply walk into an antiques shop and ask for a hand. He affirms that his quest "requires a great deal of diligence, but the rewards are many." His finds often are inexpensive and unusual. A prostitute's calling card, with a handshake printed in red, cost $5 from a rare-book dealer. Mr. Burke rescued from the trash a paper cup imprinted with clasped hands and the motto "Teamwork equals productivity." At the Atlantique City show in March, he paid $40 for a red cardboard box for tall men's suspenders, picturing two wiry figures shaking hands.

Mr. Burke's apartment overflows with his collection; every table holds clocks, albums and figurines. Old tombstones and 20th century advertising posters rest against each other. The walls re-create a Victorian picture gallery; the framed drawings, paintings, photos, and ephemera hang so close they resemble wallpaper.

He has gathered medals from many eras, seals for sealing wax, (( buttons, coat hangers, ashtrays, match boxes, mourning jewelry, flasks, steins, mugs, jugs, crocks, book bindings, and part of an iron gate, all decorated with or in the shape of clasped hands. His American Indian basket depicts two Indian figures holding hands. Every one of his 2,500 postcards features a handclasp.

Fraternal organizations, like the Masons, produced much of the memorabilia in Mr. Burke's collection. The earliest, the Family of Love, was formed in Holland in 1540; its logo, printed in a 16th century book, depicts clasped hands of fraternal union and good will. Symbolic handclasps emblazon 19th century gifts of friendship exchanged between fraternal brothers, such as an engraved glass goblet and a carved wooden cane, as well as a double-sided painted wood sign carried in parade by members of Friendly Lodge No. 85 in Millerstown, Mass., and a plaster plaque commemorating the Odd Fellows' Newark Encampment in 1895. A circa 1870 wooden collection box for the Retired Men's Association, carved in the shape of the two clasped hands of mutual assistance, would be a prize in any folk art collection.

"As the world of the 19th century grew smaller, and the need for brotherhood more pressing, it was natural that hands across the seas should symbolize cooperation among nations," Mr. Burke explained, holding silver pins from the 1914 Pan American Exhibition in San Francisco depicting North and South America shaking hands. An American grain bag from the Marshall Plan period pictures in red, white and blue American and European hands clasped across the Atlantic.

Mr. Burke uses his collection to teach how ancient traditions and social customs have evolved over time. He points out that a Roman king required contestants in a court of law to clasp hands as a guarantee that everything would proceed in good faith. Now when boxers join hands, they promise a fair fight, but not necessarily a friendly one.

Examining an image of William Penn shaking hands with the Indians, Mr. Burke theorized that the Romans would have felt at home in 17th century America: "This is a ritualistic handclasp. For the Romans the handclasp was not trivial, it was like taking an oath on a Bible, it had real meaning."

Mr. Burke's living room is lined with large glass display cabinets, but they don't stop visitors from touching the hands-on collection inside. Ask the teacher what an object is or represents and out it comes, accompanied by lessons from the Bible, quotes from Greek poets, Shakespearean dialogues, passages from Mark Twain's autobiography, or a history of American trade unions.

Much of the collection illustrates the joined hands of lovers, in styles ranging from 18th century neoclassicism and Victorian romanticism to the tackiest modern kitsch. Mr. Burke has gold marriage rings, a rare nuptial bedspread, a plastic bride-and-groom cake ornament, an inexpensive plate with a Norman Rockwell image of childish flirting, a decorated Pennsylvania Dutch redware dish, and even hand-shaped modern salt and pepper shakers which fit together in a sensuous shake.

Mr. Burke, the classicist, said the tradition of joining hands and exchanging rings to validate a marriage contract was rooted in antiquity; it was long-believed that an artery of the heart was connected to the fourth finger of the left hand, making the hand an extension of the heart.

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