Keris handle — Barong [photo by author]

One of those days. Everything is gone to hell and I have to sit at this desk and make phone calls. The kind of phone calls where you have to be focused, assertive, and able to state your case — the kind I hate.

I should grab a pencil for notes, but instead I pick up one of Z’s knickknacks. A wood carving. The decorative handle of an ceremonial dagger known as a keris. Z collected a dozen or so of these in 1997, while we traveled through Indonesia.

I’m an art detective. No, not the kind who hunts down stolen museum pieces. And not the kind who has her own TV show. I interrogate the art and cultural artifacts around me as a mental challenge and spiritual exercise. You can do it too. Everything has a story to tell and that story can open your mind. Here’s my guide.

Step one. Tune into your own restlessness. Sense your own readiness to explore. Your job, your family, your disabilities, your empty wallet may prevent a physical adventure. That doesn’t mean you can’t travel.

Step two. Get your curiosity on…

Excerpt from Headlong: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China, a travel memoir in which I remind my old husband of our crazy adventure in Central Asia. Depending on the kindness of strangers hadn’t been our plan, but it turned into our idea of romance.

Published Alfred A Knopf, NY, 1954 (author’s archives)

When we returned home, a friend gave us a 1954 book called Nanga Parbat: The Killer Mountain. The cover blurb says, “The gripping story of more than fifty years of heroism and tragedy… on the most murderous mountain in the world.” …

A chance purchase takes us to the other side of the world.

The tau tau (photo by author)

The eyes catch me first. They are wide and worried, staring off into the distance, a woman looking for her children or watching for her husband’s boat on the horizon. Her mouth is a quiet line, betraying no emotion. Her naked breasts sag — an old woman. My husband, the ever-curious Dr. Z, explains: “It’s called a tau tau. From Indonesia. Got it at that new place on Monroe.”

It is in pieces on the floor. I hold the leg portion up while he joins the upper body…

St. Louis, 1956

My childhood self is disillusioned (drawing by the author)

My first beads were pop-beads, a 1950’s fad. I coveted them. And I competed with my girlfriends for the longest strands, draping myself in ropes of luxury. My favorites were pearls.

Then one day a tiny flaw at the hole of one of the pearls led me to pick at it. A strip of pearl-toned paint peeled away. It revealed a bead no more lustrous than skim milk. I was stunned. This was crap.

At the age of eight, I pondered authenticity. I was already a student of quality. When my mother made my clothes, she pointed…

Dr. Z in his 1970s shirt, explaining his camera collection… and one of his many “Buddhas”

Here at the Monastery of Artful Delights (MAD), stacks of reference articles pile up on book shelves. Here’s one: “Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting” by Frederick Baekeland (J. of Psychiatry, Vol 44, №1, Feb 1981). It was inscribed: “All the best to Dr. Z, a dedicated member of the species, Fred.” Dr. Z is my husband.

Fred Baekeland was a psychiatrist-turned-art-historian and a once-upon-a-time collecting comrade of Dr. Z. I remember he visited here at the MAD in the early 1980s and was celebrating his small study of collectors and the publication of his article. I don’t know if Dr…

Reliquary guardian of the Kota people, Africa

What is the lifeforce that inhabits old things? What is that magical quality of an artifact that tells a story, that moves it along trade routes, that propels it through history, that makes people want to care for it? What is that subtle but powerful energy that makes some things endure, while the rest disintegrate on the trash heap?

We all know that some objects carry memories and sentimentality — family, travel, and romantic treasures. Mementos and souvenirs. A quilt made from Dad’s old shirts. But what about objects with no obvious personal connection — flea market finds, vintage jewelry…

Susan Barrett Price

Anti-minimalist and keeper of curios. Check out published memoirs and thrillers at

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