From the family that brought you the big Nipper dog: A massive collection for sale

 Posted by Chrissy Marsh-Redd on November 13, 2018 at 3:52 PM

This article originally appeared on The Washington Post on November 13, 2018.

Not long before Eva Wells died, she would say to her daughter, an apologetic note in her voice: “Janie, I left you with a mess. I just left you with a mess.”

What Eva left Janie Wells and her sister, Jackie, with when she died last December at age 91 was a collection. A very big collection, everything from Kewpie dolls to carnival glass, cookie jars to jukeboxes.

It was assembled over the years by Eva and her husband, Jim.

Jim, who died in 2001, was famous in Fairfax County for buying a 14-foot-high statue of Nipper the RCA dog in 1976 and sticking it on the roof of the Wells house on Lee Highway. It sat there as a landmark for the next 20 years, listening to His Master’s Voice, until Jim sold it to a Baltimore museum for $25,000.

With Eva gone, it’s time for an estate sale. Janie, 65, is giving me a tour of the family homestead in Fairfax.

“He’s got some phone booths back there,” she says. “Wanna buy a phone booth?”

I didn’t think so, but now that I see them at the rear of the 10-car garage — beyond the 1937 Chevy panel truck, past the 45 rpm records, the accordion, the colorful American Tourister luggage — I do want a phone booth.

These aren’t the street-corner kind, but the type you’d find inside a building: a shower stall-like wooden chamber with an accordion door, a tiny wooden seat worn smooth by countless gabardine trousers and wool skirts, and a telephone that doesn’t have a battery you have to recharge every few hours.

It looks so cozy and snug. I want to slide in and shout “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” down the receiver.

Through a door on the side of the garage is Jim’s workshop.

“That smell? Wood and oil? That’s him,” Janie says as we walk in. Here are tools, keys, drill presses . . .

Hanging from a nail on the door jamb are some large numbers, like you might see announcing gas prices on a filling station sign. But they’re skinny and made of metal.

Janie fans them out: 8, 7, 3, 1.

It’s the address of the house that once sported the huge Nipper on its roof.

“8731 Lee Highway,” Janie says. “They had to take down a power line to get Nipper here.”

Jim and Eva moved to Virginia from Tennessee in the 1950s. Jim worked for a Ford dealership in Alexandria. Eva opened an antiques store. Eventually they moved to an eight-acre farm that was then in the country.

The Wellses ran Calliope Musical Corp., renting out band organs and popcorn machines for events and running the carousel on the Mall.

The company motto was “Our work is all play.”

Over time they carved off bits of their homestead. Part of it went for the Station 30 firehouse. Another part became Fairhill Elementary School.

We enter a room inside the house that has tables bristling with an army of porcelain figures, hundreds of them, plus related ephemera.

“Ah,” I say, “this must be the Hummel room.”

“The Holly Hobbie room,” says Melanie Hughes, correcting me.

Melanie works for Caring Transitions of Northern Virginia. She and co-worker Melissa O’Connor have spent weeks going through the Wells estate, readying it for sale. (There will be two: a three-day sale Nov. 16-18 and a four-day sale Nov. 29-Dec. 2. Both are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For details, visit caringtransitionsnova.com and look for the Fairfax sale.)

Melanie thinks this may be the world’s largest collection of Holly Hobbies, so vast that values could plunge when it floods the market.

The next room has the Hummels.

I asked Janie why, why so much? And why so varied? Why a Columbia Grafonola DeLuxe, capable of playing music from both perforated disks and 78 rpm records, and Fonzie paper dolls, the boxes still shrink-wrapped?

She wasn’t sure. But she knew that for her parents, it wasn’t the having, it was the finding.

“The joy was to go out and meet people,” Janie said. They liked driving down the road together, going to farmhouses, spotting something interesting and asking the owner, “What’s under that tarp?”

Here’s the answer.

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