Masters: The mystery of Clifford Roberts’ antique desk

April 2, 2015

In 1970 the fledgling author, scrounging around for something on which to craft his prose, purchased a piece of furniture once owned by Masters cofounder Clifford Roberts that may have had Ike’s fingerprints all over it. The mystery about the antique continues to this day. Just don’t call it a desk!

First of all, my antique desk is not for sale. Second of all, it’s not a desk. It’s a three-piece, mahogany Empire sideboard that once belonged to Clifford Roberts, cofounder of the Augusta National Golf Club. Visitors to my Kansas City home, encountering the sideboard on their way to the library for cigars and cognac, invariably stop to read the museum-style sign displayed atop the center drawer:

The sign is wrong, of course, about it being a desk, but that is the purpose for which I bought the piece 45 years ago in New York City. Perched on a straight-backed bar stool, I wrote freelance articles for Sport and Rolling Stone and pseudonymous fiction for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, clacking away on an old Royal portable. Lidded stationery boxes, atop the two cabinet columns, held up to a ream each of flimsy onionskin and 20-pound typewriter paper. The center drawer housed the other central components of Manhattan literary life, circa 1970: carbon paper, a bottle of Wite-Out correction fluid, pencils, Bic ballpoints, staples, scissors, Scotch tape, a metal ruler and the obligatory dagger-style letter opener.

How Roberts employed my sideboard—which, again, is not for sale—is a matter for conjecture. The sign suggests that our 34th president used it to affix his signature to contracts, correspondence or—more reasonably, given his predilection for the Ancient Game—scorecards. It might have served the same purpose for Augusta National cofounder Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones, on his visits to Roberts’s Park Avenue apartment. Then again, the thrice-married Roberts probably had the piece in his dining room, honoring the dictionary definition of a sideboard as “a flat-topped piece of furniture with cupboards and drawers used for storing dishes, glasses and table linen”—in which case dusting for fingerprints will merely confirm the role that servants played in the mid-century lives of wealthy New Yorkers.

Roberts, you see, was more than “an American investment dealer and golf administrator”—Wikipedia’s reductive description—and much more than Eisenhower’s friend. He was one of Ike’s closest campaign advisers, his investment manager and, according to both men’s oral histories, his occasional bagman. If my desk were for sale, I’d change the sign to read, “It is conceivable that Roberts stored bundles of untraceable cash in this particular desk.”

How much, you’re probably asking, is this historically significant not-a-desk worth? What is its appraised value?

Before I answer that, let’s consider the sideboard’s provenance. Provenance, if you’re new to antiques, is the record of ownership of a piece of furniture or work of art, used to authenticate and judge its quality. In this case the object’s origin is admittedly murky, inasmuch as I don’t know who manufactured the sideboard. Neither do I know where or when it was built; the identity of the original purchaser; the cause of several deep, but in no way inharmonious, cracks in the cabinetry; or how and when it became the property of Clifford Roberts, a man known to be frugal despite his ample means. The sign, quoted previously, places the date of manufacture between 1875 and 1885, but my experts place their bets closer to 1820, the year that Charles Ferdinand D’Artois—Duc du Berry and nephew of Louis XVI—was assassinated by a Bonapartist saddlemaker outside the Paris Opera House, hastening the downfall of the Bourbon dynasty.

There is no mystery, however, regarding my acquisition of the sideboard and its treatment over the past half-century. Our paths intersected in 1970 in the gritty West Side neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. I was 23, from the Midwest, right out of Stanford and newly ensconced in a third-floor walk-up at 424 West 46th Street. Having just spent nine months as a resident scholar at the 23rd Street YMCA, I had no furnishings for my studio apartment. My most pressing need, aside from a bed, was a desk. “Stick your head out the window and look to your left,” said a helpful neighbor. “Two blocks down.”

That was my introduction to the behemoth Salvation Army Thrift Store, at 536 West 46th Street. The third floor of the redbrick building housed the Army’s special treasures—quality furnishings, rugs, china, paintings, sculptures and collectibles left over from estate sales or donated by departing snowbirds. Two minutes in, I purchased a slightly worn oxblood leather club chair that came from New York’s Harvard Club ($25). Five minutes in, I bought a brass bookkeeper’s lamp ($10). Ten minutes in, while pausing in front of an elegant dining table–sideboard set, I saw the hand-painted sign: “French Empire DESK [my emphasis] & Sideboard … from the estate of Clifford Roberts….” I may not have known a desk from a sideboard, but I sure as heck knew who Clifford Roberts was.

I negotiated the purchase with the third-floor curator, a kindly old man with the Salvation Army rank of major. The major didn’t mind breaking up the set, but he felt ethically bound to tell me that Eisenhower was not necessarily attached to the sideboard. “We know that the president ate at the table,” he said, “but it’s speculation that he used the desk.” Impressed by his honesty, I paid the major back by informing him that Roberts, contrary to his understanding, was alive and kicking in Georgia. “I’m very pleased to hear that,” he said.

At $150, the sideboard set me back more than a week’s pay. (A small fortune, but I had just received a $300 settlement from the Shamrock Insurance Co. for my role as a passenger in a noninjury cab accident.) I saved on delivery costs by borrowing the major’s furniture dolly and rolling my new prized possession up the street to my apartment. Curbs were hard to negotiate, so I took to the street, like a Garment District worker, maneuvering in and out of traffic to a chorus of angry honks and shouted insults. The last 50 yards were the most difficult because I had to thread my way through a swarm of hot-dog pushcarts, with their furled blue-and-yellow umbrellas, outside Sabrett’s West Side warehouse.

The sideboard was actually three pieces (thus necessitating three trips), the center drawer supported by rails and dowels, so I was able to wrestle the cabinets up the stairs unassisted. Reassembling the unit was considerably more challenging, but I devised a little sleight of feet that got it done. Short of breath, I planted my typewriter on the desk, rolled in some paper and carbons—pausing to put Abbey Road on the stereo—and got to work.

Twenty years later I covered my first Masters.

I never did meet Roberts. He committed suicide in 1977 at the age of 83, more than a decade before I first set foot on the Augusta National grounds. Had we met—and recognizing his place in U.S. political history and the annals of golf—I most certainly would have put to him the question that haunted me for years: Did you think of it as a sideboard … or a desk?

Today, it is neither. Cliff’s sideboard is largely decorative, occupying a living-room wall and supporting family photos. My choir-director wife stores music in its drawers, waiting for the day that Antiques Roadshow returns to Kansas City, and our ship comes in. (Just kidding. The desk is not for sale.)

Purely out of curiosity, I recently had the piece appraised—withholding, of course, its spectacular provenance. My expert, a 33-year veteran of the heirloom métier, tried to lower my expectations. “All furniture is down in value,” said Ramon L. Wright, peering at my iPhone photos. “The baby boomers are downsizing or going into retirement homes. The young people are buying at IKEA and Pottery Barn. There’s so much furniture, it’s flooding the market.”

“The stationery boxes are a little beat up,” I conceded, recognizing the combined impact of the Bourbon diaspora and the ride up the stairs to my Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

Wright gave me a look. “Those are knife boxes,” he said. “That’s where they’d put their cutlery.” Noting my surprise, he pointed to another feature that had long baffled me—the nest of wooden dividers in the upper-righthand drawer. “That’s where they kept their liquor.” Duh.

And the desktop, where my portable typewriter had labored for so many years?

“Not a desktop. On top they probably had a big silver tray with goodies on it.”

I slapped my forehead. It is conceivable that Ike plucked a macaroon off that particular tray!

Wright took a deep breath and gave me the furrowed-brow treatment before delivering his verdict. “Ten years ago I’d have valued your sideboard at thirty-five hundred to four thousand dollars. But now, with the market so depressed, I’d say … between two and twenty-five hundred.”

Not bad, considering I got it for a yard-and-a-half at the Salvation Army. And if my antique desk—Cliff’s desk—should someday catch the eye of one of those billionaire golf collectors who pays a thousand dollars for a Francis Ouimet dishrag or a million bucks for an Old Course starter’s shed….

Not that I’d ever sell.