Nicholas is guided in his collecting by his mentor and grandmother, Cindy Duprau. Photograph by Scott Schild.

About Face

WITH HELP FROM HIS GRANDMOTHER, COLLECTOR CHANGED COURSE TO FOCUS ON OUT-OF-THE-ORDINARY CAMEOS

By Pamela Y. Wiggins

Have you ever started out on one path as a collector and ended up somewhere remarkably different than you expected? It happens to kid collectors, too. Nicholas Santa Croce, a 14-year-old who lives in Utica, N.Y., proves the point.

When he was about 9, Nicholas set out to accompany his grandma on antiquing adventures spurred by his interest in art. “I like different types of art, especially people and faces,” he says. “I started out looking for art prints of well-known paintings I admired, things like that.”

KIDS & COLLECTING

Before long, though, his collecting treks led him on an unanticipated journey – the hunt for cameo jewelry. He shares, “When I first started looking at cameos, I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is kind of neat!’”

As it turns out, Nicholas is a big fan of the Mona Lisa. He’s been lucky enough to visit Europe twice over the past few years, and both trips included visits to the Louvre in Paris to see her famous smile. He couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece for himself. His grandmother, Cindy Duprau, remembers that his first cameo featured an image of “Mona.”

In jewelry terms, a cameo usually translates to a profile portrait in relief carved out of shell, hardened lava, or some other type of stone. Sometimes, they can contain a miniature painting or transfer design based on an art print. For this kid collector, going from an attraction to portraits in print to developing an eye for portraits in jewelry was almost effortless.

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Cameo Collection
This “hidden faces” cameo is one of Nicholas’ favorite pieces. “I like different types of art, especially people and faces,” he says. Photograph by Scott Schild.

Picking up that one captivating cameo, and then being attracted to another and another, Nicholas learned to enjoy the thrill of the hunt with his grandmother overseeing the journey. Some of his cameos date to the Victorian era, while others are newer. He’s now amassed about 80 examples, and is still adding to the collection.

“He saves his money all year long so we can go to Bouckville,” Cindy shares. “There’s more to see than what we can do in just a few days, the time I can take off work. Sometimes he’ll go with me and then make plans to go back later in the week with my brother.”

This huge antique fair that takes place every summer in Bouckville, N.Y., is more formally called Madison-Bouckville Antique Week, and it’s one of their favorite places to shop together. “What we’re finding is that the sellers recognize him and they teach him about the different cameos,” Cindy says. “He pays such close attention to what they share. I like to back off and let them have their time together. Then he shares what he has learned with me.”

And though he may not realize it just yet, Nicholas has grown into an advanced collector with a penchant for cameos that are out of the ordinary. “I look for more unusual examples now,” he says. “Those depicting men are harder to find. Full-bodied cameos and three-dimensional examples with detailed faces are, too.”

One of his favorite pieces came as a gift from a fellow jewelry enthusiast in Florida, who learned about Nicholas and his love of cameos through an online group hosted by Costume Jewelry Collectors International. At first glance, that special cameo seems to depict one profile, but many faces are actually hidden within the carving. Nicholas and his mom, Stacy, have found five but prior owners have seen up to seven. This is the type of rare cameo the most ardent collector dreams of finding. The brooch was reportedly gifted from one person to another who valued it over time, originating with the famed mime Marcel Marceau, which makes it even more intriguing.

Cindy also points out how Nicholas has matured in terms of recognizing the importance of quality over quantity in building a great collection. Like many youngsters, he wanted to buy “everything he saw” when he first started out. “He’s learned that there are some things you have to pass up so you can have something better,” she says. “He’s earning his own money now, too,” so that makes him even more discerning about what he adds to his collection as he wisely contemplates how to spend those dollars.

Nicholas is lucky to have some family heirlooms as part of his cameo trove as well. Cindy gladly shared several pieces she inherited from her mother, rounding out his collection with these sentimental treasures. Like his dealer friend who entrusted him with a precious gift, she knew Nicholas would take good care of them.

Of course, the joy of collecting doesn’t end when he acquires a new cameo. When he was younger, his grandmother would help him find out more about the things he was amassing after they got home. Now, he adds to the information his dealer friends share with him by researching his finds on his own, mainly through online resources. Discovering details about each cameo he picks up – age, what it is made of, who may be depicted in the carving – is all part of the fun for Nicholas.

Looking ahead, Nicholas definitely sees collecting in his future. In fact, he expects to teach his own kids about the cameos he has collected and try to involve them in the hobby. Until then, with the encouragement of family and friends, who knows where the collecting path will lead this enthusiastic young man and all the stories he’ll have to share when the time comes. 

PAMELA Y. WIGGINS is the author of Collecting with Kids: How to Inspire, Intrigue and Guide the Young Collector, a book based on her columns in The Intelligent Collector. She also writes on varied topics relating to antiques and collecting for TheSpruce.com.