The first time Don Wesely climbed the dusty staircase in the old apartment building south of the Capitol, he wasn’t ready for the grandeur that would soon surround him.
“I’d compare it to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when Dorothy lands and she opens the black-and-white door to color,” the former mayor remembered. “That’s what it feels like. It’s like, 'Wow.'”
That was Wesely’s first visit to Jack Saltzman’s apartment on Goodhue Boulevard — a dizzying showroom of Lincoln's finest furniture, a forest of year-round Christmas trees, a warehouse of high-priced porcelain, china and silver serving settings. Like an antique store with thousands of eclectic items, but none of them with a price tag.
It wouldn't be Wesely's last visit. He became a regular at Saltzman’s annual holiday charity galas, returning year after year, drawn as much by the venue as the nonprofit he was helping.
“It’s a wonderland. It’s jaw-dropping amazing. I looked forward to it every year,” he said. “Other people would come in and you see them with their jaw hanging open, and you say, 'First time?'”
Saltzman has spent six decades searching, buying and displaying. He likes anything Christmas. He likes porcelain rabbits, so he bought 400. He likes silver, his first favorite color. He likes furniture from Lincoln’s old-money families.
And he loves showing off his collection of collections.
So for nearly 35 years, he’s hosted fundraising parties, sometimes a half-dozen a year. By his estimate, more than 10,000 guests have climbed three flights of stairs to his apartment, their eyes widening when the door swung open.
“I have so many beautiful things,” he said. “I've had people come to my house for years who wanted to buy some of them. But I've never sold; I've only always bought things.”
But that’s changing this weekend.
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Saltzman learned to collect as a teenager in Tekamah, following his favorite aunt from antiques stores to estate sales.
“It was a very social town and people had parties, and people collected things and used their things at parties,” he said. “That was the fun thing.”
He started buying silver, then Royal Doulton figurines, then furniture. “When I came to college, I already had enough stuff to furnish a house.”
In Lincoln, he found himself in position to keep collecting. While working for Dionne DeVriendt, he often got the first pick at her invitation-only estate sales for Lincoln’s wealthiest families. She was selling “the best of the best of the best,” and he ended up with a chandelier from the family that opened Gold’s department store, a china cabinet from Bennett Martin’s home, silver service for 150 from the DuTeaus.
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Later, his market broadened when he ran the Bryan Hospital gift shops. “When I was the buyer, I could find the best, most interesting things. They sent me on buying trips, and you can buy for yourself. I was buying in Chicago and New York, I was constantly buying things.”
Saltzman moved into his third-floor apartment 34 years ago and claimed the attic, filling it with the 100-year-old chandelier from the original Cornhusker Hotel, dozens of porcelain Santas, hundreds of holiday table settings, a sea of silver.
He threw some of his famous chocolate parties up there, raising funds for nonprofits — like Friendship Home, Fresh Start, the Child Advocacy Center — and the arts-related causes he supported.
His parties were guaranteed money makers. “My favorite thing to do was to help out a charity that was just starting out. I had a built-in clientele. People were going to come no matter what.”
Saltzman continued buying, filling every corner and crook in his apartment, and he never really thought about selling anything until a few years ago.
During a sale in 1976, he’d bought an 8-foot mahogany table, eight Chippendale-style chairs, buffet and side tables that were original to a 7,000-square-foot house on South 25th Street. Nearly 40 years later, he went to a fundraiser in the historic home, started talking with the new owners, and returned the dining room set in 2014.
It felt good to him to see the table back where it belonged.
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And that feeling stayed with him.
In September, he decided it was time to plan his first sale. “It dawned on me that I have so many things that maybe I should let some go back to the people I bought them from.”
He chose hundreds of items in his attic. Silver serving pieces. Christmas quilts. Santas and angels. Side tables and chairs from the Woods family. Sets of holiday dishes. Prices will range from $1, for a small painted Santa, to $2,500, for the Cornhusker chandelier.
“He has beautiful stuff,” said his friend, Stuart Mitchell, who will help with this weekend’s sale. “He has the kind of traditional stuff they used to make years ago.”
And it’s quality, he said. Brands that will mean something to buyers who know brands: Department 56, Cosmos, Fitz and Floyd, Nikko, Spode.
Mitchell was surprised by Saltzman’s decision to sell. “That’s been a life’s passion, amassing that collection. He loves his stuff and when you have that kind of collection, it’s hard to part with it.”
But it wasn’t hard for Saltzman to get ready. His items were already on display, so he simply circled the room with a Sharpie and masking tape.
“My house is perfectly in order. All I had to do was pick out some stuff and put prices on it.”