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Joel Schiff ’68

The antiques community has lost one of its icons: Joel Schiff unexpectedly died in his apartment over the holidays. He was 72 years old.

Joel’s passion for cast iron and wrought iron cookware is legendary in the antiquing world. Anyone who has ever shopped Brimfield, Madison Bouckville, or Kutztown will know Joel by his familiar question—“Cast iron cookware, per chance? Waffle irons, wafer irons, anything unusual or rare?” You would also know Joel because with one leg and crutches, he was the fastest across any field or show. And in his 70s, he still carried a backpack full of iron — and first aid and lunch and desserts for all his friends. He was so generous. The T-shirt he wore featured rare items that he was seeking.

Joel was active in the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association, the Wagner and Griswold Society, and KOOKS (Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff). He resided in New York City, but traveled throughout the United States in pursuit of his obsession. And obsession it was: he sought every piece of antique and vintage iron, cast and wrought, that had to do with cooking or eating. That included items from the 17th century up to the 20th century. Joel especially sought extreme rarities in design or function, from anywhere on earth.

Joel was not only a great friend, but also a great teacher. Sometimes he would start talking about a subject, and an hour later we would not recall what the original question was. He was so erudite that sometimes he would lose us. But we always learned something about the history of mankind, through the lens of iron. One memorable example: I invited Joel to speak to our Antiques Dealers Association of Berks County, the subject being cast and wrought iron cookware. After a few hours, a few people having nodded off, he finally realized that he had never made it to the 18th or 19th century before running out of time. He spoke about the entire history of iron making in the ancient world, and how the Iron Age depleted forests and how this caused the migration of humans all over the globe.

We never got to ask about what he thought were the rarest wafer iron designs coming from Pennsylvania foundries, which was our interest, but we did learn about the movement of peoples across the globe because of the use of wood in making iron. That was Joel. He shared knowledge in every conversation. We never knew where the conversation would lead.

I happen to know what moment of personal history formed Joel’s quirky attachment to cast iron cookware. Back in his hippie days, he lived with a group of people on a barge between New Jersey and New York City. The barge suffered a devastating fire and all was lost. All except one cast iron frying pan. He said he took it as a sign for his life’s mission, to collect iron pots. That is how it began. And the rest is legend. To those of us who love him, Joel Schiff represents the intense passion of the antiques-collecting movement.

According to his former wife, Ella Schiff, he will be buried in a Boston area cemetery by relatives in Massachusetts.

(This story, written by Arlene Rabin, appeared in Antiques and the Arts Weekly and is reprinted by permission.)

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2016

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