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CEO Passions: John Rivers, a Collector With a Cause

John M. Rivers, Jr., whose family has lived in Charleston, South Carolina since the city’s founding in 1670, wants the antique furniture and decorative arts made by Charleston’s artisans to stay in the city. For the past 25 years, he’s been repatriating museum-quality objects that had been taken elsewhere and acquiring others so they’ll all remain in Charleston.

The Rivers Collection now includes more than 250 historically significant items dating from the late 1600s. Rivers shows them to the public in a suite of rooms in the headquarters of his company, Rivers Enterprises, a leading real estate and asset management holding company.

Rivers began collecting when he learned that the earliest known piece of Charleston furniture, a 1733 writing desk, had been sold to a museum in North Carolina. “I didn’t like it because that writing desk represented Charleston’s history,” he explains. He formed an advisory group to help him select what to buy. It includes the dealer who sold the writing desk, a museum professional and a consultant. All four members have to agree before a purchase is made.

Charleston, America’s richest city in the mid-18th Century, produced distinctive furniture in large quantities for its prosperous local clientele. Much of it was lost during the American Revolution when the British occupied the city, when Sherman’s troops set Charleston afire during the Civil War and during seven other conflagrations, an earthquake in 1886 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Collectors in other markets snapped up what remained.

Rivers tracked down a dressing table that had crossed the Atlantic six times and survived three fires. An 1805 embroidery had been stored in a New York City attic for 100 years. He bought the only Charleston-made guns known to exist “out of a trunk of a guy’s car going south from Greenville, South Carolina to a gun show in Florida.” The first piece he reclaimed was an 1850 teapot made from coin silver that was a wedding gift from a ship’s captain to a couple married in Washington, D.C. “The teapot migrated to Kentucky where we found it and brought it back,” Rivers says.


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