By Tom Joyce
July 26, 2013
CANA, Va. — If furniture could talk, an antique desk sitting in a storage building in Cana likely would have some interesting stories to tell, possibly including its use by Eng and Chang Bunker.
The desk thought to have been owned by the Original Siamese Twins had been acquired by Donald Arnder, the owner and operator of Eddie’s Zip Foods in Mount Airy, who was fatally shot during a robbery there in May 2012.
It is part of a large array of antiques and other collectibles amassed by Arnder during his lifetime that fill multiple buildings in the area, which his death has left behind.
“He started collecting when he was 9,” said Bill Welborn, the brother-in-law of Arnder, who was 58 at the time of the robbery.
Welborn and his wife Peggy, Arnder’s sister — who live in Prince George, Va., near Richmond — are now preparing to have Arnder’s vast collection sold off, including the old wooden desk. Its drawers are now empty, except for the air of mystery that permeates the furniture piece said to have been the property of the twins.
A first batch of items owned by Arnder, including the desk, will go on the auction block on Aug. 10 at an antiques house on U.S. 52 in Cana across from Family Dollar.
“This is probably one of three sales we’ll have,” Welbourn said regarding the entire collection.
Just at that one location in Cana, Barbie and other dolls, glassware, pots, NASCAR collectibles and many other items fill several rooms, leaving only a small space to walk between each. Cataloguing such a huge collection can be difficult — which is true of the desk.
The Welbourns would like to be able to say, definitively, that it once was owned by Eng and Chang Bunker, who might have sat at it to write letters to their sons during the Civil War.
“We cannot 100 percent validate that it did belong to them,” said Mike Hutchens of Hutchens Sales & Auction of Mount Airy, who is serving as auctioneer for the Arnder collection.
“We are 90 percent sure that it was theirs,” added Hutchens.
Anyone who has ever watched collectibles-oriented television shows such as “Pawn Stars,” “Antiques Roadshow” or “American Pickers” knows the value of documentation in verifying an item’s authenticity.
So far, however, Hutchens has been unable to track the history of the furniture piece in terms of validating its chain of ownership. There are no known photographs of the twins with the desk, and no inventory of possessions has been found to show it was part of their property.
Descendants of Eng and Chang have been contacted, and while producing vague memories about the existence of such an item, none has been able to say with certainty that it came from within the ranks of their family.
One factor indicating that the desk did belong to Eng and Chang was Donald Arnder’s reputation for collecting quality items. “He did not deal in junk,” Hutchens said.
A note is attached to the top of the old fold-out desk, in Arnder’s hand, in which he states that the desk had been bought from a Bunker family member. The note also says the piece contains the twins’ signatures.
A thorough search inside the desk and out has revealed only some faint scribbling done in pencil. Just the letters “A” and “N” are legible.
With the auction still a couple of weeks off, Hutchens and Welbourn hope that publicizing the existence of the desk might produce more evidence of its historic link. The odds of this could increase due to the 24th annual Bunker family reunion being held in Mount Airy this Saturday, which is expected to be attended by 150 to 200 people.
Since the Aug. 10 auction will be conducted on a no-reserve basis, the desk will be sold to the highest bidder regardless of price, with no minimum figure set.
Bill Welbourn pointed out that the desk reflects the 19th-century workmanship that would have occurred within the Siamese Twins’ lifetime, including the fact that it is held together with wooden pegs.
“You can’t go down to the local furniture store and buy that stuff,” Welbourn said of the desk, which is partly made of pine and other types of wood that he and Hutchens could not identify.
Even without a link to Eng and Chang Bunker, “this is a good piece in its own right,” Welbourn said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.