March 20 2013 12:00 AM

Sizing up a swastika vase at the MSU Surplus Store


The cavernous MSU Surplus Store is a “Casablanca” for hard drives and file cabinets, a place of last resort for discarded things. From reel-to-reel tape recorders to Spartan-green street signs, a jumble of rejects sleep on the shelves like opium addicts, absorbing a slow rain of dust, waiting for another chance.

Many of them won’t get that chance. The centrifuges, copy machines, mass spectrometers and discriminators — whatever those are — look long out of date, even for export to the Sudan. In the middle of the store, a valley of hippo-sized air compressors looks like the last dinosaur roundup. A bread maker the size of a drill press will probably never touch soft, wet dough again. A 15-foot-tall mountain of foam core waits for a stunt man who will never jump.

The home media section boasts hundreds of CDs, all of them identical: “The MSU Wind Symphony Centennial Concert,” with Roger Bahrend on euphonium. For wall dcor, there are huge posters explaining toxemia and fetal distress, with vivid photos.

You don’t expect something out of “The Maltese Falcon” to show up here. Yet there it was last Friday, on a high shelf, roosting like a raven among towers of clear plastic salad dishes: a matte black East Asian vase embossed with vivid red swastikas.

Long before the swastika was drafted as the brand of Nazi Germany, it was used by many cultures, including American Indian and East Asian. It’s still a Hindu symbol of good fortune. Nevertheless, it’s not a welcome sight in the Western world, and it hasn’t helped that vase get out of surplus limbo.

A Surplus Store staffer, Michael, knew which vase I was talking about right away. (Michael didn’t want to give us his last name. Nobody I talked to that afternoon did. It could have been the chilling effect of the swastikas or just a run of shy people.)

“I’ve had a couple of people interested in it,” Michael said.

He said the vase has been sitting on the shelf for about a month since it came from the Brook Lodge in Augusta, about an hour and a half drive southwest of Lansing.

The vase reflects the decorating tastes of W.E. Upjohn, founder of the pharmaceutical giant, who bought a 40-acre farm at Brook Lodge in 1885 and turned the creamery into a summer cottage. The lodge evolved into a retreat for Upjohn employees.

Upjohn was a fan of Japanese gardens and filled them with hundreds of varieties of peonies. Michael thinks the swastika vase is from the 1950s, but whether or not it was part of Upjohn’s original crib, it fits with his love of East Asian things.

“It could have come from anywhere in Asia: China, Taiwan, Japan,” Michael said.

In 2000, Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. gave the lodge and 557 acres of surrounding land to MSU, which ran a small hotel and conference resort on the site. After losing $10 million in nine years, the operation was closed in 2009.

The vase is one of the last things left at the Surplus Store from a cache of objects that made their way from the Brook Lodge since then. (The Brook Lodge objects are marked with a red “X.”)

“I had wire mannequins, flowered candle trees, all kinds of things,” Michael said. All the rest of the Brook Lodge exotica sold fast, the vase is still sitting there.

A hand-designed Maitland Smith box from the Brook Lodge is still on the shelf, too, but the box is chipped.

Michael said nobody has said anything to him about the swastika on the vase.

“They just say it’s interesting and have no place to put it,” he said.

Friday afternoon, a silver-haired, 60-ish man told me he has been eyeing the vase for a week.

“I don’t know enough about it, but it’s cool,” he said.

When I asked him if the swastikas were a deal breaker, he took a closer look.

“It’s funny, I never noticed them. I don’t think they were intended to be that, do you? So it wouldn’t concern me.”

Bob, an MSU alumnus visiting from Indiana with his wife, Ronda, stopped to take a look.

“It’s kind of ugly,” Bob said. “It doesn’t go with our dcor.”

He paused for a few seconds, still looking, until a cloud crossed his forehead.

“And it’s got Nazi stuff on it.”

Ronda made a rancid-sauerkraut face. Bob said the vase reminded him of a story.

“You know that guy from ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,’ with the German helmet?” he asked.

He meant Arte Johnson, an obscure comedian who started a national catchphrase on the 1960s TV show by wearing a German army outfit, squinting through phony shrubbery, and saying “Verrr-y inn-teresting.”

Recently, Bob posted a photo of Johnson, in German regalia, on his personal Web site, with the catchphrase printed underneath.

Before long, someone made a post: “I don’t know that guy and I don’t want to know him.”

Bob took the picture down.

“The person who made that post seemed kind of upset,” Bob said.

Michael told me that if the vase was still there when he got back from vacation at the end of the month, he would mark it down from $65 to $45.