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A Collector's Keen Eye, Fortune

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WASHINGTON (AP) — She had a collector's keen eye and one of the world's great fortunes to back up her zeal for splendor.

The money came from breakfast cereals and frozen foods. Marjorie Merriweather Post spent it on great houses filled with the trappings of royalty and the creations of the world's great craftsmen.

Now, after two years of house repair, renovations and improvements, the Post collections gleam again at Hillwood, one of the capital's most unusual private museums.

Among the thousands of artifacts on display at the house Post bought in 1955, after the end of the third of her four marriages, are a swivel chair Marie Antoinette may have used when having her hair arranged and powdered.

There are two of the jeweled imperial Easter eggs made by goldsmith Carl Faberge for Russia's czars. One opens to display a surprise, a miniature sedan chair.

There is a diamond-studded crown worn at Russian imperial weddings. There are porcelain and crystal, gold and silver, rare woods and glowing jewels.

Visitors drawn by the treasures can also view Post's wardrobe, including rows of her satin shoes. And an eye sated by elegant and expensive objects can rest in the Hillwood kitchen, a perfectly ordinary collection of 1950s-era appliances.

The spirit of the collector still hovers.

When Post died at 86 in 1973, her ashes were buried in the formal garden beneath her bedroom windows.

Surrounding the house are the 25-acre grounds, including formal French and Japanese gardens, a putting green and a greenhouse with important — how could they be otherwise? — orchids.

The exhibits don't have labels. The describing is left to the appropriately titled catalog, ``A Taste for Splendor,'' by chief curator Anne Odom.

Frederick J. Fisher, Hillwood's executive director, said there is always a problem in a museum founded by a single collector, of whether items should be displayed to emphasize their history or their beauty.

``Members of the family often like to keep collections in the way the original collectors displayed them, for sentimental reasons,'' he explained.

Post definitely wanted things kept the way she left them — she wanted a museum house left as much as possible like the residence where she spent her last years, curator Odom said.

When Post first married at 18, she was possibly the richest young woman in the United States. Her father, C.W. Post, had marketed Post Toasties from Battle Creek, Mich. The company later expanded, absorbed other food producers and became General Foods. When C.W. Post committed suicide, his daughter became his sole heir.

Her most vivid adventures in the art world came during her marriage to Joseph Davies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, eager for hard currency, were busily selling off the contents of imperial and aristocratic palaces.

``Mother got there and started climbing around on her hands and knees,'' her daughter, actress Dina Merrill, recalled during Hillwood's recent reopening ceremonies. ``Every day for weeks she made piles of her selections and the Russians would sell them for amazingly low prices.''

Her finds are now among the 16,000 items in the Hillwood collection.

Attending a party at Hillwood in 1957, columnist Betty Beale wrote: ``Yesterday an invisible wand was waved and I stepped into a palace right here in Washington.''

Marjorie Merriweather Post's wand still waves.

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Admission to the Hillwood is by reservation only, with visitors limited to 250 a day so as not to disturb the residential area overlooking Washington's Rock Creek Park in which the estate is located. Adult visitors contribute $10; seniors $8; students and minors 6 to 18, $5, all refundable by mail on request. Information and reservations at 1-877-HILLWOOD or (202) 686-5807.

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On the Net: www.hillwoodmuseum.org

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