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Presidential china display in Salt Lake City offers an intimate view of the White House

O.C. Tanner displays world's largest private set of presidential dishes

From a pair of Martha Washington's shoes to James Madison's wine decanter, Set Momjian has an impressive collection of historical American artifacts.

The collection he's most known for, however, is his White House china.

Momjian, a retired Ford Motor Co. executive and former U.S. representative to the United Nations, has the largest private collection in the world.

Utahn Ronald Fox, former delegate to the GOP National Convention and longtime friend of Momjian, asked him to bring his collection to Utah for last week's Salt Lake County Republican dinner.

The china is now on display at the O.C. Tanner store in Salt Lake City and will remain there through Feb. 28.

Fox said the artifacts provide a rare opportunity for the public to see intimate items from America's first families.

"(Momjian) is truly a world-class collector," Fox said. "The materials this man has are as good as any museum in the country or even the world."

Momjian has been collecting White House china since the 1950s, a fascination that began accidentally while he was collecting White House documents.

Momjian said he began his collection by placing ads in newspapers across the country and said after awhile he was spending up to $70 a week. When the financial burden became too large, Momjian began cutting back. However, it soon became apparent people had become interested in his search.

"It turns out the newspapers got letter from their subscribers saying 'When is that guy from Philedelphia running another ad?' " Momjian said. "So the newspapers would write to me and say, 'Send me the ads, you don't have to send the money.' They just ran them for free."

Momjian said every once in a while dealers would offer documents, invitations and a plate.

"I really wasn't interested in the plate, but I bought the whole lot and I would take it home and put the plate in my wife's pantry," he said. "One day she said, 'Set, could you get these things out of here?' So I took the plates out and put them on the kitchen table and thought, 'These would make a really nice collection.' "

Momjian's china collection has grown to include plates from the Lincoln administration and a rare Kennedy plate.

"There is no Kennedy china in the White House," Momjian explained. "He was assassinated before they got it. One day a fellow called me from Florida and said 'I have a letter, I'm going to charge you 10 times what its worth, and you're going buy it.' "

It turned out to be a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy with a detailed description of what she wanted her china to look like.

"The letter described it as a yellow, almost melon, color. Not too ostentatious and unlike any other White House china," Momjian said. "I said, 'I'm Fed-Exing you the check.' "

Years later he spotted a plate that matched the exact description at an antique show. When he asked about it, he was shown a note from a former White House maid, Lillian Parks.

"In the note she said the President and Mrs. Kennedy took turns eating off this plate for one week to see if they would like it," Momjian said. "This was to be their china."

It's moments like that that make collecting a sport for him.

"I compare it to football. When the player scores a touchdown he has 30,000 people cheering. … "It's very much the same in collecting," Momjian said. "When you've been looking for something for months or years and all of the sudden you find it in the most unusual place you have the same feeling, but without the 30,000 cheering."

Since then Momjian said he has gained a deep appreciation for the items.

"China is the only thing that remains in the White House when a president leaves," Momjian said. "Every scrap of paper goes out with the president. If they haven't ordered china, the only thing remaining will be a portrait."

Momjian isn't just a collector of items, he's a collector of stories. For each plate in his collection, Momjian has an intricate tale about its origin and the public's reaction.

"Mrs. Lincoln ordered china with a purple border and the public and press complained that she thought she was royalty," Momjian said.

"Mrs. Roosevelt ordered china with a nautical theme, but under the border she had a filigree of a rose and three feathers, which was the Roosevelt coat of arms before they came to this country. The press and public complained that she had put a foreign coat of arms on American presidential china.

"The only president that didn't have any complaints was Truman. He took the salesman into the dining room, looked around and said, 'Make the china the same colors as the walls,' and that was it. Nobody complained."

But Momjian doesn't just have stories about the plates, he has stories about all the presidents whose china he displays in his Pennsylvania home and at museums across the country.

One of his "absolute favorites" is a story about Frances Green, an elderly woman from California who had travelled to Washington, D.C., because she believed she had received a personal invitation from Ronald Reagan to attend an event at the White House.

Momjian, who had been invited to the fundraising function, met the woman outside the gates and after talking to her he realized she hadn't received an invitation but rather a solicitation to donate funds.

"She told me she spent all her money to come meet Reagan," Momjian said.

Momjian said he sent Green to her hotel room with the promise of a tour the following day and immediately called the president's secretary to relay what had happened.

Momjian was able to set up a surprise meeting with Reagan.

"He knew this woman didn't have five cents to her name and that she never really had an invitation," Momjian said.

"We get up, walk in and she realizes where she is and starts to shake. Then she saw Reagan behind the desk and starts to cry. Reagan comes over, puts her arm around her and says 'Frances, those darn computers fouled up again. They should have called me from the gate.' "

Momjian said Reagan wouldn't allow the story to be published at the time because he didn't want Green to know about the invitation.

The care Momjian exhibits for both the china and stories surrounding it are one reason Fox said history buffs should take advantage of the collection while it is in Utah.

"Moving china across the country like this, with the rarity and expense, is great," said Fox. "I was pleased he agreed to have it shown at O.C. Tanner so the public can see it."

For Momjian, the pleasure of displaying his collection is only part of the reason he devotes much of his life to treasure hunting. Collecting is just in his blood.

"I've often said that if I was sound asleep in bed and somebody crept into my room with the book I was looking for I'd wake up," Momjian said. "It's in you. I tell my children, 'You find what you look for.' "

If you go …

What: Presidential plate collection

Where: O.C. Tanner, 15 S. State

When: Through Feb. 28, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m; Saturday, noon-5 p.m.

How much: free

e-mail: amears@desnews.com