A handwritten sign on the door of Dragon Dreams Museum & Gift Shop says “Closing soon.” But the building has been shuttered for more than six months after its owner, Dr. Barbara Newton, died in February.
The cozy clapboard house on East Brainerd Road is filled to the brim with thousands of dragons — ominous figurines with red eyes, delicate Asian-painted ceramics flecked with gold, a dragon pinball machine, a children’s area full of plush, friendly versions of the creatures. They fill eight rooms, pile up and overlap each other, so many you couldn’t possibly see each one.
It was Newton’s long-time passion; she’d converted her veterinary practice into the museum after building a new pet clinic next door. But as her dragon collection grew, she needed more space, so she hauled in about five temporary trailers, just like the ones that stand in as school classrooms, and now they’re filled with dragons.
Newton got sick in 2010 with pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that damages lung tissue and leaves its victims short of breath. She contracted the disease from the dander coming off the 40 or 50 birds that lived in her poorly ventilated home. She was given five years to live. Realizing her dream to run the museum as she grew older was no longer realistic, she started planning to find a home for her dragons — ideally, all going to one person.
That person was her longtime friend Denise Furland, whom Newton named as executor of her estate. Newton promised Furland that, by the time she died, the dragons would be gone.
Today Furland, who runs Hometown Marketing, is up to her knees in dragons. Her latest task was to consolidate all the Pocket Dragons – whimsical collectible figurines that were popular in the ’80s and ’90s — hiding throughout the museum to one shelf. But Newton’s collection is so massive it’s hardly catalogued, unmanageable. A room in back of the house is filled to the brim with would-be museum pieces, many broken. Furland has no idea how many dragons there actually are, much less what they’re worth.
She’s had the most valuable dragon pieces — satsuma tea sets, statues in bronze and cloisonne, some ivory — appraised by Case Antiques and Lark Mason, an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” She has divvied up Newton’s money and other household items to family members and charities, going by Newton’s instructions in her will. She goes to Newton’s house, just up the road, each day to feed her two cats. For legal reasons, she keeps a spiral-bound notebook carefully filled with every one of her actions involving the estate. It is nearly filled up.
Furland is facing a situation that many people find themselves in after a loved one or close friend dies. Suddenly, they’re either legally responsible or the actual owner of items that they don’t want or don’t need and don’t know what to do with.
“The collection has to be sold, and it hurt me for a long time,” Furland says. “But I believe she’s in another place and that stuff doesn’t matter anymore. These are just things.”
Attorney Richard Buhrman, who deals exclusively with estate law, says an executor faces a host of issues, both legal and personal. All debts need to be cleared, so even precious collections become assets to sell.
“You do have to be very careful if you’re an executor,” he says. “There’s a whole body of law that says what you can and can’t do. You have a duty to protect the assets and not to waste them, to manage them correctly, not to mingle it with your own money.”
Buhrman recalls a professor who had amassed a library-size collection of books, so each one had to be inventoried and appraised by a bookstore before a huge portion was donated to a university. He remembers one lady whose estate belongings were all sold except for a lone piano, which was eventually donated to a church.
For those who find themselves with a huge and perhaps unwanted inheritance, Buhrman’s advice is to go by the books; and the first rule is: Hire a lawyer. If you don’t want the items you’ve inherited, you can renounce that responsibility, he says, but that leaves your loved one’s property to the state and out of your hands.
Jim Blair, owner of Blair’s Estate Sales, makes his living parsing out the belongings of the dead — as well as the living. One of his clients, Dr. Chalmer Chastain of Cleveland, Tenn., collected rare glass pieces throughout his life, about 1,700 in all. Before his death in 2007 he began the process of going through his collection, appraising it and setting up a sale so his children wouldn’t be burdened when he died. He hired Harris to help.
“We had to go into the house, dismantle the shelves, take everything out, just to get to the next layer of stuff,” Blair says.
The estate sale brought in 4,000 people from 25 states. Museum curators came to gawk and pillage the stuff. With the sale reaching the level of an actual event, it was pretty easy to sell the items, Blair says.
But what about large collections of stuff no one wants?
“The beauty of the day is that you’ve got the Internet. Pretty much whatever it is, there is someone who wants that,” says Blair.
Once, when dealing with an estate containing lots of rare books, he got in touch with some book enthusiasts he knew in England. Thanks to the magic of the Web, they already knew about the sale by the time he called and were interested in purchasing many of the books.
Once an estate has been picked over, Harris says, he sometimes sells the remainder to yet another company to resell.
When Newton asked Furland to handle her estate in 2010, Furland was surprised, but she didn’t hesitate. She’d known Newton for nearly 25 years.
One of the first female vets in Tennessee, Newton came up in a man’s world. She was a tough lady, whip-smart. She didn’t mince words.
“She could take on anyone or anything,” Furland says. Maybe that’s what drew Newton to the scaly shelled, fire-breathing strength of the dragons she started collecting in 1976. In a video interview from 2007, Newton introduces herself: “In my real life, I’m a veterinarian. In my other life, I’m the dragon lady. I just think they’re real cool.”
On the flip side of her sometimes brusque exterior, Newton was generous and sensitive, caring for stray and unwanted animals. She was a member of Grace Episcopal Church and, for a time, printed enlarged print hymns for visually impaired parishioners. She had pockets of friends from all walks of life. When Newton died, Furland kept her cellphone for a while.
“People just kept calling. She had this long list of contacts. I had no idea she had so many friends,” says Furland.
She was a beloved vet in the community, known as the “Bird Vet.” In addition to a slew of cats and dogs, she owned 40 or 50 birds that she kept in her home — parrots, pigeons, love birds and cockatoos. Some she bought; most were given to her by people who couldn’t keep them. She didn’t have the heart to turn any away.
They stayed in the garage and she liked to keep the garage door open so she could hear them chirping from her bedroom nearby. But her house was improperly ventilated, and dander from the birds’ wings gave her pulmonary fibrosis. Constantly short of breath, she carted around an oxygen tank and had trouble walking. She shut down her vet practice in 2011.
At the advice of her doctor, she got rid of her birds. Though she cried when she gave away the last of them, she was nothing but practical about her own situation. With an unflinching practicality, she set her sights on finding a home for her precious dragons. She would give the collection to someone for free, as long as they kept them together and took care of them.
She had a few leads. A medieval studies professor at the University of Georgia showed interest. Another person told her everything she wanted to hear, but turned out to a scam artist, winding up in jail for something else a few months later.
In previous interviews, Newton mused that the museum could be moved to Gatlinburg or donated to a nonprofit. She began the lengthy process of filing to be including in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest dragon collection — Furland believes she would have blown away the current placeholder, which has around 600. Newton didn’t care about the title and prestige of the world record; she thought it would increase her chances of selling the collection.
But as her health declined, she had less energy. She was running out of time, and the dragons still had no home. Just a month before she was scheduled to see about a lung transplant, Newton passed away. On her death bed, she said to Furland, “I’ve failed you.”
Furland’s eyes tear up when she talks about executing Newton’s wishes. As the executor, she has a responsibility to match the wishes of the deceased as closely as she can. But keeping the collection together, which is what Newton wanted, has proved impossible.
Though she was generous in her will to family and charities, Newton left behind debts to pay; Furland won’t say how much they are. And, the estate is on a deadline; Newton sold her vet practice and its building in 2011, but she kept a three-year lease agreement on the museum’s building. For three years she paid only the property tax and a small rent, after which she would have to pay the lease in full. The lease is up in October.
“Her wish was to keep everything together,” says Furland. “But I’m trying to do it as the best I can, keeping everything in the right place, closer to what she wanted.”
The next step will be a series of sales held at the museum. One sale, Furland says, will be for dragon enthusiasts who were on the museum’s mailing list. Another will be just for the Pocket Dragons. In mid-August, the museum will open for a full estate sale.
Since Newton’s death, Furland has turned away many people who knock on the museum’s door as she works inside. Some visitors say they’ve always driven by the museum and never had a chance to go in. Some say they came from far away to visit, not knowing it was closed.
Furland’s hope, she says, is that Chattanoogans can get one last glimpse at the collection Newton so lovingly put together. Maybe they’ll even take a piece of it with them.
“She had this passion, and she really built a legacy,” she says. “I think people will come just to see what this was all about, for one last time.”
Contact Anna Lockhart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6578.
Correction: This story originally reported that Case Antiques had purchased pieces from this collection, which was incorrect.
"Items have been consigned to us and moved to our Knoxville gallery where they will be sold in an online auction that began today [September 24] and ends on October 8. We are selling them on behalf of Dr. Newton's estate, we do not own them in any way," Sarah Campbell Drury, Vice President of Fine and Decorative Arts with Case Antiques, said in an email.