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A gilt for grief turns to lifelong collection

A widow who found solace in a lovely Christmas ornament has amassed what is believed to be the world's largest collection.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

TAMPA PALMS -- Clara Johnson Scroggins grew up believing Christmas was magic.

When she lost her husband just before that momentous day in 1972, she was left with a wrenching grief. A friend tried to soothe her sorrow with a shopping trip. Reluctantly Scroggins went and discovered a sterling silver cross ornament in a shop window.

It caught her eye and seemed to forge a connection between Scroggins, her deceased husband and God. She bought it -- the first Christmas ornament in a private collection that now numbers more than 1-million and is thought to be the world's largest.

"Christmas ornaments are one of the biggest gifts we give each other in this country now," said Scroggins, who has since remarried and relocated to Manchester village in Tampa Palms. "They tell the growth of your family, the history of your country and the world."

Scroggins boasts baubles that have brightened White House Christmas trees. She owns ornaments made for exclusive department stores (Tiffany & Co., Neiman Marcus) by even more exclusive designers (Versace, Christian Dior, even ones autographed by Gucci).

Some are one-of-a-kind, others are limited editions. A few rare ornaments are owned only by President Clinton, Scroggins and the company that designed them.

Tucked away in a climate-controlled, secured storage facility, certain ornaments are insured for hundreds of dollars -- one piece for $25,000, said the great-grandmother.

"She has more ornaments than the companies themselves," enthused Debbie Pugh, a member of the Tampa Bay Tree Trimmers, which the reknown collector founded when she moved here.

Blown glass and porcelain. Gold plated Faberge bells encrusted with tiny jewels. Carefully cut Waterford crystal that shimmers when it catches the holiday lights. Scroggins has been told hers is "the largest privately held collection in the world."

The author of nine books and numerous articles on ornament collecting, Scroggins is recognized as an authority on the subject and was dubbed the "Queen of Christmas" in an eight-page spread in Better Homes and Gardens 2001 holiday crafts edition.

With a plethora of collectibles -- ranging from Sept. 11 tributes to wildlife preservation ornaments and Disney decorations -- Scroggins said she has no plans to stop anytime soon.

"When they lay me six feet under I'll be done," laughed the founder of Hallmark's Keepsake Ornament Collector's Club. (The company designed and sells an ornament in her honor).

Scroggins said she ultimately plans to donate her collection to a museum to keep it intact.

In the meantime, the decorations that restored the magic of Christmas to her so long ago continue to bring her joy.

"Ornaments are made to beautify our homes just as much as a new coat of paint or a new couch," she said. "It is such an integral part of our holiday celebrations that it makes people just looking at it feel good."

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