Sunday, April 26, 2009

Furniture Forum and the Philly Shows

Unfortunately, Hollie was unable to join me for this trip, so instead, I was accompanied by Jeff Jeffers, the fearless leader (well, 1 of 2) of Garth's Auctions.

Because of the landmark exhibition Harbor and Home (see previous post), the annual Furniture Forum at the Winterthur Museum was moved from its usual early March to mid-April, so that the exhibition could be open. And conveniently enough, it also corresponded with the Philadelphia and the Armory Antique Shows. What a week!

Forum is only two days long, but is chockablock full of intellectual stimulation. Many great lectures by some of the leading furniture experts in the country. This year, appropriately enough, FF was focused on coastal New England furniture. Lecturers included Brock Jobe, Derin Brey, Jack O'Brien, and Gary Sullivan, all from the H&H team, as well as other experts, such as Kemble Widmer, Dennis Carr, Tom Kugelman, and others. My brain was full. And the exhibition....was fantastic. If you can get to Winterthur or the Nantucket Historical Association during its run, then you should go.

We managed to squeeze in some good food, a trip through the Winterthur collections, and a visit to my favorite museum space, the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, PA.

Then, it was north to the Navy Yard for the opening preview of the Big Show. Perhaps a smaller crowd than previous years, but I saw some red stickers. I also saw some reasonable prices...something you don't usually see at the Philly Show. Seems that some dealers are really working hard to make some sales...and that's good for everyone.

At FF, Jeff and I enjoyed spending some time with our fellow auction house reps, Steve Fletcher and LaGina Austin from Skinner in Boston. LaGina worked for Garth's a while back, so it was good to reconnect. And at the Philly Show, Jeff and I met up with our newest team member, Kelly Seltzer, formerly of Pook and Pook in Downingtown, PA (Kelly does our catalog and ad design, as well as some marketing work). So, after the Big Show, Jeff, Steve, LaGina, Kelly, and I went for dinner at a little restaurant on Walnut Street (and, interestingly enough, on the street outside the restaurant, we ran into Ron Bourgeault (Northeast Auctions) and Bill Stahl (Sotheby's)...small world). Here is a photo of us...just goes to show that despite the fact that we compete for the same collections, we are colleagues who respect each other and are friendly. Just one of the great things about this business!!

Saturday was the Armory Show, a small show with an even smaller crowd. Didn't see that many red stickers there, but plenty of great stuff at reasonable prices.'s a great time to buy. Get out there. Go to auctions. Go to shows.

I sought out younger folks at the Forum and the shows....FF had plenty, many of whom were students at one of Winterthur's two graduate programs, but there were other young scholars. Saw a few at the shows, but not as many as I'd like. So, next time you go to a show or auction, invite a younger person. Get them interested in the stuff!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading, Writing and Researching

We've been awfully quiet for the past week or so. Sorry for the long silence, but Andrew is about to stagger over the finish line for a catalogue deadline, and then he promises to tell you all about his trip east for Winterthur's Furniture Forum and the Philadelphia shows.

Meanwhile, I've been working a little on our transcription project. Joshua Shipman was one of the early settlers in Marietta, Ohio, and his name kept popping up during Andrew's thesis research. We were so disappointed to discover that although the Washington County Public Library had a Shipman document, it was just what appeared to be the front page of his daybook. But, while combing through a box of miscellaneous papers related to early Marietta history, Andrew came across a daybook and thought, "Hmm. This seems to be about the same size as that Shipman page." A comparison immediately revealed that he was right and in one of those magic research moments, this daybook transformed into an important resource.

Shipman's daybook, which covers the years of 1796 to 1803, shows what a booming town Marietta was. In the first three years or so, he produced over 70 pieces of furniture, some of them very specific forms. It also shows what diversity was necessary to earn a living - a talented cabinetmaker, Shipman also records entries for fence-building, pulleys for the ship industry, and renting out oxen. We're hoping that a complete transcription and study of the daybook will offer some insight into the life of the average frontier cabinetmaker as well as shed some light on how hard settlers worked to create a sense of civilization through stylish homes.

Every time we start a project, I discover all over again how fascinating it is to rummage around in the documentary record and try to construct lives for people. Especially with research centering around an early small town, it seems that you often start to feel as though you know the people. Their names certainly become familiar, and somehow, I find myself able to recite the names of more people living in Marietta in 1790 than living in Sunbury in 2009. You start to build hopes for them, these people that you can never truly know and, more importantly, these people whose fates have long been sealed, to feel sad when you see an entry in Shipman's daybook for a child's coffin or to feel a kinship when you see inventories with more books than chairs.

Research is one of the most life-affirming things I've ever done - seeing the continuity of human hopes and experiences, the way we all struggle to carve out a space for ourselves or to feather our nests a little more comfortably. With the nation struggling in such a fashion, I find it comforting to look back, to remember the terrible shape America was in immediately after the Revolution, with debts and political rifts and uncertainty, and to know that in the microcosm of a little muddy Ohio River town, people were still going about the business of living: treasuring books, fixing up their homes, working hard to support their families. Life does, in fact, go on.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Movin' on up...

We were very pleased to notice that our column has been given a rather nice spot on the Maine Antique Digest website. You can read ALL of our past columns here. Read there, comment here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Saga of Scooter and Hammie

So, a couple years ago, Garth's had this little stuffed toy dog for sale. He's pug-like, with a smooshed little face, shoe-button eyes, a nose that bears a resemblance to a piece of electrical tape, and a little curled tail. He was part of a lot of three small toys, but Andrew noticed him immediately. He's hard not to notice, since he's very well-made, neatly pieced - and he has chair casters whip-stitched to his feet. Every catalogue or so, something comes along that delights the staff, and this little brown dog spent a lot of time in the cataloguing room. They named him Scooter.

Of course, we wanted Scooter to come live with us and were hoping frantically that we could work out something with the person who would buy him. We can't bid at Garth's, part of a long-standing company policy, but fortunately, on the day of the sale, the lot was picked up by a dealer for $125. Andrew was taking a break from the auction block at the time and had a moment to run over and ask if we could buy him from her. She did some quick math and said we could have him for the reasonable price of $81. To this day, she tells Andrew that if she'd actually gone back to pick Scooter up before he asked, she'd never have sold him for that price - he's just that cute.

So, Scooter came to live with us in the schoolhouse. We took a picture of him and sent it off to Andrew's Winterthur classmates, because they'd heard so much about him. Almost immediately, we got a message back from Sarah Woodman, who is working at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California. Turns out Scooter has an identical brother living in California! Not much is known about him, except that he was donated by Mrs. Hillman Arms and won a dog show in San Francisco in 1888 when entered by a Mr. Lechner who was unable to get there with a "real" dog. Who knows - early days for San Francisco, so maybe they didn't have many dogs to choose from? As you can see, he's virtually identical to Scooter - same casters, same tail, even the same ears with one tacked down and one loose. (Photo below appears courtesy of the Kern County Museum.)

Needless to say, we were delighted. What are the odds that someone we know would be working in a facility with Hammie and recognize him? Plus, Scooter has family! And we were puzzled. According to the textiles folks we know, Scooter and Hammie are too early to have come from a pattern for a child's toy, as they weren't being published in magazines at the time. But they're so much alike, it would seem they were made by the same person. And how did Hammie end up all the way out in California while Scooter stayed here in the Midwest?

Questions aside, Scooter settled in and we promised to take him to visit his brother the next time we go to California. Then, this winter, a friend came to visit and was only too pleased to show us her copy of The All-American Dog: Man's Best Friend in Folk Art, a catalogue from a 1978 exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art. And who did we see? Scooter! He's so modest, he never even let on, but it's definitely him right down to the tiny little separation at the seam on his nose. So, not only did Hammie travel to California, win a dog show, and end up in a museum, but Scooter apparently was in New York, exhibited in a museum and wandered west to Ohio. Apparently, you can really get around on chair casters!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Reliability of Information...

We've decided to take this discussion from the comments section of our "More on the Middle Market" post to the top because we feel it's important. Thanks James!!

James suggested that perhaps young folks are not getting involved in antiques because they don't want to buy at auction for fear of the auction house giving them incorrect or misleading information. This is a complex issue, but we'll start by stating that having been in this business for years, we believe the vast majority of auction houses, auctioneers, and dealers to be as honest as the day is long. That being said, there certainly is loads of bad information out there. Most of this bad information, such as a southern "huntboard" being dragged outside during a hunt and dead game being flopped onto it, is the result of a lack of knowledge--some folks just don't read the sources and do the research. And yes, sometimes that information is perpetuated make something sell for more money being the principal reason.

With regards to James's specific issue about an attribution being made by an auction house based on flimsy evidence, Andrew can speak from first-hand experience. He regularly catalogs objects that come to him with some sort of attribution. If he believes that the attribution is just plain wrong, he doesn't include it. But if it's possibly correct, then he includes it. If questioned about that attribution, he'll be honest and say that the information came from the consignor and he thought it possible but couldn't find anything to substantiate it further. This does 2 things. Firstly, it keeps potentially important information with that object. Maybe that attribution is weak now, but more research down the road may help firm it up. If you delete that attribution, then it's gone. Secondly, it's a service and liability issue. As an auctioneer, Andrew has a fiscal and legal obligation to his consignor. And he wants to give them good service. To ignore a consignor's opinion about their antiques, unless you can absolutely refute it, isn't good service (provided you are honest with potential bidders about the evidence, or lack thereof). More importantly, let's say Andrew drops an attribution on a decorated chest. If that chest sells for a few hundred dollars and then a year later is determined to be by the decorator it had been attributed to, and it sells for thousands, then in some jurisdictions (auction law varies by state), there may be some liability. James--we'd be the rather vague answer to your question about that chest's attribution was that auction house's way of saying, "We couldn't discount that maker, but we really can't support it either." Yes, this puts the burden on you, the buyer, and I'm sure that is daunting to a neophyte. That's why Andrew always encourages folks to ask quesions, engage him in dialogue about anything in an upcoming auction. He will give you bluntly honest answers so that you are happy with your purchase and so that you'll come back. If you don't like the answers you got to your question, press them. If you are bidding from a distance, you should expect any auctioneer to be willing to be your eyes and ears about what your are bidding on. And if you have any doubts, don't bid!

We should point out that these issues don't just apply to traditional brick-and-mortar auction houses. Andrew buys alot on eBay and he knows the questions to ask. Most folks who have incorrectly identified something made an honest mistake and are happy to have it corrected. And we see it at shows, even the big ones. Andrew once sold a GREAT folksy footstool from a southern Indiana collector who bought local stuff and never travelled far afield. So, that footstool was almost certainly from southern Indiana. When we saw it at a show later, however, it was identified as Lancaster Co., PA. Because of our research into Midwestern-German furniture (see, our antennae are up for the stuff, and we regularly see it miscatalogued as PA. An even worse instance (of flimsy evidence and of service) was in NY a couple of years ago. Andrew encountered an interesting decorated blanket chest attributed to Ohio. When he questioned the dealer, the response was a luke-warm, "Oh, they made them out there like that sometimes." Excuse me?? I'm suppose to pay 75K for the thing and that's all you can give me??!!!!

At the end of the day, whether you are a new, 30-something collector, or a veteran collector in your 90s, you should always do your homework, read the books, go to shows and auctions and handle the stuff. And you should buddy up with some dealers and auctioneers that you trust so that when you do encounter something that makes you scratch your head, you have someone from whom you can get a second opinion. And let us volunteer ourselves...if you are a young collector who has a question about something you are considering purchasing, just ask! We'll give you an honest assessment based on the information/photos you can provide.

James, and everyone, as we've said before, we believe that this is a service business. So if you have a question about an antique, about its attribution, or about its condition, ask. And don't let anyone get off with dismissive answer. If we're to attract new folks into the world of antiques, we have to prove to them that it's an honest place to be, and one in which you can really learn. And if you're reading this and you're an auctioneer or dealer, then do your very best to continue to be honest and to give top-notch service.