By Catherine Saunders-Watson
CHADDS FORD, PENN. – I never met an antiques show I didn’t like, but if there is a preference, it is for those that are held in buildings that are, themselves, antiques — edifices from within whose sturdy walls transpired the events that helped shape America’s history. If there were a blueprint for such a show, it would be the one held yearly at the Brandywine River Museum on Route 1 in Chadds Ford.
Writers are not supposed to do this sort of thing when they’re reporting on a show, but I really would like to convey my observations of the museum and its 31st Annual Antiques Show, which took place over the weekend of May 25-27, as though I were writing in a diary. I think it might be the most effective way to give the reader a feel for what that very special show is all about.
The museum itself sits on the banks of the Brandywine River, a convenient location for its previous line of work as a Civil War era grist mill. It is a handsome fusion of antique red brick and stone with native wildflower gardens and bricked walkways nestled between grand, old trees that shade the visitors resting on benches or dining al fresco. Geese fearlessly waddle past the humans, occasionally dipping into the river for a better view of the inner tube riders floating past. What a peaceful place.
Inside, the museum, which opened in 1971, is one of the largest and most important collections of art by three generations of the Wyeth family, as well as works by other noted American painters and illustrators. Original beams and wide board floors were carefully preserved within the conversion process that transformed the former mill into a contemporary series of galleries, so the visual impact is that of old marrying new, but without any sacrifice of the building’s originality.
On a sparkling spring day with azure skies overhead and only the slightest breeze diverting the warmth of the sun, I arrived at Brandywine. Briefly, I stopped to admire a sculpture on the front grounds — “Boy with Hawk” by Charles Park — then passed through the entrance only to be struck by a feeling of déjà vu. The antique brick, the multilevels of the warren-like building, the outdoor mews stalls where some of the show’s dealers had set out their wares — it looked so much like the old mill in Shepton Mallet, England, where I had attended many antique shows in the past.
Once inside the museum proper, I followed my ears into the first room in which some of the 32 carefully selected exhibitors had constructed their room settings. The soothing sound of clocks ticking led me directly to Davis-O’Reilly Antiques of Northport, Ala. Among the timepieces that had been set out were a circa 1840 Connecticut steeple clock, $395; and a rare, circa 1890 Black Forest mantel cuckoo clock with eight-day movement and carved fox and goose motif, $8,900, that Connie O’Reilly confirmed to be “very rare.”
O’Reilly told us an early sale for them had been a primitive worktable bought by a woman whose husband had been lured to the golf course by the clear, sunny weather and who would be returning to collect her purchase. “Sometimes it’s better to have a rainy day when you’re selling at an indoor show,” she laughed, “but in the case of this table, the weather made no difference. The buyer knew what she was looking at; here, feel this. The peg goes all the way through.”
That was my first clue that I was going to be meeting dealers who really knew their stuff. It was no wonder so many affluent-looking people were writing checks with multiple ‘0’s on them. Part of the price of an antique is for the experience of the dealer selling it, and these dealers were rock-solid.
My next stop was the well-lit corner setting of Autumn Pond Antiques of Woodbury, Conn., where two categories seemed dominant: Delftware and weathervanes. Proprietor Norma Chick remarked that Delftware was always a very good seller for her at the Brandywine show, but that, contrary to what one might think, she didn’t buy any of her stock directly from England or Holland. “I buy mostly from private collections here in the States,” she said.
Of the many beautiful weathervanes she had brought, it was purity of form that drew me to a mid-Nineteenth Century arrow. Displaying the verdigris consistent with a copper vane of its age, the arrow was priced at $3,400.
Another busy spot was the booth of Hanes & Ruskin of Old Lyme, Conn., specialists in early American furniture and decorative art. An amiable Lee Hanes opened drawers and pointed out the interesting details of a circa 1770 New Hampshire Queen Anne highboy they had brought. “When you see the rather short cabriole legs and a drawer that is constructed to give the appearance of two drawers, that indicates the piece was made in New Hampshire,” he said. “It really doesn’t get much nicer than this — tiger maple with original brasses.” The highboy was priced “in the mid-20s.”
Since Hanes & Ruskin had been setting up at the show for 26 years, longer than possibly any other dealer, I asked Lee Hanes what it was about the Brandywine show — which is organized by Armacost Antique Shows and benefits the museum’s art purchase fund — that makes it so special. He replied, “It has a great committee, great publicity and the customers are nonstop.”
Also repeat exhibitors were the Kembles of Norwich, Ohio — Roland and Marilyn, their son Brent and his wife Valarie. I asked about the pair of early oil-on-wood portraits with mahogany frames, tagged $16,500, that adorned one wall and was told by Marilyn that they were circa 1830, probably from Vermont and attributed to Belknap. I thought they were the most appealing “instant ancestors” I had seen in quite some time.
I would later observe Marilyn out in the public area known as the “tower,” chatting with a customer who was holding a bronze eagle up in the air so the plain white museum wall could serve as a neutral backdrop. It was immediately apparent that an “edge” the museum had over other venues where antique shows are held was the vast expanses of wall and an abundance of true, natural light.
Joyce Windle of Windle’s Antiques in nearby Wilmington, Del., had covered several bases in selecting merchandise to take to the show.
“I find that, here, we need to bring a mix; a little bit of formal, some old ‘paint,’ which the buyers like, and always something striking that can be displayed on the walls of our booth. When people walk in, they always look at what’s on the walls, so I concentrate on that.”
Wearing a “sold” sticker was a late Eighteenth Century child’s settle with original blue paint on the back and undersides. Windle removed the linsey-woolsey seat cushion to reveal the chair’s raison d’être.
“It’s a potty,” she said, “but with the cushion in place, the settle could be placed alongside a fireplace where the child could sit comfortably.”
Also of the belief that unusual objects fare best on walls that are visible to passing traffic were Bill and Judy Campbell of Campbell House Antiques in Baltimore. One of the most “eye-catching” pieces at the show was their Nineteenth Century optician’s trade sign, priced at $6,000 and placed in a position of prominence on the back wall. Measuring 39 inches wide with gilt wooden eyeglass frames, painted irises and glass lenses, the oversized spectacles were something straight out of Land of the Giants.
At this point I would like to interject a personal observation. I was deeply impressed by Bill Campbell’s patience and kindness to two young boys who had asked him how an Eighteenth Century light holder worked. They were not treated as pests, but rather, as the future sustainers of the antiques business that they really are. Remember, that is how the Keno brothers and so many others got their start.
A dream dining room was on view in the gorgeous room setting designed by Roger D. Winter of Solebury, Penn. The focal point of the room was a circa 1792 George III two-pedestal mahogany table with two leaves, $18,500. Surrounding the table were eight George III Hepplewhite chairs, available for $14,500, and in the corner was an early Nineteenth Century tortoise shell cupboard with turnip feet, priced at $9,800. They should have been long-gone, I thought, to some ritzy mansion on Philadelphia’s Main Line, but Winter explained that potential buyers had gone home to measure their dining rooms. That made sense. “Besides,” he went on, “mine is not a business for the short term. Sometimes there is instant gratification at a show, but often the sales come later.”
Carol Trela of Trela Antiques in Baltimore seemed to have had the magic touch at this year’s show. By the time our camera reached her, five major pieces had sold and one wall of her booth was completely barren.
“Good furniture at fair, not ridiculous, prices will always sell at this show,” she said. Then with a smile, she added, “If I sell the Chippendale secretary, I won’t even need to take the elevator when I load out. I’ll be able to use the stairs.”
My last stop was to revisit the booth of Bettina Krainin and Harold Cole of Woodbury, Conn. I had stopped by earlier to see what they had brought and had noted early American furniture, Eighteenth Century pottery, a stunning Nineteenth Century running horse weathervane and a circa 1820-1830 naive paint-on-board still life that had quality written all over it. Much had sold, but I took a card in hopes that their circa 1820 papier-mâché tray painted with an English hunting scene, $5,500, might still be available, should I win the lottery.
It did not matter that, in the course of covering the event, I had not bought anything that day at the Brandywine River Museum Show. I had met a great group of dealers, seen dozens of rdf_Descriptions I had never seen before and felt that my respect and appreciation for American furniture and decorative arts had gone up yet another notch. As I left the building and walked out to the parking lot on that picture-perfect day, I reflected on something I had read recently in the London trades about Colonial American furniture surpassing European furniture, pricewise, in overseas auction houses. Would it be fair to say that is the price they pay for taxing our tea?