Published: February 26, 2008
Call it “Country’s second coming.”
A revitalized Heart of Country Antiques Show debuted Valentine’s Day weekend at Gaylord Opryland Hotel. It was as if American country furniture and folk art had been discovered all over again.
Enormous credit for the makeover goes to Susan and Steve Hunkins of St Louis, Mo.,-based Kramer Hunkins & Associates; show director Pat Garthoeffner, the Kramer family friend and Lititz, Penn., dealer who rallied exhibitors to the cause; and to the 128 Heart of Country dealers. Their high-voltage display upstaged even country singer Faith Hill, spotted on hotel premises during setup.
Always a bright spot on the winter calendar, the Heart of Country Antiques Show began in 1981 as a patriotic homage to all things American. It quickly became †and remains †one of the few truly national antiques events in the country, regularly drawing buyers from California and Texas as well as Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and New England.
A changing market, increased competition, and founder Libby Kramer’s death in 2005 stole some of Heart’s spirit. In 2007, Susan Kramer Hunkins, who as a child participated in Heart’s banner years, turned to Pat Garthoeffner for help.
Pat Garthoeffner and her husband, Rich, are folk art dealers with a gold-plated reputation, deep ties to the trade and many years experience exhibiting at Heart, Jim Burk’s York Antiques Shows, and New York’s American Antiques Show in January.
Garthoeffner persuaded her colleagues to give Nashville another try. The show’s roster was about 75 percent different than a year ago.
“We needed better quality to bring back buyers, including the younger crowd, which knows what it is looking at. Antiques don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be real and good,” said the show director.
She also refined the fair’s design and floor plan. “I wanted it to have a cleaner line, to have more breathing space between exhibits. I added garden areas for seating.” Many exhibitors took large booths and created spacious and imaginative displays.
Heart of Country is famous for its preview party, featuring barbecue- and salad-laden buffet tables, a pie and ice cream station, and live music, this year supplied by Missouri dealer Mike Michelson.
Preview night attendance on Thursday, February 14, was the biggest ever. “The line stretched all the way to the upstairs lobby. There were so many people that hotel management called to ask what was going on. I saw new faces, and faces I haven’t seen in 20 years,” said Garthoeffner.
“I’m consulting these days and having a great time,” said Louisville, Ky., quilt authority Shelly Zegart, lured back to Heart to give a Friday afternoon talk on patriotic and political quilts. The following day, New Hampshire dealer Bev Longacre wowed guests with her presentation on Christmas ornaments, with ornaments dealer Anderson-Breish Antiques of Pennsylvania reaping the benefit in sales. Both talks, as well as exhibitor-led walking tours, were heavily attended.
“There is real hunger out there for more intimate opportunities to learn from experts,” said Susan Hunkins.
This year’s loan show, offering a fascinating glimpse into dealers’ private collections, was especially strong on textiles. Highlights included Betty Berdan’s bald-headed rag doll, Linda Fodor’s painterly horse hooked rug, and an appliqued wool table rug, courtesy of Raccoon Creek, that Joel and Kate Kopp years ago illustrated in American Hooked and Sewn Rugs .
The bumper crop in textiles continued on the floor. There were more outstanding hooked rugs for sale at Heart than have been seen in a long time.
“Now that the show is focused again, it can become a magnet for collectors nationwide,” said returning exhibitor Russ Goldberger. The Goldbergers, and their colleagues across the aisle, Tom and Bev Longacre, know what sells at Heart. Their punchy, graphic booths arrayed primitive painted furniture, trade signs, game boards, weathervanes, hooked rugs and decoys.
“Affluent Southern buyers are proud of their heritage. They are an important audience for us,” confirmed Susan Hunkins. Heart of Country is a leading destination for Southern antiques, which this year ranged from Virginia stoneware and a Federal string inlaid chest and bookcase at Burt Long Antiques, to a circa 1800 Tennessee sugar chest at Old South Antiques. A desk sold from Old South’s booth minutes after the show closed on Saturday, going home with a couple from Clarksville, Tenn.
The Tennessee State Museum bought well on the floor. James Hoobler, the museum’s senior curator for art and architecture, confirmed the museum’s purchase of a deed of sale for an African American slave from a Cree Indian to a Cherokee Indian; an 1847 newspaper from the Columbia Female Institute with an obituary for Sarah Otey, daughter of the first Episcopalian bishop in Tennessee, both from Neverbird Antiques; a McKinney and Hall print of Sequoia, the Cherokee leader who invented the Cherokee syllabary; a full-length silhouette of Andrew Jackson with details of the Hermitage in the background, from Dover Antiques; and, from Ables Antiques, an oilcloth rack and table from a Gadsden, Tenn., store. The Tennessee dealers donated several rolls of early Nineteenth Century wallpaper from the same store. From Tennessee dealer Carole Wahler the museum bought a Tennessee pot by Cravens and a Tennessee basket.
Wahler’s other big sale was an unfinished Kentucky Civil War-era house sampler of 1861. Inscribed “Tomb of Washington” and “CBM,” the textile is going back to Kentucky.
Given the time and expense that many exhibitors incur in traveling to Nashville, the pressure is on to sell. By Friday morning, several hours after the show’s general opening, some dealers were nervous, others were cautiously optimistic.
Early sales around the floor included a King of Clubs painting on panel and a red, white and blue man whirligig at Doug Wyant; a drop leaf harvest table at American Spirit; a dining table at Dan and Karen Olson Antiques; and a stack of miniature pianos in graduated sizes at Arrow Rock Antiques.
Mike and Sally Whittemore sold a large prancing horse weathervane, a lift-top four-drawer blanket chest in red paint, and an A.E. Morrill Millinery and Fancy Goods sign; Joseph Martin, a one-drawer stand; Jeff Bridgman, a 13-star handsewn Centennial flag; Mario Pollo, a miniature bow front chest; Brian Cullity, a set of six painted side chairs; Debra Elizabeth Schaffer, a painted blanket box; Village Braider, a dry sink and an assortment of other objects; and Bruce Rigsby, a felt appliqué picture framed under glass and a pair of carved wooden canes.
The Norwoods’ Spirit of America wrote up a blue dome-top box, paint decorated furniture, hooked rugs, bowls and three Hannah Davis hat boxes.
Pennsylvania dealer Chuck White sold an Artistic Carving Company of Boston eagle wall plaque, circa 1890.
“We sold our blue step back cupboard, our best game board and a hooked rug,” said Massachusetts dealer Victor Weinblatt, back in the show after a 23-year absence.
“We had a very good preview night,” said Betty Berdan. Newsom-Berdan’s sales included a striking primitive Maine oil painting on sailcloth of the seven-masted Maine schooner Thomas B. Lawson and a one-drawer stand from Keene, N.H., that featured a handwritten ink label inscribed “Joseph Brown,” pineapple carvings on its legs and tiger maple secondary wood.
“The stand is going to Ohio,” Berdan said.
Garthoeffner Gallery sold to clients from Idaho, Ohio, California, New York, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.
It is not easy to turn around a big show, and maybe impossible to do it in one year. But Kramer Hunkins & Associates, Pat Garthoeffner and Heart of Country’s can-do cast of exhibitors gave it their all. Now buyers have to do their part.
“I was moved to tears watching the crowd come in on opening night. We were so thankful that everything came together,” said Garthoeffner.
“People are excited about the show again. The dealers had a big hand in making it spectacular,” said Susan Hunkins.
For information, 314-962-8580 or www.heartofcountry.com .
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