Published: April 1, 2008
We thought we had read everything about antiques dealers until Joe Kindig III directed us, tongue in cheek, to Antiques I Have Known, Corinne Griffith’s thoroughly silly account of collecting in the 1950s. The Hollywood starlet became interested in antiques after her third husband, Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, gave her a Confederate flag.
The nation’s capital made a good base for subsequent antiquing trips to Pennsylvania, Maryland and the South. Griffith was bowled over by the dashing David Stockwell and by York, Penn., dealer Joe Kindig Jr, who reminded her of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Kindig Jr is said to have replied, “Who is Charlton Heston?”
More or less accurately, Griffith describes the Kindig shop, with its offhand grandeur and much remarked coating of dust, and its junior proprietor, Joe Kindig III, “a tall, slim, very aristocratic, intelligent looking young man with reddish blond hair.” At 84, Kindig is no longer young nor his hair blond. He is well-spoken and insightful with a wry sense of humor and an understated manner that can be intimidating.
Kindig III loves beautiful things, especially Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania architecture and furniture, and believes that Newport design was not a patch on that of Philadelphia. His tastes and interests are nevertheless broad. His favorite York lunch spot is Weiner World Restaurant, where “the usual” is two Texas dogs piled with chili and an inch of diced, raw onion.
In recognition of his contributions to the field, the Antiques Dealers Association of America (ADA) is honoring Joseph K. Kindig III with the 2008 ADA Award of Merit, to be presented at a dinner in his honor on Saturday, April 12, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Antiques Show at the Navy Yard. Speakers will include his friend and fellow dealer Peter Tillou, and Thomas Hills Cook, director of Wright’s Ferry Mansion in Columbia, Penn., and chairman of The von Hess Foundation. Mechanicsville, Penn., dealer Christopher T. Rebollo is master of ceremonies.
“The Kindigs are a Pennsylvania institution,” says Rebollo, who first met Joe in 1990 when Rebollo worked for the late Philip Bradley Sr in Downingtown, Penn. “Joe came in occasionally and I was awestruck. He was brilliant, amusing and unbelievably humble. I have rarely been more honored than when the Kindigs drove from York in 1998 for the opening of my first shop.”
Of Swiss German descent, the Kindigs settled in York County around 1710. They became prosperous farmers †the old homestead included 400 acres of well-improved land when Eli Kindig died in 1877 †and built a regional enterprise selling horses and mules. The automobile could have put them out of business, but Joe Kindig Jr (1898‱971), a trader by instinct and pedigree, filled the family’s stables with four-drawer chests and blanket boxes instead.
A maternal aunt encouraged Kindig Jr’s interest in antiques by taking him to house sales. By the mid-1910s, the adolescent was selling rare old guns, pistols, swords and powder horns by mail. His 304 West Market Street shop in York debuted in The Magazine Antiques’ “Collectors’ Guide” in November 1925. Kindig, with two other York dealers, took his first display advertisement in the publication in May 1926, urging readers to visit “Historic Old York” while attending the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition. By 1927, Kindig proclaimed “one of the largest stocks of genuine antiques of the better kind in the state of Pennsylvania.”
When Kindig Jr moved to larger quarters at 325 West Market Street, where the shop still stands, in 1934, Homer Eaton Keyes, Antiques’ editor, wrote that his prosperity was surely “a happy omen” for the floundering industry. As it was, the dealer’s advertising helped keep Antiques afloat in desperate times.
Kindig Jr went into the Depression with liquid funds and low overhead. One of the first Northern dealers to scour Dixie for merchandise, he was an acknowledged expert in Southern antiques. Baltimore, only an hour from York and a center for high-style Federal furniture, was a fertile hunting ground, as were Virginia and the Carolinas. Kindig shipped home quantities of furniture, which he sold to the old families of Philadelphia and Wilmington, as well as to the New York trade.
While competitors shed stock in the early 1930s, Old Joe, as he was much later known, accumulated inventory. He marked a piece for what he thought it was worth, then waited, sometimes years, for it to sell. Even his best customers thought his prices were high.
“This room is redolent of two of the greatest folk art dealers I have ever known †Hattie Brunner and Joe Kindig,” the late dealer John Gordon told Whitney Balliett, a writer for The New Yorker, as he showed Balliett around his Manhattan apartment.
Kindig Jr, as Gordon described him in 1973, was lean and tall, with hair to his waist and a yellowish-white beard, a vegetarian who never wore socks or a tie and drove a yellow Cadillac. The dealer’s asceticism dated from a religious conversion that began after John Logan, a client and scion of a prominent Philadelphia family, introduced Kindig Jr to Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895‱986), says Joe Kindig III. A Quaker in later life, Old Joe devoted himself to daily Bible study.
In the 1930s, when Henry Francis du Pont, the foremost collector of American decorative arts of his time, was his best client, Kindig Jr was clean-shaven with a strong interest in personal refinement; a Pennsylvania farm boy, as his son puts it, bent on improving himself and his family.
As Kindig III recalled in a 2001 address to the Colonial Williamsburg Antiques Forum, “He had a tailor and shoemaker in London and got his hats from Italy. He was an extremely accomplished horseman, who rode two hours a day for much of his life. He bought a 45-foot yawl one afternoon, and the very next day went right out on Chesapeake Bay. In 1931, he bought his first airplane.”
A search of Winterthur’s archives by Wendy Cooper, who visited the Kindig shop as a Winterthur graduate student and today is the museum’s curator of furniture, confirms that Kindig Jr corresponded with du Pont and his staff between 1926 and 1957. Du Pont bought heavily from Kindig Jr, as well as many other dealers.
The oldest of three children, Joe Kindig III was born in York in 1923. He grew up in one of the earliest surviving Federal residences there, a two-and-a-half-story brick townhouse that his father restored in the 1920s. The Magazine Antiques chose one of the dwelling’s most distinctive interior features, a carved and painted mantel salvaged from a home in Littleton, N.C., to illustrate the cover of its December 1931 issue.
Joe Kindig III attended York Collegiate Institute before entering Amherst College in 1941. He had barely arrived on campus when he was called into the military. After a disjointed three and a half years of service, he returned to Massachusetts to finish his degree, graduating in 1947.
For as long as he can remember, Kindig III has been fascinated by historic architecture, an interest reflected in Architecture in York County, a guide he wrote for the Historical Society of York County, first printed in 1963 and reprinted in 1979, and in a series of houses that he designed or restored for friends locally, on Maryland’s eastern shore and in the Caribbean. His brother, Stephen J. Kindig, likewise interested in architecture, is an authority on early mills.
Kindig III collected antique architectural woodwork for several years before installing it in the 1787 stone farmhouse †dubbed Kreutzford †and adjacent outbuildings that he bought in the mid-1950s and shares with his wife, Sylvia Mackley Kindig, a dedicated gardener who added a formal yew garden, fish pond, fountain, brick walks, terraces, vegetable patch and, most recently, a daffodil-filled pasture and rock garden to the country property that sits astride a stream.
As a young man, Kindig III seriously considered training as an architectural historian and even interviewed at Yale, whose program at midcentury leaned heavily toward Bauhaus-influenced Modernism.
“Go into business with your father. You’ll find no better place to learn,” Dr Charles Stewart, Yale’s dean of arts, instead encouraged him. The treasure-filled Kindig library housed rare Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century architectural drawings, as well as a complete run of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a cultural digest published in London between 1731 and 1907 that the dealer still enjoys poring over.
After Amherst, Kindig III took courses in art and aesthetics at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Penn., the progressive institution founded by the brilliant, irascible Dr Albert Barnes, Kindig Jr’s friend and client. The Magazine Antiques’ December 1948 issue carried Kindig Jr’s inside front-cover announcement that his 25-year-old son had joined the firm. Kindig Jr wrote, “I believe that my son has an eye for line and proportion as discriminating as my own; that he is as keen a student of antiques as I have prided myself in being.”
Joe Kindig Jr’s house, where the dealers still see customers by appointment, looks much as it always did. Prized Philadelphia tea tables are scattered about by the half dozen and most of Kindig Jr’s storied collection of long rifles is intact and secured away in the gun room. The author of Thoughts on The Kentucky Rifle in Its Golden Age, 1960, loved them more than anything, says his son.
“Dad appreciated Kentucky rifles purely as an art form,” says Joe Kindig III, whose follow-up work, Artistic Ingredients of The Longrifle, came out in 1989.
Father and son worked together for two decades, Old Joe manning the top floor, Young Joe on the ground floor.
“If a prospect seemed genuine, dad had me send him up. He didn’t care if you didn’t buy, but you had to be serious about learning,” recalls Kindig III.
Kenneth Mundis, Kindig Jr’s longtime assistant, supervised the young dealer’s on-the-job training. Old Joe, meanwhile, devised rigorous assignments meant to develop his son’s knowledge, taste and confidence, frequently tested by the firm’s demanding clients.
Connecticut collector C.K. Davis, president of Remington Arms, once tortured Kindig III by doggedly asking his opinion of a uniquely ugly ladder back armchair in Davis’s collection. “Best one of those I’ve ever seen,” the young dealer tactfully answered. Davis replied that he kept the chair, one of his first purchases, to remind himself of his mistakes.
“I’ve put something very special in your room. Find it,” H.F. du Pont challenged Kindig III the first time the dealer stayed the night at Winterthur. “I looked everywhere without success before collapsing in a curly maple pot armchair. It occurred to me to lift the lid, where I found a signed pewter chamber pot by Francis Bassett,” the dealer says.
“What did you think?” du Pont pointedly asked Kindig III at dinner.
“Absolutely marvelous, Mr du Pont,” replied Young Joe, passing with flying colors.
When his daughter Jenifer joined Kindig Antiques in 1994, her father designed a year-and-a-half-long course of private study. They documented their endeavor with books and tapes that they prepared together, a legacy one hopes the family will ultimately share with the world.
Father and daughter remain close, working and often traveling side by side. Jenifer †whose siblings, Jonathan and Elizabeth, are less interested in the business †brings to the enterprise a keen style sense honed at Calvin Klein in Manhattan, where she worked in the early 1990s. Textiles are her special love. An imaginative blending of antiques and contemporary art and design distinguishes the loft residence that she shares with her husband, investor E. Bradley Clark, in Lancaster’s quaint historic district.
The Kindigs have contributed to nearly every major public collection of American decorative arts in the country, from the Baltimore Museum of Art and Colonial Williamsburg to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We’ve bought a few killer pieces from them,” confirms Jonathan Prown, director of Chipstone Foundation. One, first collected by Joe Kindig Jr in the 1930s, is a circa 1755 Philadelphia high chest of drawers with carving attributed to the Garvan carver. Another is a circa 1745 Philadelphia desk and bookcase, ex-collection of Mr and Mrs Lammot du Pont Copeland, with carving attributed to Samuel Harding.
Although Stanley and Polly Stone, the Fox Point, Wis., collectors who founded Chipstone, were never big clients, Joe Kindig III has enjoyed close relationships with such prominent Milwaukee collectors as Dudley J. Godrey Jr, who died in December, and his wife, Constance, and Frederick and Anne Vogel III, connoisseurs of pre-1730 American furniture.
“The educational component was imperative in our relationship and to some extent it is how Joe decides who his clients will be. He looks for intellectual commitment as well as the desire to collect. This was invaluable and in time served to expose us to considerable amounts of the very best material,” says Fred Vogel, who shared a lively and voluminous correspondence with Kindig over the years.
In the early 1950s, Joe Kindig III became active in the Historical Society of York County, founded in 1895 and renamed York County Heritage Trust in 1999. Over two decades, he served on the society’s board or chaired pivotal committees of the dynamic institution.
It was partially through his work there that Kindig III cemented his friendships with Dr Donald A. Shelley, the late museum director whose collection of Pennsylvania furniture, much of it acquired from the Kindigs, Pook & Pook auctioned in April 2007 for a record $9.8 million; G. Edwin Brumbaugh, a restoration architect and author of Colonial Architecture of the Pennsylvania Germans; and Dr Philip Zimmerman, the Lancaster-based independent scholar and consultant. Another good friend, now deceased, was Richard H. Randall Jr, a career museum professional who ultimately directed the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Randall was 14 when he first visited the Kindig shop with his mother.
“With very little help, Joe produced really wonderful, professional exhibits modeled after those done by Malcolm Watkins at the Smithsonian,” says Jane Nylander. The president emerita of Historic New England joined the Historical Society of York County as its curator soon after earning her master’s degree at Winterthur in 1961.
Kindig’s talent as a designer and his clout with high-profile lenders were crucial to shows such as “Vignettes of York County’s Changing Taste,” “Four Hundred Years of Domestic Lighting,” “Folk Art in York County,” “Hearth and Stove,” “The Pennsylvania Rifle,” “The Pennsylvania German Influence” and “The Philadelphia Chair: 1685‱785.” The displays were notable for their breadth, refinement and innovation.
In 1966, the historical society acquired the 1741 Golden Plough Tavern, York’s oldest structure and one of the few remaining Germanic half-timber dwellings in the United States. Kindig recalls, “It was sitting there by the creek, a big, monstrous looking thing covered with clapboard. As the sun hit it, I happened to pick out an arrangement of nail heads and decided to investigate. Inside, on the third floor, we discovered wattle and daub construction.”
Working with Edwin Brumbaugh, Kindig and his historical society colleagues restored the Golden Plough Tavern, today listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the adjacent General Horatio Gates House of circa 1751. Kindig’s work helped earn him a Pennsylvania Distinguished Citizen Award from the state’s governor in 1981.
Joe Kindig III’s longest running project is his work with Wright’s Ferry Mansion, a 1738 stone house in Columbia, Penn., that the dealer has known his whole life. Louise and Richard von Hess acquired the house in 1973 and began renovating it under the supervision of Brumbaugh. They asked Joe Kindig to guide the direction of the furnishings and also to be a trustee of The von Hess Foundation. Wright’s Ferry Mansion opened to the public in 1978.
“Wright’s Ferry Mansion was built for Susanna Wright, an English Quaker who settled on the banks of the Susquehanna when it was still wilderness. She maintained close ties to Philadelphia. She was brilliant, a noted poet who knew Benjamin Franklin and James Logan and patronized Philadelphia joiners and cabinetmakers,” says curator Elizabeth Meg Schaefer.
“It’s the best representation of a Queen Anne house in Pennsylvania,” says Kindig, who assisted Richard von Hess in assembling Philadelphia furniture, English ceramics, textiles, metals and glass dating prior to 1750.
In the interest of historical accuracy, Kindig included furniture by only a few makers. “Most house museums are happy with regional generalities and most are overly furnished. I wanted to avoid both,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Schaefer and Kindig began researching and preparing text for a history of the house and a detailed analysis of the collection. In 2006, Wright’s Ferry Mansion, a sumptuous, two-volume catalog to the house and its collections was published by Schaefer and Kindig with contributions from Philip Zimmerman, Donna Ghelerter and Michele Majer. The books’ exquisite photography is by Paul Rocheleau, Carl K. Shuman and Frank Errigo.
“Joe Kindig and I have a true friendship,” says Peter Tillou, who is saving his best stories about his friend for the ADA dinner. “Months passed between our visits. When I saw Joe, we often discussed the antiques market, scholarship, the lack of scholarship and why people should care about history and design and quality. One of the nicest things about Joe is that if he respects you and sees your passion, he is generous with his knowledge. One of my great joys over the years has been his willingness to spend time.”
“The ADA Award of Merit matters to me because it is a rare moment in the business when we take time to honor individuals for their singular accomplishments,” says ADA President John Keith Russell.
Joe Kindig III’s singular accomplishment, judging by the dozens of collectors, curators and dealers who prize his company, is not only to see †a talent every great antiques dealer possesses †but to hear and to speak just as acutely.
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