Published: March 15, 2016
My first memories of Nan Gurley were seeing her as a dealer exhibiting at antiques shows in New England, always with a black beret perched on top of her head. While I didn’t become a personal friend early on, that door opened sometime later when she added her talents to managing shows.
When I made plans to cover all of the rapidly expanding show events that evolved into Antiques Week in New Hampshire, I was advised to kick it off with Americana Celebration at the fairgrounds in Deerfield. When I asked why, I was told, “Nan Gurley manages that show and although she is a tough one, she is always fair.”
A telephone call to Nan to let her know I would be covering her show was bounced back and forth between the answering machine at her shop and one at home. Seldom did I ever reach her, most times not at all. I finally just arrived at Deerfield on Monday, the day before the show opened, my usual procedure to photograph booths without shoppers getting in the way. I queried a dealer on the whereabouts of Nan and was given a few choices. “She could be in her booth or outside checking up on those dealers, but most likely talking about antiques with one of her most favorite dealers.”
None of those were correct, but pretty soon she came zooming up on her motorized chair demanding to know why I was on the fairgrounds.
An introduction melted the ice and started a great friendship that has lasted for years. She was everything that I had heard about her — blunt and to the point, serious, but loaded with smiles, fully devoted to her show manager duties, and above all taking care of the needs of her exhibitors.
One year I watched a confrontation she had with a person who was walking about the show before it was opened. “Why are you on the field, we open tomorrow,” she said. The visitor replied, “I am reporting for a publication” to which Nan questioned, “Aren’t you a dealer taking part in one of the shows in Manchester and aren’t you buying from my dealers?” The two “yeses” were followed by a most serious Nan Gurley demanding, “You return everything you have bought, get your money back and then get out of here!”
I was out of the country the weekend before she died and was not able to attend a gathering at her home, which her family had given to celebrate her life.
However, I did call her and spoke with a Nan Gurley who talked about her wonderful past, and the future to come. She mentioned, “I am surprised to see so many people here and it is a real nice time.” I immediately thought that if all of Nan’s friends had been aware of the gathering and had attended, the house would have burst its seams.
I also spoke with her about four months ago when she called with her list of antiques shows for our annual calendar. At the end of our conversation she said, “I love my family and friends, I love antiques and the whole business and I am not ready to die.” Unfortunately, there comes a time when we no longer have a say in all things, and Nan passed on Tuesday, March 7.
She, with her endearing qualities, will be greatly missed and leaves behind a reputation built on her loving family, friendships and her devotion to the world of antiques.
Remembering Nan Gurley
By W.A. Demers
SCARBOROUGH, MAINE — Nan Gurley, a well-respected antiques dealer, show promoter and a force in the trade for many decades, died peacefully at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House after a courageous battle with cancer on March 7, surrounded by her family. Nan was born on August 31, 1943, in Gloucester, Mass., to Geraldine MacGinnis Pendleton and “Dapper” George Pendleton.
She graduated from Gloucester High School and attended Marlborough College in Massachusetts. After a modeling career in New York City with Harper’s Bazaar, she fell in love with the antiques business in the mid-1960s. Her first store was in West Concord, then West Acton, Mass. She then came to Appleton, Maine, to do, as she said, her “nuts and berries thing.” After many years in Appleton dealing antiques, she found her longtime home in North Parsonsfield, Maine. Working in Maine, she became a renowned dealer with her then-husband, David Gurley.
In the early 1980s, Nan started running shows to spend more time with her family, her first one in Cumberland, Maine. This was followed by similar shows in the Massachusetts towns of Boxborough, Concord, Sudbury, Marlborough, Westford, Essex, Lexington, Newburyport and Hopkinton; New Hampshire towns of Deerfield, Enfield, Portsmouth, Manchester and Concord; and Cornish and Portland in Maine.
The weekend before she passed, Nan had been able to join a celebration of her life at a gathering at her home in Cornish. About 60 longtime friends and antiques industry colleagues came to extend their well wishes.
Robert Foley, a dealer from Gray, Maine, who specializes in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American furniture, art, accessories and nautical antiques, was one of Nan’s visitors that day — and almost every day when she was in hospice. A longtime acquaintance since the mid-1970s, Foley said he asked Nan at the celebration gathering, “Do you the remember the first time we met?” Her eyes lit up, he recalls, and she said, “I sure do!” As Foley relates the story, then a student of the Maine Maritime Academy with a growing interest in collecting antique furniture, he was attending a benefit auction in Falmouth Foreside and had waited all day for a particular item to cross the block. It was a Goddard-Townsend Chippendale-style chair, and it started at $5. “It went $10-$15-$20 on up, and I finally won it at $650, which I could hardly afford. I saw an attractive woman in the hall who was the underbidder on the chair and went up to her and said, ‘My name is Bob Foley.’ The woman’s quick response was, ‘Who the f–k is Bob Foley? I’m Nan Gurley!’”
“Very few people in their chosen professions become legends. And fewer still become legends in their own time,” said Foley. “Nan was a living legend, a pioneer in many ways and a fierce competitor when the antiques trade was known as a man’s arena. She did more than just hold her own.”
Nan is a central figure in Thatcher Freund’s entertaining dissection of how a blue-green corner cupboard makes its way through the antiques “food chain” in a May 1989 article in New England Monthly. With a photograph of a confident young Nan with cigarette in hand, the article describes her as someone “who had entered the antiques trade by working for some particularly ruthless pickers as a ‘cutie,’” in Nan’s own words. “Her job was to knock on farmhouse doors, sweet-talk the old women who answered and get her bosses inside,” wrote Freund.
Tommy Thompson of Pembroke, N.H., antiques dealer and president of the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association, was one of the dealers privileged to know Nan as she made her professional journey ascending the rungs of the antiques world. “I’ve known Nan for at least 40 years,” said Thompson. “We started becoming close when I did her first Americana Celebration show, a July 4th show in the 1980s in Cumberland, Maine. She then started doing similar one-day shows in places like Boxborough and Westford. She absolutely developed a great following among dealers. She knew how to keep them happy. It was like you just wanted to do her shows.”
Thompson, who has a birthday around the same time in August as Nan’s, said that he, Butch Berdan and Tom Jewett and Nan’s family always had a good time at birthday outings for seafood at a local Cornish restaurant. “We’d just be sitting there, talking, enjoying each other’s company, Nan always with a cigarette in her hand.”
Thompson added that he and another of Nan’s dealer friends, Mike Winslow, went to visit her at the hospice house a couple of days before the celebration at her home. “She had this carved bone statue, and said to us, ‘Look at this.’ She ended up selling it to Mike from her bed for $165.” Summing up, Thompson said, “You always knew where you stood with Nan. I was happy to have known her. It made my life better.”
“We are saddened over the loss of our dear friend, Nan Gurley — a legend in the world of the New England antiques,” said Tom Jewett and Butch Berdan. “Nan put up a courageous battle against cancer and faced it head-on with unwavering optimism and determination up until the very end.” Tom said, “My first encounter with Nan goes back to my late twenties when I decided I wanted to sign up for her long-running Marlborough Thanksgiving Weekend Show. Quite nervously, I called her and introduced myself. Needless to say, she had no idea who I was, but after being grilled about what I bought and sold she gave me a space with the parting comment, ‘Just don’t bring any crap or new stuff.’
“I went to the show with some things I have been saving… everyone couldn’t have been friendlier and all of a sudden I heard in this booming voice — ‘Holy s–t! I can’t believe you have all this great stuff!’ That was how I first met Nan, which began a lifelong friendship.
“After Butch and I got together, we would often enjoy spending time talking about the ‘old days,’ reminiscing about Maine antiques dealers like Roberta Hanson, Gaylen Davis and too many others to mention.” Butch said his very first memory of Nan was at the Highway Hotel in the early 1970s for the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association show. “She was in bib overalls and braids, smiling and holding court — no small feat with Russell Carrell nearby,” said Butch.
Tom and Butch agree that Nan was a wonderful supporter of the antiques business with an enthusiasm that never dimmed. More important, they said, Nan loved her children, grandchildren, husband, and her lifelong friends in the antiques business. “Butch and I are tremendously grateful to have had her in our lives. We will miss her blunt sense of humor and honesty,” said Tom. “I like to imagine Nan is dealing with all the antiques dealers who have passed at some cosmic antiques show buying a great Rufus Porter miniature or yarn-sewn rug. Until we meet again we will miss you, Nan, and remember all those good times. Our Love, Tom Jewett and Butch Berdan.”
“The antiques community has lost a good friend and so have I,” said Mary DeBuhr, an early American country antiques dealer from Downers Grove, Ill. “During the past dozen years or so I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Nan Gurley. She was dedicated, brave, hardworking, generous, stubborn, optimistic, sweet, caring and never complained about anything. When I first met Nan, I’ll admit I was intimidated by her colorful language and tough-as-nails persona. She wanted her exhibitors to present pure, authentic Americana and her contract always stated ‘bring your best and leave the rest at home.’ Her honest, ethical standards were high and earned her the respect of her peers.
“For 22 successful years, her Americana Celebration was conducted at the Deerfield Fairgrounds. In midafternoon in 2015, a thunderstorm ripped through Deerfield. An hour earlier, the outside dealers were given notice to take cover to protect themselves and their antiques. There had been rain and wind during setup in past years but never on show day. For Nan, the 2015 storm was the last straw. She always wanted to have the show under one roof, in a climate-controlled venue, for the comfort of her dealers and customers. She also always wanted to host a show with walls and paper but the space was never right until this year,” DeBuhr continued.
“During this past winter Nan worked very hard arranging for this to happen at the Everett Arena in Concord. Nan strived to present the ‘buyable show’ and very much wanted this to continue in a venue that is easy to get to and safe from the elements. The New Americana Celebration has been planned for August 9, 2016. As a tribute to Nan, everyone involved with the 2016 show is committed to making this the best ever.
“Nan loved her family and doing antiques shows! She loved the hunt, going to auctions, buying and selling. She also loved her beautiful home in Maine. The antiques community has lost a dear friend and she will be missed.”
Nan is survived by her husband Peter Mavris, her children Kimberley Kelley, Joshua Gurley, Rachel Gurley Libby and her grandchildren Zira Lyons, Lazlo Lyons, Lila Lyons, Tessa Lyons, Eden Lyons, Kyle Marks and Scarlett Libby.
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