Published: March 11, 2003
By Karla Klein Albertson
NASHVILLE, TENN. — When Dick and Libby Kramer began presenting in Tennessee 22 years ago, they dreamed of establishing a truly national show with an ideal roster of at least one dealer from every state. Although they are still short of all 50 stars on the flag, they have come closer to realizing a perfect crossroads show than any other event in the country. This year’s spring show February 13–16 brought together more than 200 exhibitors from Florida to Montana and from Maine to Arizona.
Industry wisdom says success only comes to shows anchored in the big cities along the coast, but to draw from every corner, the event venue must be more centrally located. How do you get customers and dealers to leave the familiar and gather in Nashville? The same way Las Vegas lured tourists into the desert — you give people exactly what they want in a destination. Heart of Country provides collectors with a broad selection of choice Americana, but it offers the exhibitors even more: an antiques market emporium where they can exchange merchandise, news and ideas.
The Eastern contingent from Maine to Maryland includes some of the best names in the business. Fleeing competition and high prices at Northeast events, they definitely come to seek merchandise for upcoming shows as well as to sell to a fresh group of buyers. At Heart they meet great dealers from the West such as stylish Rose Adams Holbrook from Santa Fe or Texans Kim and Mary Kokles; a muscular Midwestern and Great Lakes contingent that includes classics such as Joanne Boardman from DeKalb, Ill., and the Michelsons from Springfield, Mo., and, of course Southern dealers from North Carolina to Louisiana who rarely venture out of their own region.
Ed Hild and Patrick Bell of Olde Hope, New Hope, Penn., are getting ready for their an East Coast selling season, which will include the prestigious Philadelphia Antiques Show in April. They began coming back to the February Heart a few years ago — after not doing the show for awhile — because they can bring their carefully chosen country pieces to an entirely different group of customers. After “a very good show,” Hild reeled off an impressive list of sold pieces, which included a life-sized carved wooden Indian, a Pennsylvania painted dower chest, a Ruth & Naomi theorem, and a large walnut dough table.
Smart and savvy Pat Garthoeffner from Lititz, Penn., talked about her sales: “We haven’t been doing a lot of shows. We did York in November — that was the last one — so we’ve cut back. I thought hooked rugs were kind of dead but here we sold four immediately. If this last one sells, I’m out of rugs! We see people from all over the United States in our booth at this show. Sometimes we feel like people down here are a little behind the trends we see in the East, so what might be waning there could still be hot in Nashville. Or maybe these sales indicate what is coming back. I sold two unpainted baskets, wonderful little baskets that I’ve had for a while. It’s always a little different market.”
On her trip out, Garthoeffner had picked up a wonderful group of silhouettes from a St Louis collector now in her 90s; one choice example depicted the English actress Sarah Siddons reverse-painted on glass. Pat added, “We always make our booth rent, at least, by buying on the floor.”
Originally from Athens, Ala., Terry Daniel and wife Brenda now live in Newville, Penn., but Terry still has that soft Southern accent. He explains, “People come here from all over the country — California, Midwest, Texas — and they come here looking to buy — not just to visit and have a good time. They’re really interested in finding antiques. We do two shows in York — Jim Burk’s May and November show — and we do Wilton Outdoors. I guess back East they sell a little bit more sophisticated country furniture, but it’s basically the same. This show has something for everyone — cottage furniture, country furniture, fine furniture, rustic furniture — anything you’re looking for.”
Doug Solliday can compare markets from a different angle. Home-based in Columbia, Mo., he always sets up at Heart and will travel East in April to exhibit at the Philadelphia Antiques Show. “I think they’re completely different markets,” he says. “Here in Nashville, people come from all over the country to buy nice things for their homes, to fill up their collections and to have fun. In Philadelphia, the collectors are more serious, and they’re buying a serious level of antiques, folk art and paintings. So we need to tailor what we bring to the experience we’ve had at the two shows.”
Bob Snyder and Julie Wilson, down from Wiscasset, Maine, had stocked their display with basic country classics like good yellowware, graphic rugs and game boards, and a dynamite collection of heart and hand love tokens taken from a young woman’s scrapbook. Bob has been doing Heart for about 17 years and admits, “I really enjoy it. You see a lot of people you don’t see elsewhere, which is great. I love coming down here — and it’s a great time to get away from the North. This is still a real hard-core country market as a rule. In the Northeast, it’s getting more eclectic and folk art oriented. This show gives you an opportunity to sell different things. We were at the Piers a couple of weeks ago and we sold more graphic stuff and folk art. For yellowware and painted furniture — traditional country market things — this is more of a market for it.”
While dealers like Snyder and Daniel emphasized basic country, other exhibitors took a more formal approach, nowhere more evident than in the elegant gallery booth by Heller-Washam of Maine, which stood welcoming visitors at the show’s front door. Within the spacious room setting, the central focus was a carved wooden mantel from New York State, probably Columbia County, flanked by a high chest of drawers and a tall-case clock. All the Wind-sor chairs around the dining table quickly sold. On top was the must-have accessory of all time: a pair of rich teal green hand-blown hurricane shades with great baluster form, English, circa 1825, $7,000.
First-time exhibitor Peter Patout, who runs a well-known shop on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, set out wine and glasses on his formal table. He had sold his frosted hurricane shades, which were going to New York, and was offering a rare set of three Argand Lamps by Messenger & Son of Birmingham, England, circa 1830, in original unelectrified condition. “I’ve been to the show before, and I thought it had a bunch of wonderful dealers.”
While the show is strong in both good country paint and gleaming mahogany, there is never a dearth of funk and folk art, beginning with Praiseworthy Antiques, Guildford, N.Y., right by the entrance. Doug Taylor offered a version of Popeye’s “I am what I am”: “This year we had a pretty good preview night. I sold four Mexican colonial-style leather chairs — those are out of the booth already — and some good small things. We just bring what we want to bring and I don’t try to really target things. We have these print blocks, which are pretty pricey. We sold some of those in Chicago and in New York. I don’t know if those will sell here but I expect to do okay.”
Taylor was referring to a series of large printing blocks for carnival posters from Pittsburgh, circa 1939, $9,000 a block. He adds, “Those were four-color posters so there would be four blocks for each poster. These particular blocks have most of the line work. I think they’re great graphic pieces.”
Not far away, eclectic, experimental Bill Powell of Franklin, Tenn., had another carnival relic, a wooden face carving from an overhead arch. Powell — actually a builder and contractor in the real world — regularly presents some of the most interesting signage and advertising at Heart, including many pieces that later pop up back East.
Signs were hot for Kim and Mary Kokles of Garland, Tex. Kim admitted, “It’s hard to get good stuff; it’s a very competitive market at the top end. You have to compete with your customers at the auctions. I try to buy here as well. Wood signs seem to be selling really well. I sold them to dealers on the floor before we even opened. I brought seven and I only have one left. One of them flipped two or three times on the floor.” Among the great advertising offered by the couple was a pair of circa 1885 apothecary display jars from a St Louis collection, $10,500.
More on the circus theme, Connecticut’s Nikki and Tom Dupree had several racks of French knockdown dolls priced at $1,250 and $1,550 a set as well as a great folk art clock and a pocket watch trade sign. Master-mixer Harvey Pranian from Evanston, Ill., had a charming carved nude with erotic allure, $1,100. Customers were checking out his Southern pie safe with high legs and pierced tins in original blue-green paint, $9,500. Once a common sight at Heart, pie safes are less in evidence the past few years. Perhaps all are secure in private collections at this point.
Nobody does a signature eclectic look better than Rick Ege of St Louis, who has one of the best eyes in the show. He was a happy boy: “The setup was great, really strong — because things are so hard to find — and then opening night was such a huge crowd, much more than we expected, so that turned out to be really exciting. And Friday was way better than Friday has been in years. A huge turnout and enthusiastic people. I think they’re ready for a change from the news. They’ve said ‘I want to have a good time and feel good about themselves. We’ve lost all that money in the stock market — we might as well buy something.'”
Among Ege’s great inventory was a very detailed German terra-cotta gnome, Nineteenth Century, $1,450, on a folk art chest with charms; a key sign from a locksmith, $600; a circus wagon figure out of carved pine painted white, $1,250; an architectural terra-cotta theater mask from Kansas City, $450; and a collection of folk art houses from Iowa, 1930s, six for $900.
A final measure of the show is supplied by two great Southern dealers — one buying and one selling — who are drawn to the show because it has become a major showcase and source for Southern-made furniture. Sumpter Priddy of Alexandria, Va., yet another dealer on the roster at Philadelphia Antiques Show, was just shopping but extended his stay. Hastening down the aisle, he remarked, “I was only going to come to the opening but there’s so much stuff I came back on Friday, and I’m staying for the whole day. I did do a little buying last night and I’m looking at some more things today. There’s some wonderful Southern stuff on the floor. I like the fact that it’s a totally different group of merchandise. You’ve got Midwestern dealers, Southwestern dealers, Mississippi Valley dealers you don’t get in the East. And you find a lot of Eastern things that migrated out here as people moved west.”
Follow-up remarks from O.O. Thompson, Jr, Charlotte, N.C., echoed those by Ed Hild at the beginning of the review. As he stood by a long-legged hunt board and inlaid linen press from Kentucky, both sold, he said: “I was surprised that as many case pieces moved off the floor as they did, because I think people were concerned that the larger pieces might not move. But there was quite a lot of activity on major pieces, which was encouraging.”
Thompson used to do shows in the East but now sets up only at Heart: “I’ve maintained Nashville as a good venue to sell the type of things we handle. I’ve done it for years, and it is a wonderful show across the board for, I think, any type of higher-end dealer. And there’s such an emphasis on country and Southern things, so I think it’s a good show for us to do. I thought there was a very good crowd — a pretty incredible crowd — this year, with all the concern about travel. It was elbow to elbow in here. The kind of things that I try to handle, usually I have clientele for them without even taking them to the shows, but I had just gotten that press, and it just looked like Nashville.”
Collectors also sign up in droves for the Friday morning Early Bird Walking Tour of the show floor, which gives serious buyers a chance to examine fine points with qualified guides. Demand was so high for this learning experience that eight groups set out with their guides at 8:30 sharp. The standing Heart committee of experts including John Kiser, Robert Hicks, and Ben Caldwell was supplemented with knowledgeable dealers to meet the demand.
At a time when dealers have one eye on the Weather Channel and the other on CNN, the Opryland Hotel in Nashville offered numerous advantages as a destination. A world of its own with thousand of rooms, the vast structure ignored the weekend rain outside its large atria, while inside everything was palm trees, spring flowers, waterfalls and, of course, antiques.
The fall edition of Heart of Country will open on October 23. More information is available from the Kramers at www.heartofcountry.com or 800-862-1090.
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