Published: November 12, 2002
Success at the Crossroads:
By Karla Klein Albertson
ROUND TOP, TEX, – Although perfectly willing to admit she just turned 74, show producer Emma Lee Turney really measures her life in Round Top years. So this fall’s Oktoberfest was a major milestone: a successful run of 35 years, which has taken her antiques fair from a local event to national importance. Turney, who has become rather a legend in Texas cultural history, started the show to provide some country furniture for the surrounding ranches and has ended up furnishing homes around the United States.
With tributes pouring in from elected officials, the press, loyal dealers and faithful collectors, Turney was — if not in hog heaven — definitely up in the stars with Ima Hogg and Faith Bybee. Texas women have definitely done their part for the antiques business. Turney proudly showed off a commemorative album her friends had put together, and everyone chipped in to buy a Landmark Stone for the Courtyard of the new Round Top Library in her honor.
The very small town of Round Top – official population less than 100 – is located midway between Austin and Houston. In reality, the beautiful rolling countryside between the two major cities is dotted with thousands of ranches and retreats for many wealthy Texans. The April show is surrounded by fields of bluebells and other Texas wildflowers; the October version is warm and sunny when other parts of the country are getting cool. The fact that the current president hails from just down the road only makes it more interesting.
Great exhibitors with innovative ideas have made it an important crossroads show, drawing collectors and dealers from both sides of the country. American dealers come from every state between Maine and California to sell and buy at the show, and this year’s roster even sported two names from Belgium. But most of the exhibitors are from Texas, which, lest anyone forget, is as big as France. No longer just a country affair, the offerings are as broad as possible: primitive to formal Americana, Spanish colonial, English and European, Asian. Decorators and shelter magazines long ago picked up on Round Top as a source for ideas and material.
The show has stayed vital by evolving as times and the market have changed. That first event more than three decades ago was only 22 exhibitors in Round Top’s Rifle Hall, still an important nucleus of the show. But in the intervening years, Turney has found additional venues, bought up land, set up tents, and most recently erected her own large show building, the Big Red Barn, which opened last year. Every good show manager gets tailgated once the folks start to show up in quantity, and every field and barn in the region has an “Antiques” sign they put up just for these two special weekends. Turney has kept ahead of these skirt-chasers by quality control of her dealers and location control of the best spots near the Austin-Houston highway.
Round Top’s 350 dealer spaces are now divided among four locations: the original Rifle Hall site with a large white tent out back, the Antiques Annex and Folk Art Fair where Turney has her office, the Carmine Dance Hall on the main highway and the new permanent barn just a few minutes away. When the Big Red Barn opened in April last year, many dealers once under canvas behind the Rifle Hall moved into the large temperature-controlled facility. The show manager has now scheduled other events besides for this 100-dealer-plus venue: a holiday show and book fair this November, an interiors and garden show in January and a five-month series of weekend summer shops next year.
When the show opened on Friday, October 4, at 9 am, a pretty hot Texas day was shaping up, so the answer to, “Why do you like being in the Red Barn?” was obvious. Glenwood Vernon from nearby Brenham remarked, “Of course, I like the air conditioning in this weather. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and it seems like it’s more roomy. Easy to load in and out – so I like it very much.” He and wife Martha were also happy with their sales, which included a brightly painted German kas, a Pennsylvania cupboard and lots of white ironstone.
While ironstone goes well with the country look, other shoppers were snapping up more formal ceramics. Women were standing in line at the booth of Michael & Claire Higgins from Brussels, looking for all the world like garage sale customers except that their arms were filled with piles of decorated Imari. One buyer said to her companion, “Do you think her prices are good?” and the other replied in her strong Texas accent, “Ah really do!”
“We started shopping with American eyes while we were living in Belgium and we found a lot of stuff,” explained Michael, who is an American (his wife Claire is French). “We were selling mainly in New England and Penn-sylvania, but we found that we had many customers from Texas. So they encouraged us to come down here to Round Top and we sold a lot.”
Turning to a piece of their furniture, he continued, “It’s a matter of taste. This piece is French, but the patina on it is absolutely American taste. You look at it in any light and it’s just lovely.” Not far away, handsome David Busby-Wolbrett (half American and half Alsatian but definitely no dog) was showing off his French country furniture and accessories. He and partner Natasha Deighton now live in a sparsely populated section of New Mexico.
Another exotic touch was supplied by Alain Dine of Antiques du Monde in West Hollywood, who has inter-esting European imports and a Charles Aznavour accent. Not that most of the offerings were not American but the variety of merchandise is truly fascinating. Thomas O’Hara of Easter Hill Antiques, Sharon, Conn., had sold his yellow-stained cupboard, which he felt sure was Kentucky Shaker, to a private collector and a “fabulous” tiny powder keg from the Eighteenth Century. Every surface was covered with his large inventory of feather-edged pottery.
Having a very strong show with good traditional country things were Cheryl and Ed Fulkerson from Comfort, Tex. Mathematically minded, he was a CPA and controller before he began buying antiques, she teaches accounting at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Cheryl emphasized, “For this show, Ed buys ahead of time and saves pieces to take. Usually they get to live in our house about six months, but I know it won’t last very long. We just started doing shows last year, so this is our second year at Round Top. He grew up buying stuff in southeast Kansas with his mom and grandmother. He’s like a little kid with toys.”
The Fulkersons sold much of their furniture in the first hour of the show; three people were looking at their French butcher’s table, which sold to someone for their kitchen. Ed picked up the story on Saturday, “I sold eight pieces of big furniture. It definitely makes the show worthwhile. My wife is very happy. My designer Michael comes out in the mornings with me. It was a shambles last night and we totally redid it. I bought other merchandise to put in, because I have always sold more furniture on Sunday than any other day.”
The Fulkersons’ use of designer Michael Burdine to set up their display is a trend that has spread out from the big city. Highly innovative Houston dealer Karen Sobotka, who has one hell of an eye herself, brings in two artists to help arrange things. In their words, “She just throws it all out there and we kind of put the puzzle together. Then we leave, come back next time, and do it all over again. Luckily we don’t have to move it all. Her booth always stands out because of her taste.” Meanwhile, Sobotka was wrapping up a $3,000-plus sale of wonderful small things to a buyer from Venice, Calif.
On the other hand, the Rifle Hall location remains a bastion of the classic Americana look with many of the shows original dealers in their familiar spots. Visitors know exactly where to find June Worrell or Larry Bahn or Sally Tucker Anderson. O’Neill-Leonard, although hailing from Austin, always manages to capture the essence of New England in a room setting, and it all sells — a Connecticut clock, a country Chippendale tavern table, a banister back chair.
The Rifle Hall is also the site of the best show food in this reviewer’s opinion. The German American Texas barbecue there is cooked outside over wood coals. The smoked chicken and sausage is very alluring, all served with German potatoes, sauerkraut and beans. A friendly fellow named Fritz Finke, who belongs to the Sons of Hermann, presided over the bake sale table, and there were a thousand reasons to stop back by there for another piece of something.
Sales at this fall’s October show underlined some strong themes in collecting as people still seem quite willing to invest in good antiques, then mix ’em, use ’em and enjoy ’em.
Great Chairs As Art: Not just seating furniture, interesting chairs – carved, turned or upholstered – make dramatic room sculptures. Seen and sold at the show: tubular metal kitchen chairs with a country table, leather Deco seating from that West Hollywood dealer and a set of eight Spanish revival dining chairs with a weathered old finish.
Colorful Printed Tablecloths And Towels: Massachusetts dealer Michele Piccolo of Dusty’s Vintage Linens has pickers across the country searching the sales. No longer five bucks, good examples from her inventory were selling for $50-$150, including a hula girl dish towel and a tablecloth with illustrated map of the Lone Star State.
Decorative Trays: Collectors continue to snatch up brightly-painted floral trays of papier mache or tin tole to use as tables or wall display. In her favorite spot in the Carmine Dance Hall location, English silver dealer Jan Leach of Houston’s Clifton House sold a set of three graduated papier mache examples priced around $3,500 along with her wine coolers, salvers and compotes. “I’ve had a very good day,” she said with a smile.
Objects Of Devotion: The trend began with marvelous santos and retablos from the Spanish Southwest but has now extended itself to the picture that used to hang over Sister Ursuline’s convent bed in New Jersey. Everybody can use a little extra help in these dangerous days. David Busby-Wolbrett had no trouble selling his souvenirs of Lourdes for Christmas gifts.
Mexican Silver: Mexican silver, both jewelry and tableware, is the hot topic of the moment. Adding to the interest, splendid early objects are currently on display in “Viceregal Mexico” at Winterthur and an exhibition about the Twentieth Century Renaissance of the silver industry that just opened in San Antonio. Read about it in Morrill and Berk’s Mexican Silver from Schiffer.
Signs Of The Times: Collectors started with classic inn and trade signs from the colonial period; those three-dimensional hats and shoes are now high-priced folk art. Less steep are more recent pieces — best in show was the church Thanksgiving dinner sign offered by Cypress Creek Antiques for $1,295.
Many Little Drawers: A long running fashion, dealers can still sell everything from refined Nineteenth Century apothecaries to rough hardware drawers labeled for seeds and nails. Some are small enough to hang on walls, but collectors pay a premium for freestanding drawer sets that rotate or have an unusual form.
Animal Accents: We seem to have inherited an affection for pets from our English ancestors – remember Queen Victoria’s dogs. Seen at the show were stuffed birds, iron doorstops in the shape of cats, paintings of famous race horses and vintage photos of owners and favorite animals.
Old-Time Music: Actor George Clooney had great success when he “sang into the can” in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Nick & Lena Dimaio, new exhibitors from Louisiana in a Carmine spot at the show, have made a career of restoring old cylinder players and Victrolas, all pre-1926. Tunes poured out of their booth throughout the show.
Instant Ancestors: My great-great-grandmother is now this 1830 lady with a lace cap and blue eyes purchased from Larry Bahn. Karen Sobotka was offering a wonderful selection of framed mug shots from the county records office. Take your pick.
Round Top is a trip, an adventure and a lot of fun for collectors. Dealers seem to love the atmosphere, the interaction with their peers, and, of course, selling stuff to all the people who show up. The illustrations are worth a thousand words.
The next show will be April 4-6; for information, call Emma Lee Turney at 281-493-5501 or visit roundtopan tiquesfair.com.
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