Published: February 27, 2001
Williamsburg’s Famous Antiques Week Lives Up To Its Reputation
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – “I’d like to think that we are here to gather people,” said Phil Zea, curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg, nodding appreciatively to the 454 antiques aficionados who attended the 53rd Williamsburg Antiques Forum, “Colonial Williamsburg Celebrates 75 Years of Collecting.” Between the week of lectures on legendary antiques-world personalities and the exhausting social whirl – raucous, late-night fellowship in the Lodge’s Garden Lounge high on the list – who could be blamed for concluding that behind every great object is a collector, curator or dealer worth gathering?
People make the study of antiques the rewarding endeavor that it is, and it is the humanity of objects that gives them enduring appeal. One of the Forum’s profound pleasures was hearing Joe Kindig III recall his father, the pioneering Pennsylvania dealer of the same name. “The worth of an antique lies in one’s ability to perceive the soul of the artist,” Joe Kindig, Jr., memorably told his son.
Wendell D. Garrett, a senior vice president at Sotheby’s, brought the audience to its feet and tears to many eyes with a picturesque address on the expansive patriotism that sired Colonial Williamsburg. In “The Legacy and The Legend: Colonial Williamsburg and The American Mind,” he quoted L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” It became my unofficial mantra as I toured the 173-acre Williamsburg preserve, often feeling that I had fallen into the pages of a history book whose storied figures had come eerily, if not always convincingly, back to life.
The best way to arrive at Colonial Williamsburg is by rail. Like Dorothy alighting from duotone Kansas into colorized Oz, the contemporary traveler steps off the train at Williamsburg Station and into the Eighteenth Century. With any luck, a knickered coachman will be on hand to whisk the traveler away to one of Colonial Williamsburg’s several accommodations, which range from the kid-proofed and affordable Williamsburg Woodlands to the opulent Williamsburg Inn, currently closed for renovations. Most Forum guests stay at the Williamsburg Lodge, where the Forum is held. A few romantics opt for the Colonial Houses, small, atmospheric dwellings in the museum compound that are Williamsburg’s version of “villa” rentals.
I arrived Sunday evening, February 4, and found a lively, impromptu party already underway in the Lodge’s lounge. Forum guests who came earlier in the weekend spoke highly of several optional programs. Some enjoyed an evening of Eighteenth Century music by candlelight at the Governor’s Palace. Others toured Virginia’s Eastern Shore with Thomas Savage, director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art; visited Tidewater Country with interior designer Ralph Harvard, a native Virginian who lives in New York; or journeyed to Brandfield and Brooke’s Bank with Edward Chappell, director of architecture at Colonial Williamsburg. In each case, it was the opportunity to visit lovingly restored and exquisitely furnished private homes that participants seemed to appreciate most.
People attend the Forum for the fellowship it provides with other collectors and for the privileged view it gives of the latest scholarly developments. Originally called the Antiques and Decorative Arts Forum, the first event was jointly organized in 1949 by Colonial Williamsburg and The Magazine Antiques, which continued its sponsorship for a decade. Invitations were mailed to the magazine’s 14,000 subscribers.
Colonial Williamsburg publishes a program which includes a detailed schedule of Forum events, necessary with so much going on; a reading list for those who wish to pursue lecture topics in greater depth; and a list of participants, helpful for those with introductions overload (i.e. most everyone).
This year’s Forum was attended by impassioned history buffs, Williamsburg stalwarts, collectors, curators, a few dealers, and at least one show manager. Sotheby’s and Christie’s sent contingents of specialists, and Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions was a lively presence. I met a new crop of graduate students from Winterthur, Cooperstown, and Yale, and one morning had the privilege of sitting next to Mrs Louise Belden, a retired Winterthur curator who had been attending the Antiques Forum since 1954. She recalled the days when megacollectors like Marjorie Merriweather Post showed up, often with attendants in tow. There are still famed collectors in the audience, but they tend to be far more discreet.
At the turn of the century, an Old Lyme painter told a colleague that the summer art colony was “just the place for high thinking and low living.” The same can be said of Colonial Williamsburg’s Antiques Forum, which is both hard work and a good time. Over the course of five days I attended 20 hour-long talks, most of them superb. I confess that I skipped most of the afternoon conservation workshops. Instead, I browsed Williamsburg’s superb collections, housed mainly at the DeWitt Wallace Gallery and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, and strolled through the village, which was enjoying a springlike reprieve from winter cold. With golfers visible on Colonial Williamsburg’s official course, I even contemplated convincing my husband to join me another year.
This year’s topic, “Celebrating 75 Years of Collecting,” broadly honored Colonial Williamsburg’s founders and benefactors over the past eight decades. The 65,000-object collection began in 1926 when John D. Rockefeller, Jr., authorized by telegram the purchase of Colonial Williamsburg’s first antique, the Ludwell-Paradise House. Rockefeller got a bargain on 65 buildings, which cost him only $215,000, but he never imagined that the restoration would cost him $68 million over the next three decades.
Carolyn Weekley, the institution’s director of museums, described Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s pioneering role in fostering public appreciation for American folk art. One of Mrs Rockefeller’s early purchases was a “Peaceable Kingdom,” acquired for $325 in 1932. Though much of her folk art collection came to Williamsburg in 1939, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center was dedicated to her by her husband in 1957, after his wife’s death. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., died in 1960.
Pauline Metcalf, a historian of interior design, presented fascinating material on Susan Higginson Nash, Williamsburg’s first decorator. Previously known only by mention in Elizabeth Stillinger’s The Antiquers, Nash was hired in 1929 by Williamsburg architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn to oversee selections of furnishings, particularly for the Governor’s Palace. Nash resisted suggestions that historically inaccurate Wedgwood china and Phyfe furniture be shown in the Palace but succumbed to handpainted Chinese wallpaper, for which no documentary evidence has subsequently been found. Her most pervasive contribution may have been her selection of paint colors, which have been copied in private residences around the country ever since.
Marked by the “wishful manifestations of Colonial Revival era,” as Williamsburg’s chief curator Ronald L. Hurst has put it, the Governor’s Palace was reinstalled in 1981 to correct earlier mistakes. There was more frank acknowledgment of Colonial Williamsburg’s past errors by historical interpreter Terry Yemm, who talked about the search for appropriate botanical specimens. Arthur Shurcliff, Williamsburg’s first landscape architect, is today associated with a surfeit of boxwood and the dubious inclusion of crape myrtle.
Titi Halle spoke charmingly about her mentor Cora Ginsburg, the textile and costume antiquary whose business she purchased three years ago. Born in the Bronx to a woman who didn’t sew, Cora met her future husband, the late Ben Ginsburg, just as Colonial Williamsburg was getting started. Cora learned about textiles from her father-in-law, a proprietor of Ginsburg & Levy Antiques, in time surpassing him to become one of the world’s leading specialists in historic costumes and textiles. “You would be hard pressed to find a collection of Western costume that doesn’t contain something from Cora,” said Halle. Between 1980-89, Ginsburg gave much of her private collection to Colonial Williamsburg.
After being turned down by Joe Kindig III, Forum organizers asked his daughter, Jennifer Kindig, to speak. The third-generation dealer demurred, but promised to deliver her father, so giving participants the opportunity to hear from one of America’s first families of antiques.
“My father approached his father when he was 12 and asked if he could have a gun,” said Joe Kindig III, recalling the family’s introduction to antiques. “Being only two generations removed from the Mennonite church, my grandfather said no. When he asked for a finely crafted antique gun, my grandfather relented.” The author of Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age, Joe Kindig, Jr., was as renowned an expert on American arms as on furniture.
Virtually self-taught, Kindig was, from the 1920s on, an avid scout who helped fill the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur, and the Henry Ford Museum, among others. A dramatic personality, he is widely remembered not only for his mane of hair and bushy beard but also his flamboyant lifestyle. An accomplished horseman, sailor and pilot, Kindig by the 1940s had “returned to basics of religion. He became a Quaker and read the Bible for two hours a day for the rest of his life,” his son said.
Colonial Williamsburg continues to collect. Olivia Alison, director of Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections, reviewed recent acquisitions, including a South Carolina basket with cutout designs. The piece turned up on the set of Antiques Roadshow, where it was appraised by Maryland dealer Milly McGehee. On Thursday evening, Williamsburg benefactor Joseph Hennage paid tribute to the late dealer Harold Sack, who guided him in building his own collections.
Setting The Scene
Several speakers described the cultural phenomena that have shaped collecting movements through the centuries. James Lomax, a keeper at Temple Newsam House in Leeds, opened with a lively description of the Grand Tour. An English gentleman of the Eighteenth Century might have traveled 2,000 miles to Rome, spending six weeks in France studying social arts, such as manners and dance; meeting and observing royalty; and buying clothes, furniture and silver. From there the gentleman went to the Riviera, then on to Genoa, Livorno, Rome, Naples, and back to Rome for Easter. After a stop in Venice, he might have returned home a year later via Milan, Turin, Switzerland, and Paris.
In a companion talk, Thomas Savage of Sotheby’s drew from his recent research to discuss the European sojourns of affluent Charlestonians. The South Carolina low country enjoyed the largest per capita wealth in British North America before the Revolutionary War. Even into the Nineteenth Century, members of the South Carolina elite spent summer months abroad, where they acquired portraits and furnishings by the leading artisans of the day.
Public collections in this country date to 1786, when Charles Willson Peale founded the first museum. David R. Brigham, curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum, drew a fine portrait of the artist; a tireless innovator who introduced souvenirs, tickets, and seasons passes to the American museum landscape. “Peale’s museum was the unofficial national museum before the Smithsonian,” said Brigham. “He was an American Noah, and his museum was an ark.”
Westport, Conn., historian Elizabeth Stillinger described the Nineteenth Century origins of the Twentieth Century collecting craze and recreated the social and political climate of the 1920s, when Reverend Dr W.A.R. Goodwin persuaded John D. Rockefeller to buy and restore Williamsburg. “Goodwin and Rockefeller were impressed by the American Wing, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924. They were interested in the moral and spiritual values to be formed by handcrafted objects and architecture,” Stillinger noted.
If the opening of the American Wing delighted the public by showing the assorted decorative arts in context, it was the retired Providence preacher Wallace Nutting who commercialized collecting with his mass-marketed photographs, his chain of house museums, his furniture reproductions, and best-selling books such as the Furniture Treasury and the America The Beautiful series. As William Hosley, executive director of the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society in Hartford explained, Nutting’s “secular parish numbered in the millions.”
In a well-crafted presentation combining collection objects, early photographs and surviving correspondence, Jack L. Lindsey, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, discussed some early students of Pennsylvania German crafts. Among these influential connoisseurs were John T. Morris, J. Stogdell Stokes, Titus C. Geesey, Edwin Atlee Barber and Mrs Thomas Frismuth. “The Pennsylvania German room opened at the PMA in 1929. We’re still using about 85 percent of what J. Stogdell Stokes acquired,” said Lindsey, noting the quality of these early acquisitions.
Two presenters with strong ties to Williamsburg were among the Forum’s most popular speakers. Alexandria, Va., dealer Sumpter Priddy III outlined the history of Southern furniture scholarship and observed its impact on the market. Beginning with Paul H. Burroughs’ 1931 book Southern Antiques, scholarship gained momentum through the Twentieth Century. Much important research has come out of Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, whose “golden age,” said Priddy, was in the 1970s. “Scholarship breeds confidence,” noted the scholar-turned-dealer. “Today the market in the South is for documentation.”
Luke Beckerdite, past director of the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee and current editor of its journal, American Furniture, gave an engrossing talk on frauds in the Chipstone collection. “By 1965, nearly half of the objects in the collection of Mr and Mrs Stanley Stone were fakes,” said Beckerdite, who during his tenure as director replaced questionable objects with superb ones. Beckerdite flashed slides of the imposters and gave details of their detection. His findings will be published in a forthcoming edition of American Furniture. “The most difficult forms to detect tend to be period pieces with carefully disguised restorations,” said the scholar. “And the most convincing fakes are made from whole cloth with a minimum of secondary wood. Conifers tend to be difficult to age.”
New Haven dealer William Reese and Shelley Bennett, curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., offered cameo portraits of the super collectors Paul Mellon, a resident of Upperville, Va., and Henry and Arabella Huntington. Recently acknowledged in The New Yorker for his part in the Library Company of Philadelphia’s acquisition of the Zinman collection, Reese said that Mellon was “arguably the greatest collector of books in the later half of the Twentieth Century.” The accomplishment was overshadowed by Mellon’s better-known interest in fine art. Following Mellon’s death in 1999, his collection of 7,700 Americana books and manuscripts was distributed among Yale, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society.
Some presentations reformed old prejudices. Not usually a fan of living history, I found Bill Barker’s hour-long impersonation of Thomas Jefferson to be one of the Forum’s highlights. This talented actor, a character interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, shared Jefferson’s reminiscences of his years in France.
Colonial Williamsburg is already planning the 54th Antiques Forum, scheduled for February 3-8, 2002. The program will look at the variety of ways in which French design influenced American style. All students of American arts should make the pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg’s Antiques Forum at least once in a lifetime. The intellectual content is heady and the camaraderie can’t be beat.
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