An extra pair of eyes really helps at an antique show

Collector's Eye

September 08, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

TC What's the best defense against an antique show with 400 dealers in it? Take along an extra set of eyes.

I have a budding interest in hand-blown cut glass from the upper Ohio River valley in the early 19th century. Pittsburgh was a focus of the region's glass industry, and often the area's production is called Pittsburgh glass.

So before last weekend's Baltimore Summer Antiques Fair at the Convention Center, I called the Baltimore Glass Club, using a number found in the paper months ago. Bill Thomas answered, and it turned out he had the pair of eyes I needed.

Mr. Thomas, who founded the club in 1976 and is a member of its board, has collected glass since the mid-60s. At first he too concentrated on Pittsburgh glass, but later he expanded his collecting to three-piece mold-blown glass of New England and New York state loop glass, with its decorative ribbons of color embedded in clear glass.

But collecting is not the only outlet for his antiquing passions. Mr. Thomas has been a glass dealer since the late '60s and a producer of antique and collectible shows under the name Holiday Promotions for six years.

We met as agreed a few minutes before the show's Friday-noon opening. Here's how the collecting day proceded:

Bill has brought along yet another set of eyes, those of Jim Phillips, also a glass club member. What sends Jim into rapture, and has done so for some 26 years, is a nifty figurative bottle. He has thousands of them, mostly of people, often likenesses of famous people, and lots of animals. He shows me snapshots of a display case with hundreds of bottles only a few inches high. And he's looking for more.

Once inside we immediately split up. Jim wants to go to the right, while Bill aims for the exhibits in the back room. They agree to meet in two hours at the entrance. I follow Bill.

Within a few feet, Bill has spotted what will be his first purchase of the day. The dealer pulls from a table-top showcase a tiny bottle. Bill holds it between thumb and forefinger. Ribbons of white spiral up its sides and around its minuscule neck. The dealer calls it a vase. Bill thinks it's a decanter minus its cork stopper. The dealer asks $35; Bill pays $28.

In the rear room, the space is more intimate. The booths sparkle with crystal, silver and porcelain. A pitcher and six goblets catch Bill's eye. He holds the pitcher up to the light. Its silhouette is attenuated and regal. Etched Oriental ladies share the surface with willowy trees.

It looks like the work of Joseph Locke, who was active in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, says Bill. The dealer, who says she bought it at a house in Cleveland, agrees. She asks $600 for the set. Bill has qualms. He can't find the "Locke Art" signature on any of the pieces, and the etching seems to lack articulation. No sale.

A few booths away is Grunewald Antiques of Hillsborough, N.C. Four years ago I bought my first Pittsburgh blown and cut tumblers here. Again the top shelf is devoted to early Pittsburgh. Now his prices look high to me. I spot a small decanter decorated with large fans alternating with flat panel cuts. It's very similar to one I bought last fall for a third the price in New Oxford, Pa. My eyes have grown some.

Stopping momentarily in front of the faceted wonderland of Touch of Glass, from Wichita, Kan., Bill surveys the prices of the brilliant cut glass. The best pieces, from the 1880s to the 1920s, are cut from head to toe, says Bill. Later pieces show signs of shortcuts, he explains -- simple cut or etched patterns that take up space but require little work.

I ask Bill why he hasn't inspected any pressed or pattern glass of the late 19th century. He waves off the question with: "There's a ton of it around and it doesn't bring the price." Oh, maybe some special designs are selling, he concedes, or a collector needs a certain piece. But "it's a slow seller and I just don't buy it."

More than two hours have elapsed since we came in and we tardily try to find Jim Phillips at the entrance. We look for him briefly, but minutes later we're staring up at c. 1800 platters and chargers (huge plates) of soft-paste porcelein with blue flowers in the center and feathery blue edges. They're English Staffordshire. I have a few early pieces, but without the costly center decoration. Simplified and heavier pieces of feather-edge were made well into the 19th century in ironstone china.

After examining many pieces of early 20th century art glass without asking the price, Bill stops at the booth of Irma Ogle Antiques, of Baltimore. He picks out four Durand plates of citron yellow with wavy rims and a spare etched flower design. One he rejects because its lip isn't dark green. He pays cash for two at $75 each, no receipt, and says he'll pick them up later. The dealer wraps them and puts them under a table.

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