Through the chicken wire, Paul and Kathy Towles spied the apothecary jar sitting in the clutter of a stall at a New Jersey flea market. They waited for the stall's owner to arrive.
When the owner failed to return, a flea market worker fletched the jar, which had no price on it. Mr. Towles smiled to himself.
The jar was a coveted hobnail milk glass piece made by the Fenton Art Glass Co. of Williamstown, W.Va., between 1964 and 1972.
"I handed him $3 and got . . . out of there," said Mr. Towles of his purchase of the jar, worth about $100. "Needless to say, we knew what we had, but he didn't."
The Towles, avid collectors of Fenton hobnail milk glass pieces, left New Jersey with their treasure, which joined the hundreds of other Fenton pieces in their Brooklyn Park home.
"Fenton is pretty well known across the country and even overseas," said Mr. Towles, who has been collecting Fenton glass with his wife for about eight years.
No two Fenton hobnail pieces are exactly alike. For instance, in two trays of the same basic design, one might have a center divider, another might not. One might have a handle, another won't.
Fenton, which dates back to the turn of the century, was much imitated by other glass companies. The company still manufactures glass pieces, but not the hobnail.
The pieces, Mrs. Towles said, were once readily found in department stores. "I think people would give it as Christmas gifts or wedding gifts."
The New Jersey jar is on a table. Other Fenton pieces fill the basement, living room and upstairs.
"When the time came and we had to build shelves because we had no place else to put it, we knew we were going overboard," said Mrs. Towles.
Still, they keep collecting and finding ways to make room for more collectibles in their small rowhouse on Old Riverside Road.
Some Fenton hobnail pieces are very rare, said the couple.
They keep plenty of antiques books and Fenton catalogs to guide them in their search for authentic pieces. Some pages in their catalog are marked with little orange circles denoting a successful search.
They spend their weekends and vacations foraging through antiques shops, flea markets and other out-of-the-way spots, hunting for items to complete their collection.
The Towles attend Fenton collector conventions and have been members of the Maryland chapter of the Fenton Club for about six years. There are also international chapters, they say.
"The pieces we need now are so few and far in between in terms of getting," said Mrs. Towles, adding that she and her husband long to meet nearby collectors to share stories and maybe swap extra items. "I don't think anybody in the club has every piece."
"Even [son] Frank Fenton has gone out and bought pieces for his museum," said Mr. Towles.
But the Towles' say a trained eye can spot Fenton hobnail pieces anywhere and in any condition. Two years ago, in Hughesville in Charles County, the couple spotted two dirt-encrusted cinnamon shakers tossed among some beaten up frying pans.
The couple offered $14 for the ordinary-looking shakers, took them home and scrubbed them with a brush and cleanser. The shakers are worth $145, Mr. Towles said, with a grin.
"I tell you, when you see something like that your heart starts throbbing and the adrenalin starts pumping," he said.
Among the items the Towles hope to eventually acquire is a hobnail vanity tray to go with a powder box and two perfume pieces so they can complete the vanity set.
"We'll stumble across it one day maybe," said Mr. Towles. "I have a feeling we're going to get it all."
The Towles see their collection as an investment and a hobby.
"Luckily Kathy and I are in it together," said Mr. Towles.
Fenton hobnail milk glass collectors can call them at 636-1843.