The man whose welcome mat said 'Go away'

November 08, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

In a city of characters, the late Frank G. Whitson was a classic.

If he knew you, he wouldn't let you leave his Read Street antiques shop without hearing one of his stories. Many of these tales were not fit for a family newspaper.

The often irascible Mr. Whitson had a reputation for treating customers badly. Some people didn't make it past the front door. Mr. Whitson chased them out.

His shop's door mat said, "Go Away." But those who knew him didn't.

About 250 people paid their respects to Whitson last night at the Richard Opfer auction house in Timonium. His collection of antiques, gathered over the years, went under the auctioneer's gavel. There were old signs for rye whiskey, the Railway Express Agency and Brehm's beer. On one table was a pile of cast-iron Christmas garden fence. A cabinet held canisters of interest to collectors of African American memorabilia.

Russell Harrington sat among the rows of bidders and related a story: "Frank used to say, 'The value of folk art is in the eye of the beholder.' I think he himself was a piece of American folk art -- strictly one of a kind."

"I had known Frank for 35 years. He used to chase me out and say, 'Go away. Come back when you've got $100 to spend,' " said Dick Horne, a Roland Park resident who now has his own antiques shop on Maryland Avenue.

"Frank put me through the Maryland Institute but he didn't know it. When I was a student the city was tearing down all these wonderful buildings downtown. And nobody except Frank was buying all the artifacts on their insides -- the stained glass and the old signs were the things he sold. Most people thought it was just junk," Mr. Horne said.

"We would give the demolition foreman $10 and get all this wonderful stuff and sell it to Frank. He didn't like us. He'd cuss and fuss and call us beatniks but he always had a good eye for the future," said Mr. Horne.

Other collectors agreed that Frank Whitson had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the antiques market. They also said he had little patience when he had business on the brain.

Before dawn on Sunday mornings, he habitually went to the antiques markets in Adamstown, Pa.

One day a seller brought a carton full of puppies and a crowd gathered, blocking Frank's way.

"What is this? Some kind of a$* petting zoo," he bellowed at those who stopped to play with a litter of adorable puppies.

Lillian Gottschalk, a Parkton resident and author of several books on antique toys, recalled the Read Street dealer's presence.

"If you didn't notice and acknowledge him at once, he would command your attention. His voice was deep and loud, and he could see things in antiques that no one else saw," she said.

My own Whitson tale began on a day in the late winter of 1966. My mother had dragged me to a dental appointment in the Medical Arts Building, a little more than a block from his emporium. After the appointment, we paid a visit to his shop, where he instructed a young collector in Tiffany lamps, Log Cabin maple syrup tins and cola trays.

I wanted everything in the shop. My mother used one succinct word to describe its inventory: "Crap."

What I really wanted was a $475 Louis C. Tiffany table lamp. The price tag was a year's tuition at Loyola High School, where I was a sophomore.

The decision not to buy proved wrong.

A lamp like the one Whitson had sold recently for $23,000.

Frank and his wife, Frances, lived for many years in a home on Grindon Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. It was filled with his collection.

Its basement was his special place.

It was there that he went at night to tinker and work.

Only a few hours before he died at age 82 last year, he was in the cellar working on some of his blinking-eye clocks.

"After he died, we finally got the basement cleared out and cleaned. Someone came in and said, 'Oh, it looks so good down there Frank would have loved it,' " Frances Whitson said. "I looked at him and said, 'No. Frank would have hated it.' "

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