Some people liken collecting to addiction, claiming to be in the grip of a horrible craving when they snap up early 20th-century tin signs, Japanese netsuke or Walt Disney figurines.
Not Barbara Milo Ohrbach. For this author and antiques authority, collecting is a higher calling: "To keep searching, to keep finding, is a wonderful way to live."
Ohrbach, who will be speaking Friday morning at this year's Hunt Valley Antiques Show, will talk about ideas for collecting, and "why we collect."
"All of us have things we collect," she says. "We're all a little obsessed."
This year marks the 27th for the Hunt Valley Show, held Friday through Sunday at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn. The theme is garden-style antiques, and there will be 58 dealers from 15 states with items from garden furniture and statuary to china, furniture, nautical art, Oriental rugs, porcelain, folk art and Americana, needlepoint, silver, pottery and prints. "And a wide range of prices," said Bob Armacost, who runs the show. Proceeds from the show benefit Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, a private, nonprofit agency that addresses such issues as domestic violence, child sexual abuse, preventing teen pregnancy and elder care.
Barbara Hart, show chairwoman, said the garden theme was chosen because "nesting," or turning back to the home, is the trend in the '90s, and gardening is a big part of people's desire to perfect their surroundings.
She spotted another aspect of the trend at last year's show, she said -- using outdoor furniture inside. "The lifestyle of the '90s is a little bit more homespun" than the glittering, super-social '80s, she said. And bringing the outdoors into a room makes it more romantic.
"Antiques in the garden are just an extension of the home," Ohrbach said. "I have a lot of old garden furniture at my home. My potting shed is full of old watering cans, old flower pots, English trugs -- it happens to be a big trend now." (Trugs are flat baskets traditionally made of wooden slats, used for gathering garden produce and cut flowers.)
Ohrbach's lifelong passion for collecting got a big boost when, as a fashion buyer, she spent a great deal of time in Europe. "I started collecting antique textiles," she says. She bought old lace, Chinese fabrics, paisley shawls. "Half the time, I got them for nothing, because nobody cared about them."
She later became a vice president at Vogue and Butterick Patterns, but that, too, involved constant trips to Europe. She sought out the flea markets and antiques districts everywhere she went, Portobello Road in London, Marche des Puces in Paris.
After eight years in the corporate world, Ohrbach decided to start her own business. With her husband, Mel, president of a major fashion company, she opened Cherchez in 1974 on New York's Upper East Side. "We filled it with all the things we had collected." Jackie Onassis, Candace Bergen and Glenn Close were customers. The two expanded the original line of clothing with tea caddies and silver pieces, small furniture, china and porcelain.
They expanded into another space and sold new things manufactured for them in Europe -- lacy pillow shams, a line of fragrances for the home.
Eventually, publisher Clarkson Potter approached Ohrbach and asked her to write a book. The result was "The Scented Room" in 1986. It sold a million copies, and a dozen more books followed, including "Antiques at Home" (1989) and "Simply Flowers" (1993). Three years ago, she closed the shop to concentrate on writing and lecturing.
Besides giving tips on where to shop, where to learn about antiques (not just museums, but historic houses), and societies and organizations to join ("You can meet other people with like interests, and go to lectures and receive newsletters on your subject of special interest"), she'll be offering care and storage tips.
"We're all just passing along. We own this beautiful thing for our little time," she said. Collectors have an obligation to preserve the objects they own for future collectors.
She doesn't want in any way to discourage people from collecting things they love -- "even if they think they don't know enough to do it. They worry, they think, what if I buy a fake? What if I make a horrible mistake?" People should not be intimidated by antiques, Ohrbach said. It's easy and fun to visit shops, museums and shows like the Hunt Valley one, to look at objects, talk to dealers and docents and learn as you go.
Driven by curiosity
Funky or fancy, what drives collectors is "curiosity" about what's out there, and what they can find, she said. "It's what makes them get out of bed in the morning. A passionate interest has a lot to do with keeping you going."
Here are highlights of the events at the show:
Gala preview party with silent auction, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $85 per person and include cocktails, a buffet, live entertainment, a garden display and entry to the show.