A 30-summer harvest of crafts goes on block

Hundreds snap up late music teacher's collected treasures

July 24, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

They sold Richard B. Porter's summers yesterday.

When school ended each year for the longtime Anne Arundel County music teacher, family members remember him taking to the road searching for buried treasure. Porter hunted the ceramic, glass, metal or wooden knickknacks, wall hangings, furniture and pottery that hide among the shelves of the nation's arts and crafts shows.

Porter's eclectic 30-year collection - ranging from ceramic squirrels to painted lengths of picket fence - became so large that when the 52-year-old Dickeyville resident died in April, family members were forced to decide how to deal with the 400 items he had amassed.

Yesterday, when his survivors put his collection up for auction in Ellicott City, 200 fellow craft enthusiasts crowded the gallery and pored over Porter's collection with astonishment. What the uninitiated might perceive as junk or kitsch, veterans of the $100 million-a-year crafts industry coveted for its pure, unadulterated, handmade Americana.

"It's the breadth of the items," said John Caplan of Caplan's Ellicott City Auction Co., which handled the sale. "Usually people don't collect this much stuff. Usually it's just 10 or 12 items."

Enthusiasts attending the sale agreed that the sheer volume and diversity of items - whimsical to functional, big and small, elegant to schmaltzy - served as the eye-popping attraction. They jostled with the numbered placards to distinguish bidders for everything from Oriental rugs to oil paintings by little-known American artists. The pieces lined the walls of the tiny, cluttered gallery room tucked behind a shop on historic Main Street.

"This fellow has been buying for a long time," Joelyn Yoder of Lutherville said of Porter. "A lot of these artists, I don't know."

During the past two decades, prodded along by home-decorating magazines and design maven Martha Stewart, crafts have mushroomed in popularity. One of the nation's largest arts and crafts shows is the annual American Craft Council Fair held in Baltimore each February. More than 40,000 explorers comb the tables at the Baltimore Convention Center spending as much as $21 million.

Porter's father, Alan, said he didn't know how much his son, who was single, spent accumulating the items, only estimating it at untold "thousands." His son kept most of the possessions at home, Porter said.

"He had all his rooms loaded up," Alan Porter said. "Up the stairway, in the bathroom."

Yoder viewed the Porter collection as a bargain, noting that many of the items were being auctioned for as much as 75 percent below their appraised value. She grabbed ceramic animals that would commonly sell for $40 each at a craft show for $12 apiece.

"That's a deal," Yoder squealed as the attendant delivered a ceramic raccoon. "Isn't he adorable?"

Cindy Foy of Arbutus jumped at a chance to pick up a Christmas tree ornament made of stained glass that, at shows, could sell for up to 10 times the $15 she paid, Foy said.

"It will look good at Christmas," she said.

The array of art even surprised auctioneer June Baker, who helped conduct the six-hour sale that Caplan's hoped would raise about $50,000.

From the podium of the auction house at 8307 Main St., Baker's eyes lit up when a colleague held up three lengths of white picket fence that were painted with colorful pictures. The three sold as a package for $17.

"You can't buy them in Ellicott City for anything less than $35 to $40 each," Baker said.

As much as the items brought together Baltimore's craft-loving community, they also told the story of their owner.

The Linthicum native's love of church - he served as organist for the West Baltimore United Methodist Church for 24 years - displayed itself in everything from the classic knee-high statue of St. Francis of Assisi to the more unusual, glass-framed colored yarn twisted into the shape of a crucifix.

Brenda Morstein of Ellicott City attended yesterday's auction because she knew Porter during high school and college. She remembers him as a nice guy who loved music from the age of 5 and gave home piano lessons, including to her younger sister.

Yesterday, Morstein and her husband, Bill, purchased a funky vase, classic and smooth on one end with an urban landscape of buildings rising on the opposite rim.

"I can't believe he had all this stuff," she said.

Close to four months have passed since Porter succumbed to bone marrow cancer, and the auction served as one more chance for a celebration of the summer hobby he loved.

"I have gone to the ends of the Earth," began a framed poem among Porter's collection, "And I have never met a soul who was not my friend."

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