Samuel Pennington remembers precisely the heavy, dark Victorian and Empire pieces that filled his St. Paul Street townhouse, even though the home and its furnishings were sold in 1949.
"We hated them as kids," he says. "I remember the cabinet maker would come every year and put his glue pot on the stove -- and the stinking glue, the fish glue they glued stuff together with; good cabinetmakers still use it."
The "reason that the house was furnished with antiques was the family never had any money to buy anything new," says Pennington, publisher of Maine Antique Digest, a Waldoboro, Maine-based monthly magazine devoted to Americana.
He and his mother, Pennington confesses, "craved Danish modern."
But the Calvert School and Johns Hopkins University graduate came full circle in his relationship with antiques. Today, the magazine he founded 27 years ago is considered one of the most influential publications in a quirky marketplace that embraces both the elegant and the ungainly, the decorous and the eccentric, the gavel and the mouse.
Now, says Pennington, reflecting on the old tables, chairs, secretaries and wardrobes that appointed his childhood home in Mount Vernon, "I would love to have a lot of that stuff back."
As part of the Maryland Historical Society's annual antiques show, Pennington, 71, returns to his former neighborhood today to preside over a breakfast conversation about the multi-billion-dollar trade. Participants can expect an open-ended discussion covering a range of topics, from new finds and dealer-driven trends to the antiques industry's growing presence on television and online.
And because intrigue is synonymous with the antiques universe, Pennington is well-prepared to comment on the recent price-fixing scandal at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses. But don't expect an answer filled with shock and outrage. It's a "big nothing," Pennington says. The collusion may have hurt those with $20 million paintings to sell who lost out on their fair share of the take; but those folks are few, he adds.
Like its founder, Maine Antique Digest has a down-to-earth feel to it. It's written for cognoscenti and the rank beginner, for those with a lot of money to burn on upper-end lots and for those for whom a $35 wool hooked throw rug, vintage 1930s, is a big investment.
Similarly, the Digest, also known as M.A.D. and not to be confused with the satirical magazine, manages to represent the interests of both dealers and consumers. November's issue, a sprawling 392 pages of newsprint, is typical: It includes, among many features, an article about the history of old tavern signs, scads of full-page ads, book reviews, obituaries of prominent industry figures, auction and antique-show calendar listings, and a regular column on auction law and ethics.
The headlines, alone, tell the story of collectors' obsessions: "Campbell's Soups Sign Heats Up to $28,750" and "Antiques by the Mile" are two examples. Even someone without the collecting gene can become ravenous poring through the Digest's pages, gazing at Navajo rugs, Tiffany lamps and whimsical primitive paintings by Ralph Cahoon.
In November's issue, Pennington's own editorial revels in a local antiques show he attended, and hints at the inherent absurdity of online antiques sales and auctions and the risk they pose to more traditional ways of doing business. It's "nice to be able to pick up the goods," he writes. "To feel them and even smell them. Those are the things I miss when shopping by computer.
"I think other people miss them, too. Shows are not dead yet."
It wasn't until the late 1950s, when Pennington and his wife Sally bought a 1776 home in Maine and sought to fill it with period pieces that he became fascinated with antiques. Pennington brought to his fledgling interest an important credential -- a photographic memory. He can still take you on a virtual tour of that old St. Paul Street house, from one parlor through a pair of sliding frosted glass doors with silver-plated knobs to the next, and on through the interior, even though he moved out more than 50 years ago.
"When I talk to dealers in the business, a visual memory of things is [what] separates those who are really into it from those who are not," Pennington says. "Many of us can remember intimate little details about a piece of furniture, when we would be hard pressed to remember anything else."
Pennington was a career Air Force navigator, for years stationed at different locations around the country, so his family didn't settle permanently in Waldoboro until 1973. Over the years, as the Penningtons furnished their Colonial-era house, he acquired "a new respect for things that were old," and so drifted into the antiques business by way of creating the Digest.