Collectors, dealers and casual buyers strolled through 550 antiques displays at the Baltimore Convention Center during the weekend united by the goal of finding a real treasure among the gobs of rugs, furniture and collectibles.
But one of the world's oldest businesses -- "someone in the Bible is referred to as an antiquarian," said Frank Farbenbloom, founder of the company that has operated the Baltimore Summer Antiques Fair for 21 years -- had a distinctly modern tone.
The fair was punctuated by the sounds of cell phones and Internet dial-ups. Many exhibitors handed out business cards promoting their Web sites as they searched for their niche.
In a crowd still dominated by older collectors who are prepared to spend serious money, some younger faces with smaller pocketbooks stood out.
One such young couple, Keith McIlvaine, 26, and his fiancee, Stephanie Houser, 25, ambled through the fair yesterday afternoon looking for pieces to add to their newly built house in Easton, Pa.
"You could describe our house as Pottery Barn," Houser said. Throughout the afternoon, she pointed out several authentic Apothecary tables that looked like the less-expensive version she had picked up at Pottery Barn -- "it's like that one on Friends," she said.
The two, who will be married Oct. 20, were in Baltimore for a friend's wedding and decided to check out the antiques fair just for fun. This was their first fair, but both said it would not be their last.
"When I think of antiques, I think of the gaudy stuff that my great-grandmother had around her house," Houser said. "It's interesting how gorgeous some pieces are and how ugly others are."
Baltimore's fair is the premiere show of the East Coast antiques fair season, which runs from early September through March.
Farbenbloom said antiques are a natural draw for young people who want to avoid furniture and decorations that could be found in anyone's home.
"You go to Ikea or one of those kinds of stores, and everything has a sameness to it," Farbenbloom said. "Here, you've got a uniqueness that lets you express your personality."
Farbenbloom and Elaine, his wife and business partner, said they first noticed that young people could be drawn to antiques about 17 years ago when their daughter Dori, now 42, found an art deco lamp and corner couch at a fair.
"She was so proud when she found that lamp," Elaine Farbenbloom said, adding that Dori still has the lamp and recently had the couch re-covered.
Although Houser and McIlvaine shied away from the high-end merchandise, a display called Patti's Past Perfect Pottery reeled in Houser, a high school art teacher. She left with a blue German vase that cost $48.
"I'm sure it should be put in a case somewhere and never touched," Houser said. "But it will look beautiful on my bookshelf next to all of my art books."
Frank Farbenbloom said he tries to make sure pieces at the fair cover all price ranges, in part to help develop a client base of young people. And wording is everything, he said.
"I find that when I ask young people, `Are you interested in an antique show?' it conjures up an image of musty pieces," he said. "But if you say something like `antiques for the home,' they think of affordable and usable pieces."
One way to reach out to a younger generation is through the Internet, and many exhibitors said they have created Web sites to help gain back some of the business that online auction sites such as eBay have gobbled up.
Don Gill, who owns the Westport, Mass.,-based Patti's Past Perfect Pottery, made sure to drop a business card with his Web site on it in the vase Houser bought from him. He recited his Web address to anyone who asked, but said Web sites would never replace antiques shows.
Other dealers scoff at the idea of doing business on the Internet.
"eBay is just a way to get rid of lesser-grade merchandise," said Fred Nevill, who owns an antique store in Houston. "It's not really a threat to high-end antiques."
But eBay has threatened dealers who sell collectibles, and no one knows that better than Gene and Wanda Truitt, who own Virginia-based Tru-Find Collectibles.
They check the site frequently to see how many Royal Doulton collectibles are changing hands.
"We think there are about 5,000 on there," said Gene Truitt. "It's really hurting the show market."
He sighed as he surveyed the dozens of shiny Royal Doulton character jugs he had on display yesterday. One of the 1,500 jugs in his collection, "White Churchill," is valued at $10,000, he said.
`Treasure in their basement'
Many of the exhibitors said they recognize the value of TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, which they hope will modernize the idea of antiquing.
Houser said her father's addiction to the TV show got her hooked on it as well. McIlvaine said he has seen the show a handful of times, too, and can see why so many people like it.
As a featured appraiser on one episode of the popular PBS show, Nevill said he was videotaped looking at hundreds of items. But only one appraisal made it on the air.
"The show gives you a skewed perception of how many valuable finds are out there," he said. "The truth is, not everyone has a treasure in their basement."