The Hunt Is On

Antiquing: In search of hidden treasure and natural beauty in the horse country of Northern Virginia.

March 10, 2002|By Jode Jaffe | By Jode Jaffe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They're the kinds of tales that tease out the treasure hunter in all of us.

There's the one about the $40,000 Stickley music stand cloaked by neglect and nabbed for $500, and the $1,100 Steuben Arts and Crafts bowl with a $3 price tag.

But antiquing in Northern Virginia's fox-hunting country is a lot like the sport itself. It's mostly about the thrill of the chase and the spectacular ride through gorgeous countryside. It turns out that the gold-mine find is as elusive as the crafty little fox.

That doesn't mean you'll go home empty-handed. I've been successfully trolling hunt-country antiques shops for the last 10 years, both on my own and with an antiques dealer who knows the obscure places where treasures might lurk. Although my house is crammed with interesting and odd pieces, I've yet to find a hidden gem I bought for a song.

Still, it's been a great ride. And you won't find prettier treasure-hunting country. This is a place where four-board fencing and intricate stone walls edge manicured green fields, where the soft peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains define the horizon, where the lazy Shenandoah River flows.

The countryside is peppered with grand country estates with palatial barns and Anglophilic names like Amberwood and Stoneleigh. A young George Washington once surveyed this land and, 200 years later, Jackie Kennedy galloped her horses across its lush hills as she rode with the Orange County Hunt.

Starting in Middleburg, I made a weekend loop in December with my companion John, revisiting favorite antiques shops and finding new ones.

We saw it at its dowdiest, when all the trees were bare and the fields tinged beige. In the early spring, northern Virginia begins to put its party clothes on. Jaunty daffodils brighten a landscape that's popping with new green everywhere.

Middleburg itself is a historic village of 600. It's small, walkable and so quaint it looks like a Hollywood set, which in fact it has been. When TV's The West Wing needed a picturesque New Hampshire town to film, it took its cameras to Middleburg, which is lined with old stone buildings, some washed white, others stuccoed yellow.

Middleburg was established in 1787 by Leven Powell, a colonel in the Revolutionary War. Powell named it Middleburg because it was midway along the Ashby Gap trading route (now Route 50) between the cities of Alexandria on the Potomac River and Winchester at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Among some of Middleburg's 160 buildings listed on historic registries are antiques shops in which prices often hover in the four- to five-figure range. For example, Skandina, which specializes in big, blond Scandinavian pieces, is crammed with large wardrobes, sideboards and armoires ranging from $1,975 (an 1860 Danish armoire) to $6,900 (an 1840 yellow Swedish secretary).

Around the corner on Washington Street, Hastenings Antiques has two stores a block apart. They're the kind of hushed places with carefully printed cards for each item. Hastenings specializes in 17th- and 18th-century English and European furniture and you've-got-to-be-kidding prices. When we were there, an 1840 French provincial extended walnut dining table with four leaves was going for $23,000.

Three blocks away is the far less pretentious and far more fun Powder Horn Gunshop.

"I'm one of the oldest antiques in Middleburg," said owner Bob Daly, who is 67. For the past 26 years, Daly has filled Powder Horn with antique firearms and accouterments of war. Even if you're not a military buff, Powder Horn is a fascinating mini-museum of memorabilia.

Behind the cash register is a display of pre-Revolutionary flintlock rifles. Daly took one down and it was taller than he. The rifle dates to about 1730-40.

Is it shootable? John asked.

"Anybody who would fire one of these is insane," he said. "It would break the spring mechanism and blow out the bottom of the rifle."

In the front window of Daly's store sat a Yankee Civil War saddle for $2,250. There was a wide gap down the middle of the seat, and you don't need to be a horseman to know that doesn't make for a comfortable ride. But it does, explained Daly, keep a horse's back from getting sore.

"Men, you could draft," he said. "Horses you had to pay for. They were more valuable than the men."

Daly's tidy, one-room shop is lined with white pegboard walls hung with muskets, carbines, cavalry swords and bayonets.

Glass cases display carved powder horns (an engraved one from the Revolutionary War was $11,500), pistols, U.S. uniform buttons, belt buckles, medals, Nazi uniform insignia. Atop the cases are mannequin heads with military hats (a Bulgarian special forces beret from the Cold War era went for $50).

While I admired a French and Indian War-era iron tomahawk for $5,250, Becky Holdaway from Sterling, Va., came in to pick up a Christmas present that her husband, Tim, had bought for his business partner: a U.S. model 1842 single shot, .54 caliber smooth bore percussion pistol for $1,195.

Middleburg to Upperville

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