At Historical Society show: Antiques 101


October 10, 2002|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Admit it: You've always wanted to own a genuine antique or two - a piece of furniture, a painting, a porcelain vase, a silver tea set. But your knowledge of antiques is zilch, and you don't have money to burn.

You get the sweats when you think about entering a dusty old building filled with centuries-old, breakable objects and trying to talk to a dealer who, in your mind, looks down his nose at anyone who appears to have no knowledge of antiques and not enough money in the bank to make a big purchase.

What's an intimidated aspiring collector to do? Well, here's a simple answer: Head for the Maryland Historical Society's 24th annual Antiques Show.

Organizers of this year's show - which runs tomorrow through Sunday at Rainbow Hill, the historic Greenspring Valley estate of the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur - say Rainbow Hill isn't dusty, antiques aren't necessarily fragile, antiques dealers aren't usually snobby, and if you don't know anything about antiques or don't have the funds to make large purchases, don't worry about it.

The organizers and dealers at the show say they welcome novices. And they insist there's no better way to begin studying antiques than by starting at the top.

"This is where you learn," says Sarah Eastman, a co-chair of this year's event. "If you don't know what the best is, you don't have a way to gauge other levels of antiques. And if you're not a collector, it's a great place to come and find out what you might want to collect."

The show is juried, and dealers must be invited to participate. Historical society director Dennis Fiori says the cultural organization strives each year to gather a sampling of nationally respected dealers who offer a variety of wares. In addition to the usual furniture, books, paintings and silver, this year's show features everything from antique linens and Victorian jewelry to children's china and fireplace mantelpieces.

Still feeling a bit intimidated? Here's a gravy boatload of tips for novices from Eastman and a few of the show's other dealers.

They'll help you feel right at home at Rainbow Hill, as well as in dealers' shops and at other antiques shows that take place around the region each year.

Follow your heart

"The first rule is you always buy what you like, because if you don't like it, there are better things that you can do with your money," says J. Michael Flanigan, a Baltimore-based dealer in American furniture made before 1860. Flanigan has more than 25 years' experience in the antiques business and has been a guest appraiser on the public television program Antiques Roadshow. He is a returning dealer to the historical society show.

Flanigan says that although antiques can involve a substantial financial outlay, investment growth should never be the reason for making a purchase.

"You shouldn't be buying the stuff to save for your kid's college education or secure your retirement or because you think it's going to outperform the tech stocks this year," he says with a chuckle. "You should buy it because you like it, you appreciate its intrinsic qualities and you think you will be enriched by owning it."

Rick Scott, a San Francisco-based dealer who is new to the show this year, agrees.

"Buy something because it will be a wonderful addition to your collection, your home and your life," says Scott, who will be selling a variety of antique containers, including tea caddies, snuffboxes, sewing boxes and needle cases.

He adds that if you can't afford what you like, make a "diligent effort" to save up until you can or to find a similar-quality item in your price range. "Don't start buying junk," he says emphatically. "Because low end is going to stay low end all of its life."

The follow-your-heart rule applies to browsing as well.

Flanigan suggests novices peruse the show catalog and even walk through the show a few times upon arrival, to see what catches their eye at the various booths. Once those items have been identified, the newcomer can return to those booths to study the items in depth.

Elizabeth Wainstein, another of the show's returning dealers and the owner of Brockett's Row, an antiques shop in Old Town Alexandria, Va., says it's important to figure out why an item has attracted your interest.

"Figure out what appeals to you visually," Wainstein advises. This could range from how a piece is decorated to how it was made.

If price is an issue - or will be sometime down the road as you try to acquire more antique silver teaspoons or Chinese export porcelain, for example - deciding what you can afford is usually wise, she says.

Ask questions

Once you've decided what you're interested in, ask the dealer about it. Eastman says the historical society show is really just a great big classroom of centuries of furniture and decorative arts. "The dealers often have years of expertise that they're more than willing to share," she says.

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