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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Springtime in Philadelphia Spells Antiques
It’s as sure a sign of spring as blooming daffodils:
This year’s Philadelphia Antiques Show opens this week at the city’s
33rd Street Armory, just as it has for the last 41 years. The single
largest annual fundraiser for the University of Pennsylvania Medical
Center, the event, which runs Saturday through Wednesday, April 4
through 9, is also one of the country’s foremost venues for top-of-the-line
That’s because the event strives to present only the best. The 56
dealers represented — some coming from as far away as Maine, South
Carolina, and San Francisco — are here by invitation only. All
specialize in museum-quality furniture and decorative pieces, making
this a fabulous destination even for those who can only gawk. (Collectors,
however, will be here in force: The tilt-top table that was the star
attraction a year or so back fetched over $1 million.)
All the show’s booths and exhibits are devoted to one segment within
the world of antiques: Americana.
"It is the premier show in the country for American furniture
and decorative arts," says Todd Prickett of C.L. Prickett Antiques
in Yardley, Pennsylvania, one of the show’s exhibitors. Among the
pieces the Pricketts will show this year: a New England tall clock
crafted by Josiah Wood, a vintage Queen Anne wing chair, a Newburyport
highboy, and a Chippendale chest made from chestnut. He says that
any one of these pieces should sell for at least five figures.
While the dealers are chosen mainly for quality, the range of pieces
is important as well. "Sometimes we select a dealer based on what
may be missing from the show," says Karyn Mullen, chair of this
year’s event who has headed up a group of 250 volunteers and secured
more than $500,000 in community underwriting. "That dealer may
bring something additional to the show."
As a result, attendees get to see not only superb examples of American
furniture, but also the cream of American folk art and paintings,
Native American art, silver, jewelry, porcelain, and rare books.
Another bonus: The show’s organizers have crammed the four-day event
with lectures, guided tours, and social events. While visitors can
see all the exhibits for just the price of admission, they can also
upgrade to a preview reception on Friday; a Saturday Champagne event,
or a new collectors’ evening networking with dealers; Sunday’s wine
and cheese tasting; stylish box lunches next Tuesday and Wednesday;
and lectures and informational sessions on ceramics, table settings,
floral arrangements to set off your furnishings, and interior decorating.
"I’ve watched this show evolve over the last 22 years," says
Mullen, a former nurse whose husband is a general surgeon at the university
medical center. "It’s not only one of the finest antique shows
in the states, but a spectacular event that brings together the entire
Every year, the antiques show also features a loan exhibit
from private collectors. This year’s exhibit features historical blue
Staffordshire earthenware, decorated with scenes of colonial and post-revolutionary
Philadelphia — pieces that were popular between 1820 and 1850
when the citizens of the young republic wanted to celebrate their
national and civic achievements.
"Nationalism was a very strong sentiment for many countries during
the 19th century," says Donna Corbin, the Philadelphia Museum
of Art’s assistant curator of European decorative arts, who will present
the "Patterns of Pride" lecture on the historical Staffordshire
on Sunday, April 5. According to Corbin, potteries in the English
Staffordshire region began producing ceramics in the 1600s, blessed
with good clay (the word "pothole" comes from clay being gouged
out of roads to fashion into butter pots) and a suitable grade of
coal to fuel the kilns.
In the 1760s, Staffordshire potteries helped develop transfer print
technology, making it possible to transfer a decorative print to ceramics.
The industry also established a thriving export business, first shipping
pieces to the fledgling nation decorated with prints of beloved figures,
such as George Washington. By the 1820s, however, famous Staffordshire
potters including Joseph Stubbs and Enoch Woods were turning out whole
sets of plate for growing numbers of affluent Philadelphians. Each
was decorated with a local scene, such as the "Fair Mount"
Dam and Water Works, Bridges over the Schuylkill River, and Lafayette
at Franklin’s tomb.
The rage for Staffordshire also stemmed from the mania for blue glaze,
according to Deborah Firth, one of the owners of Britannia House Antiques
in Lahaska, which specializes in silver. (Firth is giving the "Decoding
Blue" lecture on Monday, and will demonstrate ways to create different
table settings using blue pieces.) While some very well remunerated
painters used to grind precious lapis lazuli to make blue pigment
for their paintings, particularly for images of the Madonna, blue
dyes from plants weren’t available in Europe until the Middle Ages.
The popularity of Staffordshire was part of that passion for blue,
with Europe fascinated by the blue-on-white porcelain exported from
China. In the 1700s and 1800s, the Staffordshire potteries were an
important driver of the Industrial Revolution in England — but
sadly, Corbin reports, they have not stayed current with stylistic
changes. The British ceramics industry that helped adorn American
homes and tables is now in disarray.
The current economic downturn has not scared off top collectors, says
Leigh Keno, one of the show’s exhibitors and the owner of Manhattan’s
Leigh Keno American Antiques. "Truly rare objects are still doing
well," he says. "While top collectors may now take a little
longer making a decision to buy, in the end they know they may not
have a chance to get the piece again." It is in what Keno calls
the middle-range antiques market — up to $30,000 a piece —
that dealers are seeing more of a slump. "Occasional buyers now
tend to hold back," he says.
But even the rest of us may be able to do a little collecting. While
we can only admire those pieces with six-figure price tags, "there
are dealers at the show who will have some lovely things for $200,
less than you might pay for something modern," Keno claims. That
range is just one more attraction of a blockbuster show that keeps
dealers, collectors, and the public coming back year after year.
— Phyllis Maguire
Street north of Market, Philadelphia, 215-387-3500. $12; $10 seniors;
$5 students. Open daily 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday to 6 p.m.; Wednesday
to 4 p.m. www.philaantiques.com Saturday, April 4, through Wednesday,
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