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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

wares.

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

Philadelphia community."

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

The Philadelphia Antiques Show, 33rd Street Armory, 33rd

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,

April


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