Thursday, January 27, 2011

Redware Pottery - a Pennsylvania Tradition

Simple redware items  -  Once found in every home
Redware pottery is admired and collected by different folks for different reasons.  Some, the country antiques collectors and decorators, love the simple forms and earth colors of the early utilitarian pieces.  Jugs, pots, jars, plates, bowls, etc., once used as everyday items in every home, fit in wonderfully with the country and primitive furnishings that are so popular today. 

These items are still easily found, particularly here in Eastern Pennsylvania where so much of it originated, and still at reasonably affordable prices.  Here, we're looking at a price range of say, $50. to $150.

The more sophisticated collector, whose tastes run to the antique decorated redware such as plates and bowls with slipware applied designs or sgraffito decoration, has a much harder task to locate these items and will need a much larger budget to tap into when they do find them.  Rarity has its price and the price range here can start at several hundred dollars for the simplest piece and run into the low thousands for a fine example.

A  Pennsylvania slipware charger - circa 1820

Then we get to the third level.  That is,  the highly decorated plates and chargers that were produced by known potters and created specifically as display pieces.  Some of these eighteenth century creations can cost in excess of $50,000.00 and the only place you're likely to find them is in a museum.  For all practical purposes, we're most unlikely to ever find such a treasure.

A rare sgraffito plate by David Spinner  (1758 - 1811)

But wait ... there's another category that's extremely popular with collectors.  That is, the fine redware pottery that is being produced today and which, for the most part, is highly decorated with slipware or sgraffito designs.  The most desirable being those items designed with the ever popular Pennsylvania Dutch motifs of distilfink birds, hearts and tulips, etc.

There are many potters and studios producing these wares and while they're certainly not restricted to Eastern Pennsylvania, some of the more talented and famous ones do come from this area.  Our favorite is Lester Breininger of Robesonia, PA.  (perhaps, because his home and studio is only a few miles from our house and we've visited several times).  Lester is a 9th. generation Pennsylvania German who began his pottery in 1965.  He's been featured in numerous local and national magazines and has works in the Winterthur, the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Lester in his shop
Every year, in August, Lester holds what he calls a 'porch sale' at his house and studio.  Collectors come from all over the east coast to view and purchase his latest creations.  We look forward to the event each year and have managed to build up a nice collection of his decorated pottery. 

His pieces do show up at local auctions here in Pennsylvania, and because of his growing national fame, his works often appear on the secondary market all over the country.   We frequently have a few of his fine pieces for sale on our website.  

A beautiful sgraffito decorated bowl
by Lester Breininger
So, the contemporary potters like Lester Breininger  have filled a void.  For those of us who love the highly decorated Pennsylvania redware, in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, but could never begin to afford to build up collection of antique pieces, we can still collect it and enjoy it.    

If you would like to learn more about redware pottery, get a copy of Kevin McConnell's informative book entitled 'Redware - America's Folk Art Pottery'.  It's inexpensive and readily available on the internet.                                     

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Antiques from the Amish Farm - getting down and dirty

An Early Amish Milking Stool - Straight from the Barn
Country Antiques are reputed to be the most popular area of collecting in the entire antiques trade. That may or may not be true but it certainly seems to be, when one pays attention to all the antiques trade magazines, popular home decorating magazines and the huge amount of antique shops and malls which seem to cater to that area of the market.

Spending much of our time at auctions, estate sales, and the like, my wife and I have watched this phenomenom grow over the past thirty or so years. What was once considered to be just plain junk, is nowadays treated with a reverence once only bestowed on 'formal' antiques.  But be that as it may, we cannot dispute the fact that it has happened and will undoubtedly continue in the future.

Which brings us to the subject of our blog .... Antiques from the Amish Farm, and why you sometimes have to get down and dirty, to find 'em.

We live in the midst of a Pennsylvania farming community, which I'll admit, certainly helps if you're going to look for these items. New York City ... not so much. Yet it's surprising just how many of our antiques, which originated on one of our local farms, will work their way up the food chain to major urban areas.

Some of the items we've acquired locally, we've sold over the internet and shipped off to upscale dealers in New York and New England. One can only imagine what they do with them, but it's a fair guess that the local Amish farmer who sold it to us at a barn sale, would keel over if he knew where his old milking stool wound up. (One of our primitive items appeared recently in a dealer's ad in a prestigeous national antiques magazine).

Most of our surrounding farms and farmers are Amish and they may live a spartan life but they sure have a keen business sense and can be hard bargainers. Nevertheless, we still manage to obtain things like stools, wooden buckets, and primitive old hand made tools. The Amish must surely think the English (non Amish) are odd, to actually collect these old things, but they do seem aware of the market and are keenly aware of the values. Some of them have even become dealers, themselves. (but not on the internet!)

Starting in the early Spring, we keep our eyes open for roadside signs announcing farm and barn sales. We've poked around several Amish farms way off the beaten track and have found a few treasures in the process. Last Spring we spent a couple of hours at an Amish sale and we were just about the only non-Amish folks there. Bit of a language problem, because they tend to not speak English when among themselves. But despite the handicap, we still managed to obtain a few farmantiques that have since found their way to homes throughout the Country.

Parked Buggies at an all- day outdoor Auction
We attend a huge all-day, outdoor Amish auction each Summer. Usually 5 or 6 auctions going on at once. Most of the attendees are Amish families, out for the day. It's a sight like no other. They sell everything from quilts and baked goods to old farm tools and equipment. Tons and tons of it.  They bring it in by the wagon load.  Most of it is junk, but a keen eye can always spot the wheat amongst the chaff.

And starting at the end of February, several Amish communities hold what they call a 'Mud Sale'   An all day affair with livestock auctions, farm equipment and some antiques. If you can stand the cold (and the mud) they're an occasion not to miss. The youngsters play Amish games and there are contests among the young men. Quite a festive occasion. Again, country antiques from the farm can be found scattered among the many offerings and the dedicated dealer will be there, searching.

We've always pondered the attraction that some city folks have for the primitive things that originate in the country. But let's hope they continue to do so, for as long as there is a demand, the country dealers like us, will continue to endure the hardships, sometimes necessary, to provide them ... while at the same time, enjoying (almost) every minute of it!

Amish Parking Lot at an Outdoor Sale
 It goes without saying, that the opinions expressed on this blog are our own.  If you would like to comment or discuss any matter relating to the antiques business or collecting, we'd be happy to hear from you.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Country Antique Treasures - getting harder to find?

We're fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the country ...  rural Southeast Pennsylvania, with it's many Amish and Mennonite communities and the countless descendants of the early German settlers who first inhabited the area.  It's not surprising then, that many items reflecting this rich heritage are still to be found.  

Anything Amish is always popular
When scouring the local country auctions, farm and estate sales, even outdoor markets, we still manage to find many rarities which would be totally unseen in other parts of the country.  The Pennsylvania Dutch (actually German) brought their culture here and so did the Amish and Mennonites and their unique artistic touches are clearly visible on many antiques and artifacts if you know how to recognize them.  From the methods of construction of simple furniture, the elaborate designs on quilts and the hearts and tulip designs incorporated into wrought iron work and wooden ware, often point to the early settlers who brought them to our shores. The Amish, too, have had a profound influence on the popularity of simple and sometimes primitive objects.  Their homemade quilts, tools and toys are most desirable and with the Amish population ever increasing, at least the future availability of these and similar items seem assured.
 Items like this cranberry scoop are getting hard to find

But despite being able to find these treasures, and putting the Amish items aside, we know that the supply is diminishing.  Proof is in the steadily increasing prices across the board. Several of the local auction houses hold major cataloged sales of typical Pennsylvania antiques several times each year and the prices realized are truly remarkable.  Since some of the sales are now conducted simultaneously on the Internet, it's interesting to see how many items are sold to buyers around the country rather than in the sales room.  This surely reflects the growing interest in Americana and in Pennsylvania antiques in particular.  From our own Internet sales, we find that most of our sales of Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish antiques go to California and Texas with New York City a close third.

So what are the prospects for the neophyte collector who is unwilling or unable to compete at the top level

Think of the Americana antiques field as a huge pyramid  ...  with the paint decorated chests, the primitive portraits and truly rare items, all at the top or tip of the pyramid with the less rare items filling in the middle and the common items at the base.  As the items at the top become truly unobtainable, by going into major collections and museums, they disappear from the market.  Everything else on the pyramid moves up and the items on the bottom start to rise in value.  Things that are common today won't be, in the not too distant future.  They will increase in value and move up the pyramid,  to be replaced on the pyramid by things that today aren't even considered collectible.

Tin kitchen items are very collectible.  Still modestly priced
and still easily found
Having been in the business for almost forty years we've seen many categories of antiques rise from flea market status to important entries in auction catalogs today.  In our library of reference books we still have many old price guides from the 1970's and 1980's.  It breaks our hearts to think of what's passed through our hands over the years, but there you are ... If we knew then, what we know now ... The thing is, at some time,  if you want to get on the merry-go-round, now might be that time.


This is our first blog and we intend to do many more in the future.  We'll discus specific fields of collecting Country Antiques and good inside tips on how to learn about them and to acquire them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

To Restore or Not Restore - that is the question.

Over the course of our career we've been asked many, many times, 'Has this piece been restored or had repairs?'  It's a question that every antiques dealer is familiar with and one which comes up frequently.  Often we pose the same question ourselves, when considering a piece for purchase or, a decision we have to make after we've acquired an item that's either damaged or in rough condition.

There's no hard and fast rules but there are general guidelines.  At least, we've established some for ourselves.  First, though, let's point out that primitives and country antiques are not quite like formal antiques.  There's a bit of leeway here, so different guidelines are applied.

An old wooden nail keg that's been given a
a new lease on life

So, let's briefly discuss formal antiques, where more stringent guidlines do come into play.  Here, the decision to restore is more likely to be based on value and rarity of the item in question.  We all know that damaged, broken or poorly repaired items are less desireable and lose significant value.  We've all seen examples of that on the 'Antiques Road Show'.  Even professionaly, well restored items will lose value on many categories of antiques.  China, for example, and fine antique furniture will be far less desireable once repaired.  Period furniture, especially, will lose value from being refinished or having replaced parts.

Of course, there are exceptions, too.  If an item is extremely rare and was discovered in very poor condition, then repairs to insure its preservation are acceptable.  Paintings are another exception to the rules.  If an otherwise valuable canvas is in poor condition, say with holes and some paint loss, its value can be enhanced by top quality restoration.  A repaired or restored antique clock is going to be worth more than it would be if the movement were broken or the clock had missing parts.  So it's a complicated matter and one that causes much controversy among dealers and collectors.

Now let's take a look at the country antiques field and see how this controversy applies there.  Many items in the country collectibles field are bought by folks who want to decorate with them.  Their attitude towards restoration will be quite different from that of the serious collector.  In fact, if the item isn't spruced up a bit, the decorator buyer will pass it up.  After all, who wants to put some ratty old thing in their living room when they might find something far more attractive which has been 'done up'.  The collector, on the other hand, may be horrified at the thought of a dealer having painted, varnished or polished the brass, on that special item he or she collects.  So what is a dealer to do?

Back to our guidelines which I spoke of before.  We'll look at an item we've purchased for resale and ask ourselves who the ultimate buyer is likely to be.  Let's say it's a wooden wash tub, that's been in the rafters of a barn for the past sixty years.  Perhaps it's covered with pidgeon droppings and sixty years worth of dirt and grime.  Since there's little likelyhood of there being many serious collectors of old wash tubs, we'll make the assumption that the buyer is going to be someone with a country decorating scheme, who will perhaps use it as a log holder next to a fireplace or something similar.  So we'll clean it up and do whatever we think is necessary to make it as attractive as possible,  In other words, we'll restore it.

Just a few days ago, we did just that to an old wooden nail keg,  Not many collectors of those, I'll wager, and trust me, nobody would have wanted it the way it looked when we found it.  But a couple of hours of TLC has turned it into a most attractive piece.  It's now quite useable as an umbrella stand, a holder for a walking stick collection, or perhaps a primitive wooden container for a dried flower arrangement.  But let's say we acquire a very rare butter mold or a small, early grain painted cabinet.  We know that the value of the item probably precludes a sale as a decorative item.  It would most likely be a collector who would be interested and we know what they look for.  Our rule then would be  -  a light cleaning perhaps, but no repairs or restoration.  In fact, if the item was in need of major repair, we wouldn't have acquired it in the first place.

Of course, there's always gray areas.  We recently found an antique child's sleigh.  A delightful item but in rather rough condition.  Are there sleigh collectors out there? ... Perhaps, but this item will have wider appeal to the decorator market.  We see it filled with colorful wrapped packages at Christmas time, indoors, beside a decorated tree.  Nice. ...  So we've decided to restore it.  Some might not agree with that decision, but if it isn't restored we may never be able to sell it.

This will be a good project for the Spring
So keep asking the dealers the question ... 'Has it had any repairs or restoration?' ... but don't fault the dealer if he says 'yes'.  Question him further.  He may have just salvaged a small piece of history, that without his help, might not have survived for another hundred years or so.

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We welcome comments on our blogs and are happy to answer any questions you may have on this or any other matters relating to antiques.