I like a good story. Thanksgiving and antiques are a perfect pair for storytelling. Attending Bettianne Sweeney’s 29th Holiday Antiques Show in Williamsburg, VA this past weekend was like going home for Thanksgiving holiday. The familiarity and fondness among the dealers and attendees was evident as they expressed warm praise for each other, and high esteem for their host Bettianne and her family. Many of the participants have been going for years, and others, decades. How gracious Bettianne and all were to have me share their fabulous feast and share their many stories.
There were little stories that would start my imagination to dance. Stories where I would become drawn to participate. When in the Antiques of London booth, I admired a lovely collection of tortoise-shelled cases. Warren Burls, the proprietor, described back in the 18th and 19th century, a lady might have put her calling card or dance card in one of the smaller delicate cases. My mind felt the snugness of a corset tightening at my waist and a hoop skirt floating at my feet, and yet my fingers rubbed shamefully on the business cards I had thrown into my pocket.
In similar fashion, Chris Doscher, owner of Witt’s End Antiques, told tantalizing tales of teatime. He was happy to show off his beautiful collection of 18th and 19th century tea caddies. How easy it was to imagine the “oh so important and fashionable” art of having tea. The detail of the inlay work, intricately pieced together not only on the outside, but also on the inside (some with their original foiling). In my mind, I smelled scones, jam and cream. Suddenly my fancy high-tech coffeepot at home appeared crude in comparison.
How appropriate our conversations of tea were in Williamsburg. Having been our first capital, Williamsburg just seemed to have stateliness about it, much like the antique show itself. Chris had mentioned how he liked coming because of the history in the area and because of the caliber of dealers in the show. Everybody was an expert in their field and much was to be learned from all he explained. I thought just looking around, it was as if we all were coming together to have a fine feast and each dealer’s booth was the epicurean dish brought to the table.
The epicurean expertise couldn’t have been more present with the “hooking” tales of Joe Caputo and Karen Grindle who are the renowned experts behind Caputo & Grindle Antiques. Joe and Karen are rug people; in fact, you might call them “the hooked rug whisperers.” They told me stories of “shirred” and “sheared” and “hooked” and mistaken identity or even weaving to deceive. No matter. Joe knows the end; the rug tells him how it was made. And ultimately, the rug becomes as Joe says, “Art underfoot.”
As at any Thanksgiving table, stories grow in size a bit, and I found myself a seaside spectator at White’s Nautical Antiques. Struck giddy with sea breeze looking at Dave White’s handsome models of ships and boats, nautical art and brass. A three-foot long 1930’s model powerboat lay center stage. The boat had a Chris Craft appeal and a delightful story about the man who built it, sailed it, and then had to swim across the lake to get it back. My childhood delight was answered with “how do you build a tall ship in a bottle?” You build it very carefully, Dave explained, outside the bottle. Talk about a story of engineering.
Among artful stoneware, baskets, and folk art, Mad River Antiques had a little story of intrigue in one of its pieces. Steve German showed me an 1820’s copy of the Seaman Act, signed by Master Henry Barnard and the seamen of the Brig Sea Island. The curious story was all about how sometime earlier the Sea Island sailed to the Bahamas and had brought back yellow fever and infected practically all of Middleton, CT. Another little fascinating oddity for me was that according to this document one of the highest paid jobs on the ship was that of cook at twelve dollars per month. Yet at the same time, Master Barnard’s salary wasn’t listed. Go figure.
Unusually rare books, paper, and letters were some of the fine offerings from Joyce and Bill Subjack, Neverbird Antiques. The simple letter from a confederate soldier writing and asking for fresh tomatoes first caught me. However Bill was indeed a highly skilled storyteller as he read one of President John Tyler’s personal letters and then told me the story of Tyler’s May-December romance and how his mother-in-law didn’t approve of him, how his youthful bride was barely older than his children; I was engrossed. Oh, who doesn’t like to hear family drama at holiday time?!
Janet Fanto had some exquisite rare books. One drooling mouthwatering delight she had was a first edition of Homer’s Iliad translated and signed by Alexander Pope. As a former English major, my little brain just froze in the memory of senior year’s oral comprehensive exams. I’m a breath away from Alexander Pope. Be still my heart. Talk about the guest who came to dinner.
Then there were the very tiny and perfect leather bound Shakespeare books displayed by Baldwin House Antiques, Strasburg, PA. Oh to be inside one of those petite volumes and ride off in my pocket.
Joan Parker, Ingle Nook Antiques, had a set of 1826 hand-painted deck of playing cards mounted and in four frames by suit. I stared at those cards, their dog-eared corners and individualized face cards. Almost two centuries of game playing: winning and losing, joy and heartache, pastime and gambling. I guess I hoped if I stared at them long enough, they might have spoke to me.
I think one of the easiest subject matters to tell stories about is animals. One dealer told me about his dog, Maverick. I thought about the story when I was at Sparrow’s Nest Antiques perusing the varied canine collectibles. I wondered how many of these dog sculptures were fashioned after family companions. If I squinted, I even thought one looked like my Griffy.
I continued my animal pleasures at Mia Hudson Antiques as I marveled at her inkwell collection. She had a complete set of green parrots. I think about the skill it would take to use the inkwell and the companion scrubber. Writing as an art form. Not an email, not a text, not even a phone call. Really, literally dipping one stroke after another. And we think computers are civilized.
Whoever thought antiques are boring and Staffordshire figurines are just cute little cats hasn’t heard about Maria Marten and hasn’t talked to Elinor Penna. Well Elinor is considered “the most recognized collector and dealer in Staffordshire figures.” Let’s face it, heads turn when someone says “murder.” People listen. Elinor was going along and telling me about flat-backed cats, and the William and Marys, but then she pointed out The Red Barn and Maria Marten’s murder. I, and those around me, stopped. Murder always stops traffic. Seems that Maria was supposed to meet her lover, William Corder at the red barn. They were supposed to elope. Instead, Willy killed Maria and buried her in the barn and ran away. Nothing like a good notorious crime to bring out the best in us and have everybody rubbernecking at the Staffordshire. Needless to say, I left Elinor’s booth with more visitors than when I arrived. It was interesting that Elinor pointed out how rare a piece The Red Barn was because such topics were not usually chosen to be depicted as figurines.
As a companion to the selling of antiques, Bettianne also offered an appraisal clinic showcasing The Antique Road Show’s Gordon Converse. The appraisals were by appointment with a per item charge with all proceeds going to charity. Whenever I looked at the appraisal area, Mr. Converse was always busy, and there was always people waiting to see him. It was a compliment to the show to have such a service being used.
When my experience was done, I was full. I had gorged at Bettianne’s Holiday Antiques Show with her family and her friends. My banquet had begun with Missy, Bettianne’s youngest daughter who greeted me at the entrance table. I had missed the grandchildren; they all had to leave to return to college. The feast had continued with meeting the dealers, many of which were in fact dear friends of Beattianne.
All the stories, all the beautiful antiques and collectibles, from all the dealers, from over thirteen states, and England, made me exhausted like turkey’s tryptophan. I arrived a stranger, but I left a friend. So if you like a good story, and admire antiques, come home for Thanksgiving next year to Bettianne Sweeney’s 30th Holiday Antiques Show.
photos by Lana Pennington