Sale at the Museum: Washington Winter Show

Photo by Marcus Obal via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Marcus Obal
[photos by Lana Pennington unless otherwise noted]

I have been to museums. The Met, The National Gallery of Art, and The Vatican are some of my favorites that hold invaluable treasure paintings, sculptures and many decorative arts. It is believed that museums collect, safeguard, and make accessible artifacts, which they hold in trust for society. I understand museums. People go to museums for inspiration, enjoyment and education. Usually, pretty quiet venues, you know lots of whispers. I think antique shows can be a bit like museums. Course I think some people might think antique shows even quieter, maybe even more boring than museums. Really. Look around at other people’s old stuff?

Attending the Washington Winter Show in DC had the feeling of a gala affair. You know this side of “black tie, park the town car, I’m wearing my pearls, momma needs a new pair of etchings kind of show.” The grandness of the show was reflected in the 120-page catalogue. The catalogue with glossy finish, historically intriguing text, and stunning photographs would certainly rival the finest of museum art show catalogs. Even the advertisements seemed curiously entertaining. The show’s theme was “Georgetown: Over 200 Years of Style.”

The Washington Winter Show, though its inaugural year, is in fact the evolution of the fifty-five year old Washington Antiques Show. When talking to some of the dealers in general, this debut year had the feeling of youthful cotillion meets old guard high society. The creative curator who organized the first treasured affair was Jonathan G. Willen & Associates. Having the pleasure of meeting Jonathan and seeing his work, his business card is accurate in saying he does extraordinary event planning.

There is much to love about museums: certainly the beauty and wonder. At least once in our lives everybody should have the experience of being moved to tears just from the sheer beauty of art. Mine was only a few years ago when I saw Michelangelo’s David. At first it, I cried because David was perfect and magnificent, and graceful and just so much more. I cried because I was really there standing at his feet. It wasn’t til much later did it overcome me about the wonderment of how had Michelangelo actually done it. Maybe it’s staring at a painting and wondering how the painter made it look so real that you can taste the fruit. Or how did the craftsman carve the feet of the table to look like frogs?

I’m museum conditioned. You know, look with your eyes, hands in your pockets. In case you don’t remember not to touch there are infrared alarms, velvet ropes, and security personnel. However, when I first entered the show, I’m both dumbstruck and “museumfied.” It was not a room. There were no clear boundaries. I simply had taken one step, seemingly fallen down, and was standing in the middle of a maze full of mismatched open spaces. Talk about your sensory overloaded rabbit holes. I had to grab my breath and my catalogue. Adrenaline, racing heart, if I was filming I’d simply hold the camera up and spin . . . oriental rugs, antiques boxes, sterling silver, porcelain, framed etchings. Instantly, I was lost, a tourist, and no longer a native speaker.

When my eyes focused, they settled on boxes. Boxes. Silver boxes. Crystal boxes. Tortoiseshell boxes. Ivory boxes. Gold boxes. I am astounded with boxes, and not just a few choice selections, but so many that to compare me to the child in the candy store would be an understatement. Boxes for jewelry, boxes for knives, boxes for toiletries, boxes for guns, boxes for cigars, boxes for writing, boxes for snuff, and lest not to overlook boxes for tea. Flavors of wood you ask: walnut, mahogany, satinwood, harewood, ebony, rosewood, amboyna, coromandel, sycamore, tulipwood, elm, fruitwoods and others. One might describe Sallea Antiques as the Knipschildt Chocolatier of antique boxes. Jan Kach represented the collection of her mother, Sally Kaltman with grace and learnedness. No matter, my world was already changed. Really, I wanted to be inside the box.

One of the many advantages of visiting museums is viewing the varied mediums used by artists. The same might be said for attending antique shows, and certainly this show. I think the experiences analogous except for the touching and the selling.

I’m intrigued by the craftsmanship of woodworking throughout the centuries. The amazing creations produced without machines, powertools, before massed produced screws and nails. For instance there was the stunning flame mahogany classical carved center table offered by Irvin & Dolores Boyd Antiques. The table was make by Anthony Quervelle, circa 1825 and possessed three formidable lions paw carved feet.

Just as fascinating was a 1694 English Oak Writing Desk Box or Bible Box to be found at Running Battle Antiques. The corners and edges of the box were worn from time and use. How many Bibles had it carried and protected over the centuries? What family documents? Secrets? This craftsmanship could be touched inside and out. Helen Meserve, owner, explained the connection and evolution between the bible box or writing box and that of the William & Mary desk. Helen compared and contrasted the two; describing the later as a “desk box on top a chest,” certainly the earliest ones looked as such. She had me looking at the legs and feet of the desk. She said it’s ok for me to touch. I ran my fingers down and over the sides. There was no touching in museums. Remember, my head was “museumfied.” I went back to the box; this time I touched inside the box.

Dawn Hill Antiques was awashed with 18th & 19th century Swedish painted furniture. Really from a distance the space looked like a winter wonderland with a snowflake-like quality, everything frosted. It was like walking though a plate of meringue. In one corner, a painted Mora clock with bear carving towered at eighty-eight inches, circa 1800 and tagged at $10,000. Okay, it’s wrong of me, I’m sure, but my mind did one of those uncontrolled streams and landed on IKEA and I thought, who would want such Swedish modern if they could stand where I was and see it’s lineage?

A Bird in HandWhen all is said and done, there is always the wood, the artist, and carving tools. Ron Bassin, owner of A Bird in Hand Antiques, told of the master decoy carver, Elmer Crowell. Crowell specialized in shorebirds and waterfowl. The carving was only the half of it; Elmer’s skills as a painter were evident in his subtle feathering and coloration. Ron impassionedly showed me what made a “Crowell” a “Crowell.” One darling bird carving couldn’t have been but two inches tall; the vibrant color, the lively eyes, the sheen on the feathers. Ron described Crowell as the “Rembrandt of Decoy Painting.”

Earle Vandekar of Knightsbridge presented exquisite collections of English pearlware and Chinese exports. I was drawn to a Coal port Porcelain Playing Card Mug, circa 1830. The mug had gilt bands at the rim, the bottom, and the handle. Around the outside of the mug it appeared as though a deck of cards had been thrown upside the mug and stuck. The delight was on the bottom inside: you needed to finish your drink to find more cards. In addition to the mug, there was also another delicious curiosity: an articulated cat Tea Caddy, circa 1850. The cat’s back lifted to expose a hollow inside. While the box was opened, the tail lifted up and the cat’s eyes moved. 1850. Really. Where else do you see such things? Museums. Where else do you touch such things? Exactly. Still the most exciting thought though, is that for just a few more dollars in my piggy bank, I could have walked home with that kitty.

Cunha St. John's Antiques

When looking in the show catalogue, I was struck by the phrase “18th & 19th century tween and whimsies.” I knew that before I left, I would have to find me a whimsie. How can you have a bad day, if you’ve seen a whimsy, is all I was saying. The lords of tweens and whimsies were at Cunha~St. John Antiques. Whimsies were as enchanting to look at as they sounded like. So whimsies are carved pieces of wood that display different abilities like chain links, caged balls, hooks, keys: woodworkers showing off. These wooden whimsies were really quite fun. Another assemblage of eye candy was a collection of eighteen Magic Lantern slides depicting images of Odd Fellows related symbols. The Magic Lantern was the forerunner of the modern slide projector. These slides were reversed paintings on glass. Wayne St. John showed me a captivating porcupine quill box with bone dots set in an ebony frame and inlay elephant circa 1870, $1,500.00. Really can you picture it? Yes. Well, I got

to touch it. But honestly, I wouldn’t really know what to buy. All of it seemed so fascinating. I do think Wayne had the best shopping advice, and said it best when he said, “not to buy anything we wouldn’t want to get stuck with.” I’m taking that as life advice.

Where does your mind go when you hear the “medieval?” Exciting isn’t it? What if you could touch what you are thinking? No. Really. Kings, Queens, Knights, Lords, Ladies, Romans, and Greeks. Charles Edwin Puckett has the world’s largest collection of Illuminated Medieval manuscript leaves for sale: leaves from Books of Hours, Bibles, and Gregorian Chants. Want to relive all the historic battles, conquer worlds no longer in existence? It would be easy to get lost in Puckett’s extensive collection of antique maps and treasured antiquities. Words never looked so beautiful as they do when illuminated. Makes me question our modern book making process and product, let alone our movement to eBooks. I wonder what will be depicted in the museums of our futures?

I wondered a lot about our future museums as I walked around. I thought about what we make now and questioned its staying power. Granted sometimes it’s easier than others to accept what is valuable. For instance Arthur Guy Kaplan, who specializes in Georgian & Victorian jewelry, offered an English amethyst broach set with pearls in black enamel mounting, circa 1860. The broach is beautiful by most anyone’s standards, then and now. On the other hand, Gemini Antiques, owned by twins Leon and Steven Weiss, presented the American Tin Clockwork Ironclad Monitor from 1870 and worth $48,000.00. Who would have ever imagined a tin toy increasing in value to be worth more than most new cars? But still, you have to appreciate its craftsmanship, its tangibleness, its physicality, and its preservation.

The tangible art hanging on the wall is the all too familiar image when we think of museums. However, if we add a small child staring at a piece of art to that image, seems that would freshen it a bit. From a distance, I saw such a child staring at a small painting that was just about eye level. By the time I had finished my questions and notes from a previous dealer, the child was gone but I had to see exactly what was so mesmerizing. The art was hanging at Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art. The name of the painting was Sur La Route by Jules-Emile Zingg, 1882-1942. It was a watercolor and charcoal with vibrant colors, lots of people and animals, all traveling down the road. It looked picturesque, but even more so, it felt happy. I wondered what the child saw. I wonder what the child felt. Next thing I knew, I was that child staring until John Copenhaver came upon me and began to tell me about the artist. I shared about the child and that was all it took for us to begin a conversation relationship for the next forty-five minutes or so. It’s the kind of conversation between strangers that when you finish you feel like you’re leaving a friend.

I think about all the art appreciation courses I took in college, and they would not have compared to the hour I spent with John and later with his business partner Joel Fletcher. Life lessons: learning about Jules-Emile Zingg, Eugen Holtzmann, and Alix Ayme. I don’t have an interior decorator or a stockbroker, but for an hour I had a personal art guide, collector, and teacher. Don’t think that I didn’t run right home and Google all three of those artists and start reading about them. I was excited. Oh yeah, I googled Copenhaver and Fletcher too.

The extensive nature of the Washington Winter Show goes beyond the antiques, it encompassed Six Generations of Style an exhibit from The Tudor Place, an historic home in Georgetown. Other show events included gala dinner, luncheon lecture with Ward Landrigan, dealer talks, guided walks, and appraisals. The show benefits THEARC, St, John’s Community Services, Starlight MidAtlantic, and The Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys.

I don’t think you can go to a museum just once. First off, I don’t think you can see everything in one visit. I also think the museum changes every time you go. Sometimes the experience changes because the art changes. Sometimes the experience changes because you have changed. I think the same can be said for antique shows. I’m sure I didn’t see everything at the Washington Winter Show. I think that would be one of those come stay for three day passes. I know some of the same dealers may very well be at next year’s Washington Winter Show, and I will be glad to see them, but the theme will be different and I’ll be different. What I can count on is that there are people out there, whether they are museum curators or antique dealers that are safe guarding art, in many forms, for my enjoyment, inspiration, and education. So to the museum curator, the antique dealer, and the art collector, I say, “Thank you.”

2 comments

Wonderful article! The Washington Winter Show is indeed an extraordinary show with a remarkable variety of offerings. As a long-time antiques dealer I’ve read hundreds (thousands?) of show reviews, and this is the first that conveys any real comprehension and appreciation of the range and quality of the antiques. The writer’s focus is on the objects and their histories, form, uses, and meaning, and was refreshingly [almost entirely] devoid of comments about their prices. It puts antiques show reviews on a much higher plane than the usual mundane price list. Thank you, Eric Miller… will look for more of your writing!

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