Delaware: First in antiques

From a historical perspective, an appropriate starting point for exploring Delaware would be Lewes, the oldest city in the state. The Dutch landed there and first settled in the vicinity in 1631.

Lewes (pronounced Loo-iss) last year was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. The honor came at an opportune time. “Last year was a bit challenging because the main street was torn up from January to May, so nobody came to town,” said Josephine Keir, owner of Josephine Keir Ltd., a gallery that specializes in Oriental rugs, fine art and antiques.

Keir endured the inconvenience, as did her longtime customers. “We’ve been in business 19 years, so obviously we have a lot of regular clients. We’re a resort town so we have a lot of people who have second homes and think traveling to us is worth the drive because of no (sales) tax. We have a lot of business from Washington and Philadelphia,” said Keir.

Keir’s gallery is located at 102 Savannah Road and Front Street. “We’re right on the canal,” she said. “I share space with an interior designer whom I’ve known for 20 years. We work well together.”

Her fascination with textiles prompted Keir to become involved in the trade. “I was working with some people in the rug business, and I fell in love with rugs,” said Keir, who long ago bought fabric and rug remnants while spending summers in the UK. Now she specializes in unique family-made and village-made tribal and Oriental rugs. She also offers 19th- and 20th-century paintings, including some by contemporary artists. Antiques complement the paintings and rugs. “Sometimes I have a lot of antique pieces and sometimes not. It just depends,” said Keir.

The largest multidealer antique store in town is Lewes Mercantile Antiques, at 109 Second St. Store manager Mary Ann Gordon said their 30 dealers stock everything from architectural items to fine china to country. The antique mall has been open since 1991.    

About 10 miles to the south is Delaware’s foremost Atlantic resort Rehoboth Beach, with its mile-long boardwalk. Nearby at 220 Rehoboth Ave. is the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, site of the annual Delaware Coast Antique Show and Sale. Melvin L. Arion, promoter of the Original York (Pa.) Antiques Show, founded the Delaware Coast Antique Show 11 years ago. He noted that September is a popular time to stage the show because the weather is mild and the crush of summer tourists has eased. Arion assembles 35 dealers who exhibit a broad range of merchandise. “Something for everyone,” he said. This year’s show dates are Sept. 7-9.

Heading inland on State Route 24, travelers flock to Millsboro and the Millsboro Bazaar at 238 Main St. Dave Mayer, who opened the shop in 1989, said he chose that name so he could sell anything he chose to. His specialty is vintage costume jewelry, a favorite of women traveling to and from nearby resorts. “I figured if I was going to be doing this when I’m 80, it would be a lot easier to carry jewelry than oak dressers,” he said. Mayer also stocks vintage fashions along with “a little bit of everything.” He noted that Delaware Today magazine last year named Millsboro Bazaar the best downstate antique shop. With three other shops in the vicinity, antiquers should allow at least half a day shopping in Millsboro, advised Mayer. Millsboro Bazaar is closed on Thursdays.

Fifteen miles farther west on Route 24 is Laurel, where O’Neal is a popular name. “The town is crawling with O’Neals,” said Shirley O’Neal, who with her husband, Louis, owns O’Neal’s Antiques. (She said the O’Neals who are auctioneers in Laurel are distant cousins.) Shirley and Louis opened their shop 17 years ago on a two-acre parcel at the corner of U.S. Route 13 and Sycamore Road. “They put traffic lights right here at my entrance. I say that light has my name on it because when traffic is zipping by at 60 miles an hour you don’t see all the shops. If you’re stopped by the light you’re going to look around and see what’s here,” said Shirley.

Customers will find a tidy store loaded with antique furniture ready for the home. “We’re here more than we’re at home so I want to be surrounded by nice things, not junk,” said Shirley. Louis O’Neal, who has a graduate diamond diploma from the Gemological Institute of America, specializes in estate jewelry. “It’s the smallest part of the store, but our main business. We sell gold, diamonds, colored stones. We know what we’re selling,” said Shirley.

O’Neal Antiques is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sunday. “We were told when we opened you couldn’t run an antique shop without being open on Sunday. Well, the people who told us that have been gone a long time. We’re still here, but we’re never here on Sunday,” said Shirley.

Andrew O’Neal directs the day-to-day operations of Joseph C. O’Neal & Sons, the auction company founded by his father in 1971. While Andrew shares the auctioneering duties with his father, younger brother Randy is the financial and technical manager. “My brother Randy has done a wonderful job on our Web site. Our sales are always posted there,” said Andrew O’Neal.

O’Neal & Sons conducts up to eight major auctions per year, which are cataloged and on eBay Live, in addition to biweekly estate-type auctions on Saturdays. Sales are held in a spacious auction center built five years ago at 11112 Laurel Road, in Laurel.

Andrew O’Neal said 2006 was a banner year for their auction company. “It was the best year to date as far as antiques. We also sell real estate, but not even factoring that in, it was our most successful year,” he said.
Bolstering the bottom line was a large estate auction of former Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel. A handcrafted mahogany Chippendale-style desk with the Seal of Delaware carved on the slant top sold for $33,000. The stylish desk was made and presented in 1972 to Carvel, who served two terms as governor.

O’Neal & Sons first major sale of the year was scheduled for Jan. 26-27 and featured a painting by Joseph Stella titled Tree Forms. “It’s a very nice oil painting. I don’t want to say what it should bring, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold for $50,000,” said O’Neal.

Veteran auctioneer Evard B. Hall moved to rural Greenwood three years ago with the intention of opening an auction center. While zoning restrictions have thwarted that plan, Hall continues to conduct on-site auctions and last fall opened Country Corner Antiques adjacent to his home at the junction of State Route 36 and Woodbridge Road, three miles west of Greenwood. Hall stocks the shop with mostly American furniture from 1780 to 1870. “There are a few collectibles, but nothing newer than about 1900,” said Hall, who became interested in antiques when he attended auctions as a teenager.

Before retiring from DuPont, Hall attended appraiser school, obtained a real-estate license and became an auctioneer. Hall said that he tries to be selective in the auctions he takes, choosing to do only three or four per year. The high point of his career was selling a pair of period Chippendale andirons for $88,000. “Even more amazing, it was an on-site farm sale in Glasgow (Del.). I had appraised them for $5,000. Bidding hit $50,000 and there were three or four people still bidding,” said Hall, noting the sale in July 2003 represents a world’s auction record for andirons. He said similar brass andirons, perhaps by the same New York or Philadelphia maker, are at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Va., home.

A relative newcomer on the antique auction scene is Delmarva A&A Inc., founded three years ago by longtime collectors Bill Stephens and Waring Gates. Their online-absentee auctions focus on early American and European glass, ceramics and small antiques. Bidding on their auction No. 8 will begin in late February and continue through March.

“We’re getting consignments like crazy. We’re gearing up for No. 9 which will be i n August,” said Stephens, who started collecting early glass bottles more than 20 years ago by digging out privies in Philadelphia.

Approximately 500 customers are on their mailing list. Though Delmarva A&A conducts absentee auctions, prospective bidders are encouraged to preview merchandise at their business location at 210 Paddock Lane in Wilmington. “They can come here by making an appointment. It’s always great to have a hands-on because bidders tend to bid better,” said Stephens, who attributes personal service as an important factor in their immediate success. “We go to people’s homes and deliver stuff if they’re close, and we go to their house and look at their stuff instead of saying throw it in a box and send it to us. We’ll go get it. People appreciate that,” said Stephens.

Delmarva A&A’s website,, lists past auction catalogs and results, including lot No. 1 of their December sale, an 1830-40 aquamarine lily pad creamer by a South Jersey glassmaker, which sold for $5,500. The same auction included a circa 1670 English magnum shaft and globe of dark olive-green glass, which brought $7,500.

Main Street Antiques in Newark retains its name from its original downtown location, even though the former owners moved seven years ago to a retail center at the junction of Possum Park Road and Kirkwood Highway. “We’re an antique co-op of about 40 dealers with 5,500 square feet comprised of rooms and showcases and all types of antiques and collectibles,” said owner Antoinette Baker, who bought the business six years ago. “Customers always claim that we’re well-lit, clean and nicely displayed,” said Baker, which may account for the Wilmington News Journal repeatedly awarding a Readers’ Choice first place to Main Street Antiques. “We’ve won it four years in a row,” said Baker.

Delaware resident Jan Whitlock has moved her antique quilt and textile shop two miles across the state line to Chadds Ford. Pa. Whitlock left New York City and a career in design and merchandising of textiles for apparel to establish Jan Whitlock Textiles in 1999. “I like working for myself and I like the creative process,” said Whitlock.

In addition to selling at shows — she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Winter Antiques Show in New York,  setting up for the first time at the Jan. 19-28 edition — Whitlock sells 18th- and 19th-century textiles at her shop at 10 Station Way Road. Until recently, the structure served as the Chadds Ford town hall for four decades and was originally the St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1840. “It’s a great building with wonderful vaulted ceilings,” said Whitlock.

Open by chance or appointment, Whitlock’s shop has been quiet in recent weeks. “I’ve been on the road buying lately and haven’t been there much,” she said. To make an appointment, phone 610-388-7950.

The Delaware Antiques Show features 60 of the country’s most distinguished dealers in American antiques, furniture, paintings, rugs, porcelain, silver, jewelry and other decorative arts. The 44th annual edition of this show, which benefits Winterthur Museum, will be Nov. 9-11 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington.