Ohio: It’s not like the ’90s, but antiques are moving

There is easy money to be made in antiques. Travelers seeing giant antique malls along Ohio highways, or scanning long lists of events posted in trade publication calendars, might get this impression of the Buckeye State. Actually, success in the antiques business is a hard nut to crack. It takes work. Ask anyone who’s tried it.

Mike Williams, co-owner of Wooden Nickel Antiques in Cincinnati and Lebanon, has seen the trade change from his two vantage points, auction manager and store owner. “People think the auction business is easy and that you make a ton of money,” said Williams, who has been conducting semiannual auctions since 2002 at the Lebanon location. “Auctions are so much work it’s unbelievable. Nothing is easy anymore,” he said.

Williams said the challenge is acquiring high-quality merchandise, such as Victorian furniture made by Mitchell & Rammelsberg of Cincinnati. “The good stuff sells very well,” he said.

Williams, wife Patty and their partner, Tim Miller, started Wooden Nickel Antiques in 1976 as an architectural-salvage operation. Today their large store at 1400-1414 Central Parkway near downtown Cincinnati handles architectural elements, Victorian furniture, light fixtures, stained-glass windows, garden statuary and decorative arts. Five years ago they opened the second location in Lebanon, primarily as a base for their auctions, which usually are in May and November. Wooden Nickel Antiques in Lebanon is located at 27 W. Mulberry St. The building backs up to the Golden Lamb, Ohio’s oldest inn, established in 1803. Downtown Lebanon has many antique shops and malls.

Main Auction Galleries is an institution in Cincinnati’s highly competitive auction market. Started in 1882, the auction house was acquired by the Karp family in 1910. “The grande dame is still working. God willing, this summer I will be 90,” said Phyllis Tennenbaum Karp, company president. Her son, J. Louis Karp, is the head auctioneer and appraiser. His son, Jonas, is a fifth-generation auctioneer in the family.

Phyllis Karp echoed the sentiments of many auctioneers. “You cannot sell low-end furniture and low-end items in the auction business anymore. People want the higher-grade things,” she said, adding that longevity has advantages. “People say, ‘Oh, I remember when my grandmother dealt with you,’ or things of that nature,” said Karp. Generations of Cincinnati families have bought and sold their belongings at Main Auction Galleries, located at 137 W. Fourth St.

In addition to major antique and fine art auctions held on Sunday about every three months, Main Auction Galleries conducts auctions every Tuesday beginning at 10:30 a.m. The preview is all day Monday.

A new guard has taken over at another prominent Ohio auction house. Jeff and Amelia Jeffers are in their first year of sole ownership of Garth’s Auctions in the town of Delaware. Former owners Tom and Carolyn Porter, who bought the business from founder Garth Oberlander in 1973, are staying on as consultants.

Jeffers became acquainted with Tom Porter in 1991, not as a Garth’s customer, but as a painter hired to paint the farmhouse on the property. Jeffers showed Porter his business plan for starting a franchise restaurant. Porter must have been impressed with the package. “He and Carolyn approached me about buying into the (auction) business at that time,” said Jeffers, who chose to pursue his restaurant plan. The parties got back together in 1995 and worked out an arrangement to be partners, with the Jeffers becoming full owners in 2006.

While the new owners are implementing enhancements to Garth’s auction catalogs and marketing, Jeff Jeffers said important aspects of Garth’s operation will remain unchanged. “Garth’s cornerstones of honesty, integrity and unmatched customer service won’t change under our watch,” said Jeffers.

Garth’s conducts approximately 20 auctions per year with six to nine of them cataloged in full color. Monthly eclectic auctions are not cataloged. “Our eclectic auctions contain excellent quality (merchandise), just not what the national and international market is looking for,” said Jeffers.
Twelve miles east of Delaware is Sunbury, long known for its antique shops on the town square. Local residents Jo and John Valentine changed the landscape in 2003 when they opened Valentine Antique Gallery at 579 W. Cherry St. The newly built facility has 12,000 square feet of showroom space, 124 showcases and numerous room-like settings.

“We tried to put a little different take on it and keep out the flea market-type items. We’re not necessarily high-end, but definitely quality pieces,” said Jo Valentine, adding that her first venture into the trade has been challenging but fun.

Valentine said traffic and sales improved noticeably during the second half of 2006. She noted the importance of the store’s location. Delaware County is the fastest growing county in the state, and nearby Columbus is one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

The epicenter of Ohio’s antique trade Springfield, 35 miles west of Columbus, along I-70. The Springfield Antique Show and Flea Market at the Clark County Fairgrounds has been a crowd favorite for nearly 40 years. Since 1998, Jenkins Management of Indianapolis has managed the monthly event. Three monstrous Extravaganza shows in May, July and September can attract more than 2,000 vendors.

“I always loved going to the Springfield Antique Show when I was growing up,” said Bryan Krick. “I went to college in Dayton so I’d go over to Springfield on weekends to horse around at the flea market.”

For that reason it is not surprising Krick chose property near the fairground to build his Springfield Antique Center, which opened in 1994. This mega-mall overlooking I-70 features more than 1,000 booths and showcases.

Krick, who was raised in the Fostoria area, first built Jeffrey’s Antique Gallery along I-75 in Findlay. It opened in 1990 and remains a popular stop for antiquers traveling the north-south corridor from Michigan to Florida. “It’s kind of the old maid or grande dame of antique malls,” said Krick. “It’s working. Let’s put it that way. It’s not like the ’90s when you could put anything out and it would sell.” When Krick built Springfield Antique Center he chose a facility that he describes as more dealer- and customer-friendly than the one occupied by Jeffrey’s.

Springfield’s original interstate mega-mall is AAA I-70 Antique Mall, which opened in 1994 and is also off Exit 59, within view of the highway. Phil Florence, managing partner, said he believes business is improving. “I can see evidence of that now, which I couldn’t say last year.”

Florence is also managing partner of AAA I-76 Antique Mall, which opened near Ravenna in 1998.  With 50,000 square feet of showroom space and about 300 dealers, it is larger than the Springfield counterpart.
Heart of Ohio Antique Center is located one exit farther east. The sprawling facility was built in 1996 to house a flea market, which soon failed. Bruce and Vivalyn Knight bought the property at I-70 and U.S. Route 40 in 1997 with the intention of making it a first-rate antique mall.          

Earnest Jarrell, general manager of Heart of Ohio, was working as a corporate trainer and problem solver for Fazoli’s Italian restaurants in 1997. “Mr. and Mrs. Knight were regular customers at a restaurant I was turning around,” said Jarrell. “They seemed like nice people and we talked. One thing led to another and soon I was in the antiques business.”
Heart of Ohio opened in March 1998 and has been a major player from the start. “It’s been a good year. Sales are up about 9 percent over last year. We’ve having a solid month (November). Things are moving. The mall still has a waiting list of dealers wanting to get in,” said Jarrell, who compares managing an antique mall to any other business except the product is different.

“That’s a challenge for me; trying t o keep up with what people are looking for and where the business is going tomorrow. The business has changed dramatically in the last nine years with the growth of eBay and the dot-com boom that went down. It’s a huge change and it’s still evolving.  Shows and shops are closing and bigger malls are opening. It seems like the whole dynamic of how people used to buy antiques is changing,” said Jarrell.

Berner’s Antique Auction Gallery is also located at Heart of Ohio Antique Center. Owner Jacob Berner, a third-generation auctioneer, attended auctioneer school and became licensed shortly after graduating high school in 1995. With assistance from his father, James, Berner conducts monthly antique auctions at the 6,000-square-foot gallery.

Mike Clum began his career at age 12, selling antiques from the loft of a barn. He turned to auctioneering full time in 1968. Clum and his wife, Kathy, bought a farm near Rushville, between Zanesville and Lancaster, in 1988. They renovated and enlarged the old barn as the auction gallery and restored the early brick farmhouse as their home. With their daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Larry Watson, joining the business four years ago, the Clums maintain a heavy schedule, averaging about a three-day auction every month.

“We have a three-day auction Jan 2,3 and 4 of a northern Illinois 98-year family collection, and a two-day auction later in January with a marble collection one day and a couple estates put together on the next day,” said Mike, who regularly takes consignments from around the Midwest.
“Ohio has been good to us but there are a lot of auction companies here to compete with. We get our share but we couldn’t survive on what we get out of Ohio alone,” said Clum. “We go to Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and all over the place — wherever they call us.”

Clum’s parents, John and Jane Clum, still help out on auction day. John, who celebrated his 88th birthday Dec. 12, sold his small trucking company in 1976 and became an auctioneer.

Sam Schnaidt, president of Apple Tree Auction Center in Newark, became a full-time auctioneer in 1983, but he and his wife, Heidi, were buying and selling antiques before then.

“The funny thing is, my sister and I grew up with our parents’ antiquing. We went on buying trips to New England pulling a 20-foot trailer every vacation. We grew up saying we’d never have antiques in our houses,” said son David Schnaidt, who is now an auctioneer and vice president of Apple Tree Auction Center. He majored in communications in college, but joined his father in the family business 12 years ago.

Along with estates, antiques and fine art selling regularly at Apple Tree Auction, the Schnaidts have signed a one-year contract with a major U.S. bank to auction unclaimed contents of security deposit boxes. “You never know when you open the bag if it contains five dollars worth of pennies or is full of gold or diamonds. It’s the ultimate treasure hunt,” said Schnaidt, noting that one deposit box contained gold Kugerands worth about a quarter of a million dollars.

Apple Tree Auction also conducts a Heisey Glass auction in mid-June, which coincides with the Heisey Collectors of America convention at the National Heisey Glass Museum in Newark. A.H. Heisey & Co. produced glassware in Newark from 1896 to 1957.

The late Russell T. Kiko Sr., the first Ohio auctioneer to be named to the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, founded Kiko Auctioneers in Canton in 1945. Kiko Auctioneers conducts about 1,100 auctions per year in northeast Ohio, said William H. Gill Jr., one of the comapany’s many auctioneers. “We’re busier every year with more auctions. The business is in the third generation so we’re able to expand and take on more sales,” said Gill. While approximately 70 percent of Kiko’s auctions involve real estate, the company sells its share of antiques. Gill manages the 35 to 45 consignment antique auctions Kiko’s conducts each year at the Knights of Columbus Hall in North Canton.

The Great Geauga Antiques Market has been running so long — since the early 1960s — most people familiar with the event refer to it simply by its place name: Burton. The one-day show takes place just twice a year, in early June and mid-September on the racetrack of the Geauga County Fairgrounds, 25 miles east of Cleveland on Ohio Route 87. The show promoters are fixtures as well. Longtime show dealers Dick and Roma Taylor have managed the market since 1974. Their daughters, Jamie Ciferno and Julie Ewing, and son-in-law Bruce Ewing have joined in and will eventually take over management of the event.

Dick Taylor said that last summer’s shows fared as well as expected for the times. “We had like 300 dealers compared to 500. There was a time when you had to turn people away. In the last few years you have to scramble to get enough dealers and the customers are down some,” said Taylor, optimistic that the worst is behind them.

Taylor said most of their dealers are from the Midwest, western New York, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “In September we’re fortunate to have the weekend following the Brimfield shows and if things are bad in Brimfield, we have a lot of these dealers going back west that are willing to stop and give us another try,” he said. Burton show dates for 2007 are June 2 and Sept. 15.

The Taylor family also manages the annual Zoar Harvest Festival Antique Show, a 65-dealer tented show held the first weekend in August. German Separatists seeking escape from religious persecution in their homeland founded Zoar in 1817. Many of the German-style structures built by the Zoarites have been restored and are open to the public as Zoar Village State Memorial.

A monthly event in the Cincinnati area and flagship of Queen City Shows is the Tri-State Antique Market. The show, the first Sunday of the month, May through October, is at the Lawrenceburg Fairgrounds, one mile off I-275 (Cincinnati beltway, Exit 16) in Lawrenceburg, Ind.

Promoter Bruce Metzger said the market is holding its own with one or two dates having a full complement of dealers, while others fall short of a sellout by about 25 spaces. “Being the first Sunday of the month the show often falls close to the Fourth of July and always on Labor Day weekend. And if you have nice weather on those weekends you would imagine it’s 1998 again,” he said.

Metzger produces two additional shows in the Cincinnati area. The annual 20th Century Cincinnati, a modern-design show in its 13th edition, will be at the Sharonville Convention Center on Feb. 24-25. Metzger has 45 to 50 spaces filled for this show, which is supported by two media sponsors: Public Radio station WVXU and Cincinnati Magazine. “They mentioned our show all over the place. Attendance jumped by a full 25 percent last year,” said Metzger, noting that the media attention lent legitimacy to the show.
Queen City Show’s latest event is the semiannual Ohio Country Antique Show held at the Roberts Convention Centre, I-71 and U.S. Route 68, near Wilmington. The spring edition will be April 14, while the fall show is the third Saturday in October. The show consists of about 50 dealers offering Americana, primitives, rustic, general store, garden and other related antiques in walled booths.

Show promoter Don Scott started the Scott Antique Market at the Ohio Expo Center in Columbus 17 years ago. “I went to the fairground and saw the wonderful buildings and could feel the show happening there,” said Scott, who had launched the Scott Antique Market in Atlanta three years earlier. Since then 400 dealer spaces have been added with the construction of the Celeste Center. The adjacent Bricker Multipurpose Building holds 900 exhibitor spaces.

“We designed the show to have wide aisles because of the crowds and movement of all the furniture,” said Scott, adding, “The show has as much traffic and movement of goods as anywhere. Things seem to move here. Prices are reasonable.”

The n ext Scott Antique Market in Ohio is Jan. 20-21, followed by shows in February and March. A new season opens Nov. 24-25.