Pennsylvania stakes its claim as antiques capital

By Tom Hoepf – For Antique Trader
Philadelphia was the capital of the Colonies during most of the American Revolution, and of the newly formed United States until 1800. And Pennsylvania may well be considered the antiques capital of America.
America’s oldest auction house, Samuel T. Freeman & Co., has been a fixture in Philadelphia since Tristram B. Freeman was named the city’s official auctioneer in 1805. Still owned by the Freeman family, the auction house celebrated 200 years in business with its Bicentennial Pennsylvania Sale last November. Top lot in the four-day auction was a paint-decorated candle box that sold for a record $744,825, inclusive of the buyer’s premium.

With Freeman’s firmly established as Philadelphia’s premier auction house for high-end merchandise, newcomer Jeff Kamal sought assistance in his pursuit of a portion of the mid-level market three years ago. Formerly in the wholesale pharmaceutical field, Kamal said he was a longtime auction customer who “got the bug” to run an auction house.

“I was looking to team up with an auction house and obviously couldn’t with anyone in the Philadelphia area because they would view me as a competitor. So I went outside the area and felt that Susanin’s in Chicago had the best technology to offer,” said Kamal, president and CEO of Kamelot Auctions.
Kamelot conducts six auctions per year at its spacious gallery in the former Attwater-Kent radio factory on Wissahickon Avenue in Philadelphia. “We have a niche. There’s really a need for someone that does middle of the road architectural items,” said Kamal.

His spring architectural auction generally focuses on garden items, with indoor fixtures and stained glass sold later in the year. Kamelot Auctions also holds two cataloged auctions of Continental furniture, fine art and decorative arts; and two uncataloged auctions geared primarily toward the trade.

The age-old quest to buy low and sell high continues in Pennsylvania, especially in places like Adamstown, south of Reading in Lancaster County. A wealth of family heirlooms that passed from generation to generation has spawned a cottage industry in this heavily Pennsylvania-German community.
Marilyn Gehman, owner of the popular outdoor market Shupp’s Grove, provided a capsule history of the antique trade in the area. Shupp’s Grove was first a picnic grove and concert venue for country music entertainers such as Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl. In 1962, antique dealer Charles Weik rented the property from owner Jacob Shupp and started a Sunday antique market.
“He and a few friends set up, selling antiques – mostly local furniture and primitives – and did really well. People saw that they were making money and started taking things down from their attics and began selling. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, tons of Lancaster County furniture and antiques were sold – inexpensively. People could take it to Philadelphia or out of the area and make a lot of money. That’s what got it started,” said Gehman.

“Lots of people who set up here, or who came with their parents or grandparents, eventually stayed in the business and bought property along Route 272 here in Adamstown. People who are shop owners along Route 272 got their start here,” said Gehman, who has owned the Shupp’s Grove outdoor market for 14 years.

Every Saturday and Sunday from late April through October, 150 to 225 dealers set up at Shupp’s Grove. A recent development has been the addition of theme weekends, which attracts specialty dealers to complement the regular market lineup.

When dealers needed an indoor location for selling in Adamstown during winter months, they discovered Renninger’s, which was at the time, a farmers market. A collectors’ favorite, Renninger’s is now one of several major antique markets in the area. Renninger’s Adamstown is the site of the Special Sunday Antiques Show on Oct. 1. The company’s next Antiques Extravaganza at its Kutztown location is set for Sept. 28-30, and the popular  Renninger’s show at Valley Forge Convention Center will take place Feb. 24-25.

In addition to its host of multidealer malls, Adamstown is also home to a number of smaller antique stores, like the Village Doll and Toy Shoppe, owned by Becky and Andy Ourant. Opened five years ago, their shop stocks late-19th and early-20th century bisque dolls, dollhouse miniatures, doll-related items and other toys.

“Adamstown is such an attraction for people looking for antiques. Lots of collectors come to shop the markets in the morning and then come see us in the afternoon,” said Andy, who is also a veteran auctioneer.
“We previously operated Village Doll & Toy Auctions but later merged with Noel Barrett,” said Andy, who has been Barrett’s auctioneer for three years. Ourant served as auctioneer for six years at Bertoia Auctions in New Jersey, after doing a three-year stint at Skinner in Boston, which he likened to the equivalent of a college education.

Under one roof in nearby Denver, at 2000 N. Reading Rd., are the affiliated companies of Adamstown Antique Gallery and Morphy Auctions. Adamstown Antique Gallery houses more than 300 showcases filled with antiques and collectibles offered by American, Canadian and European dealers. Morphy Auctions, which conducts quarterly auctions, was co-founded by lifelong collectors turned antique dealers Dan Morphy and Tom Sage Jr. Last year, Diamond International Galleries purchased Morphy Auctions in a deal that also included Adamstown Antique Gallery and the York Toy, Doll, Holiday & Advertising Show, both of which had previously been owned outright by Dan Morphy.

Morphy Auctions has been one of the great success stories of the last few years. The company recently opened a Fine & Decorative Arts department, and ground has been broken for a new addition that will double the gallery’s floor space to 20,000 square feet. “We’ve been very fortunate in that so many exceptional collections have come to us, starting almost the day we opened for business,” said Morphy. “Every sale is exciting to us, and we think our Dec. 7, 8 and 9 Winter auction will introduce us to a whole new audience of bidders, since it contains an excellent private collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist and Hudson River Valley paintings. We are not thought of as only toy, bank and antique advertising auctioneers any more.”

Noel Barrett of Carversville, Pa., turned his interest in antique toys and American cultural artifacts into a career as a dealer and shop owner, and in the last 10 years, as a full-time producer of toy auctions. He teamed up in 1986 with the late Bill Bertoia to auction the Atlanta Toy Museum’s contents, which was Barrett’s springboard to other museum consignments.

“The auction market was doing well. I got tired of running around looking for stuff. I decided I could make a stab at auctioneering and let people bring stuff to me to sell,” said Barrett, who has been a standout appraiser on Antiques Roadshow for many seasons. “It’s given me a lot of visibility. I get a lot of individual consignments from people who see me (on the show). It’s been a lot of fun and a great learning experience.” Barrett’s next auction, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, features dolls and toys from the Mary Merritt Doll Museum.

Now retired, Sanford A. Alderfer founded Alderfer Auction Co. in 1959 and never wavered from his promise to provide customers with “honest, professional and personal service.” Based at 501 Fairgrounds Road in Hatfield, Alderfer’s is one of the busiest auction houses in Pennsylvania, selling not only antiques and art, but also residential and commercial real estate, and industrial property. Earlier this year, the company auctioned the celebrated Chinese porcelain collection and artworks of Severin Fayerman, former chairman of Baldwin Hardware Corp. Alderfer’s will hold a Fine Art & Decorative Accessories catalog sale on Sept. 13 and 14.

Former antique dealers Debra and Ron Pook established the Downingt own, Pa., auction house Pook & Pook Inc. in 1984, and have had a marked impact on the antique and fine arts market since then. From their handsome stone-front gallery and offices – whose original structure carries a historic plaque denoting it was the first post office in Chester County – Pook & Pook conducts about six major cataloged auctions per year. “It’s been a very good year,” said Ron. “Our last sale totaled more than $2 million.”

A Jacob Maentel watercolor portrait of a milliner holding a top hat sold for $469,000, inclusive of buyer’s premium, at Pook & Pook’s sale May 12-13. Their next auction, on Sept. 22-23, will include holdings of a Pennsylvania museum, a Midwestclock collection and 100 museum-quality coverlets.

Dargate Galleries, one of Pittsburgh’s leading auction houses for more than 20 years, now conducts three-day quarterly auctions at its spacious facility on North Lexington Avenue in Point Breeze. “We do entire estates and individual items. We draw mainly from the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, although people from around the country send us items for auction,” said Mathew Roper, Dargate’s researcher and cataloger. “Since Dargate’s owner (Dan Zivko) lives in Cleveland, we have a lot of Ohio estates.”

Roper said that a huge collection of Steuben glass attracted national attention to Dargate Galleries earlier this year, and a fine collection of snuff bottles sparked Internet bidding from Europe and Asia. “Some of them reached several thousand dollars apiece.”

Three Rivers Auction Co. in nearby Washington has grown from doing on-site auctions to a full-service auction company that handles estates. “When I ask clients what they need, 90 percent of the time it’s, ‘We want to get the house emptied, clean up the house and sell it.’ So in doing estate settlements, auctioning real estate seemed like a natural,” said William M. “Tripp” Kline III, president of Three Rivers Auction.

Although Three Rivers Auction now has a modern auction facility in historic downtown Washington, Kline enjoys conducting a traditional on-site auction under the right circumstances. The Volkwein estate in the North Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Aug. 20 was a prime example. “Nothing tops the combination of fresh merchandise, the right name and a beautiful park-like setting,” said Kline.

A longtime favorite in western Pennsylvania, the Antiques Fair at the Meadows, has been rechristened the Washington Antiques Fair and is doing well at a new location. Displaced two years ago from its home turf, The Meadows race track, the monthly outdoor market moved to another local sports venue, Falconi Field, home of the Washington Wild Things minor league baseball team.

“We knew the casinos were coming (to the race track), so people had been courting us for several years. We’ve had a good rapport with the Wild Things people,” said promoter Bridget Kirwan, whose parents founded the show 28 years ago.

Held the last Sunday of the month, March through October, Washington Antiques Fair is held in the paved parking lot outside the ballpark. “We love the new location,” said Kirwan. “We’re getting new blood in because it is a new place and people are rediscovering us.” While the type of merchandise has shifted from traditional antiques to 20th century collectibles, Kirwan said the show continues to attract buyers.

One of the longest-running shows in the state is the Original York Antiques Show, a semiannual affair that started in 1934. Melvin L. Arion, a dealer from Laurel, Del., had exhibited at the show for 30 years before former owner Paul Ettling picked him to take it over. “You might say York is a mecca, the central location for antiquing in Pennsylvania,” said Arion, whose show is held at the York Fairgrounds Convention & Expo Center. The 147th edition of the show, Sept. 1-3, featured 96 dealers exhibiting 18th- and 19th-century furniture and accessories, early porcelain, Oriental rugs and many fine antiques.

The Great Eastern Book, Paper and Advertising Show, held three times a year at the Allentown Fairgrounds, maintains a legion of loyal followers. “We never felt the Internet hurt the show. It just kept going,” said promoter Joyce L. Heilman, who last year sold its counterpart antique show to dealer Clyde Bunce. In addition to the Allentown show, Bunce puts on an antique show, Nov. 11-12, at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds.

Scarcely a day goes by in antiques-rich Pennsylvania that there is not some news of expansion or positive change. While not impervious to the whims of economic change, the antiques sector in the Keystone State traditionally has shown an admirable resilience. The latest news on the Pennsylvania antiques landscape comes from Rhoads & Rhoads, an auction company owned by popular husband-and-wife team Ron and Eileen Rhoads. The son of auctioneer Vic Rhoads, Ron carries on a family tradition that began in southeastern Pennsylvania 50 years ago. The Rhoadses recently announced they are moving their base of operations in Chester County, Pa., to Spring City, one mile from their former location at the Kimberton Fairgrounds. Rhoads and Rhoads Auction Center will now be headquartered in the former Bonnie Brae Auction Center, site of numerous past auctions. Ron and Eileen are renovating the building, and an early October date is planned for their first auction event in the new venue. Additional staff members have been hired to accommodate an increased auction schedule and to ensure the same personal service for which Rhoads and Rhoads has long been known.