Tennessee: Blazing an antiques trail

From Bristol in the northeast to Memphis in the southwest, Tennessee stretches almost 500 miles through prime territory for antiques. Shops and malls abound, as do auctioneers who handle everything from primitives to mid-century Modern. One of the nation’s top antique shows, Heart of Country, now brings shopping excitement to Nashville once a year.

Promoters Richard and Elizabeth Kramer picked Nashville to be the site of their Heart of Country antique show in 1981. They chose the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center because it offered adequate facilities for the show and an abundance of guest  rooms. The Kramers soon started a similar antique show in Houston called Star of Texas, but shut it down it the late 1980s when the oil-driven economy slowed. Kramer said they anticipated the shutdown to be temporary, but it took nearly two decades to restart a show in Texas. Heart of Country eventually became a semiannual event, held in late winter and fall.

Kramer said that because of Nashville’s central location, as many as 85 percent of the show’s customers come from outside Tennessee. He said people come to Nashville because it is easy to travel there and the city is known for being safe. “Maybe a mother will meet her daughter or sisters will meet for the weekend. They can fly on most airlines into Nashville, take the shuttle bus from the airport straight to the hotel and go to the show without having to go outside,” said Kramer.

Most show-goers venture outside, however, to also attend the Tailgate Antique Show and Music Valley Antiques Market held concurrently by Jenkins Management at neighboring hotels. When Kramer moved the fall installment of Heart of Country to the Gaylord Texan hotel near Dallas this year, Tailgate and Music Valley remained in Nashville.

The spring Heart of Country Show will continue to be held in Nashville, with the March 1-3 show opening with a preview party on Thursday evening. It will again feature around 150 dealers.
“It happens to be about the number of dealers who can adequately service our customers without having too much dilution and without having to give up on quality,” said Kramer. He attributes the dearth of qualified dealers mainly to attrition. “Dealers are getting older and are not willing to travel as much and haul as much. The younger people aren’t coming on board, so the pool of qualified show dealers is shrinking,” he said.

Kramer’s wife died a year ago in October. “My wife, Libby, was the one who ran this show for many years. We’re all learning to fly this thing together,” he said. Their daughter, Susan Kramer Hunkins, is the show coordinator. Her husband, Stephen, is in charge of the floor setup.

Prominent auctioneers live and work in Tennessee. Among them is Kimball M. Sterling of Johnson City, who made headlines when he sold the Alex Haley estate in October 1992. The three-day sale, which included Malcolm X documents and Haley’s special Pulitzer Prize for his book Roots, grossed $932,000.

Sterling, who founded his auction company about 20 years ago, enjoys selling the unusual. “I guess we were the first company to do a major outsider-art auction. It was a collection in North Carolina I sold about 12 years ago. The Howard Smith collection is still well known today. We sold about 1,000 pieces in one day. We created a niche in the market by doing that and still have that niche for private clients in that field,” said Sterling.

With the assistance of his wife, Victoria, and three daughters, Sterling conducts about 50 auctions per year and maintains an auction gallery in Johnson City. He is the only auctioneer to have twice won the National Auctioneers Association Best of Show marketing award.

John Coker of New Market has been an antique dealer for 35 years and has owned his auction business for 25 years. Although Coker is not an auctioneer and does not do bid calling, he does everything up to that point. “I’m the one who writes the ads, the one who catalogs everything and publishes the catalog. (Bid calling) is the last thing I want to do,” he said.

Much of his attention these days is designing a new auction facility to be constructed next year near Knoxville. While he is planning such innovations as heated floors and drive-in loading and unloading, he is eager to get input from auctioneers and auction-goers.

“I would like to hear from people who have built an auction hall from the ground up, to avoid mistakes they made and to hear what they would change,” said Coker. “If someone has a suggestion about what to do or not do, I’m interested in hearing it.”

In addition to the 20 to 24 auctions he conducts each year, Coker also operates Antiques Online (www.antiquesonline.com), where he sells antiques and collectibles at set prices. With about 3,000 items posted on the site at any time, Coker said Antiques Online accounts for about half his total sales.

While not having any blockbuster auctions this year, business has been good. “We have had several large on-premises auctions of houses. That seems to be where the public responds terrifically. They love to come and see an old house where people have lived for a long time. They may have driven by and just like to see what’s there. They want a piece of it,” said Coker.

An estate that originated near Flemingsburg, Ky., and was moved to eastern Tennessee about 25 years ago will be a major sale for Coker sometime next spring. “It came from a big pre-Civil War house that had everything imaginable in it, from a child’s miniature Kentucky chest to Kentucky portraits,” he said.

Danny E. Ratcliff of Athens has been an auctioneer for at least 40 of his 61 years. After working for other auctioneers early in his career, he started his auction service in the early 1970s. Amid a busy schedule of estate, farm and real estate auctions, Ratcliff conducts regular antique auction, usually on the second Saturday of the month.

“Athens is a great auction town. People around here love auctions of all types and they appreciate a good antique auction,” said Ratcliff, adding that the last few years have been a buyer’s market.

“I think the antique market everywhere has been soft. It’s the good stuff that sells. It’s what people are looking for. The average stuff, the mediocre stuff is almost a nonexistent market anymore,” said Ratcliff. “If it’s a good piece of furniture and they want it, they will pay top dollar. But it has to be good antique stuff for us to have a successful sale.”

Clyde and Ruby Watson have been married nearly 50 years and have operated Lawrenceburg Antique & Auction since 1993. They and their son, Donny, conduct three to five auctions per year. “We started out as more or less a junk auction — probably $11,000 our first sale. We’ve upgraded since then with sales up to a half million dollars. We’ve been fortunate to get some good merchandise over the years,” said Clyde, who became interested in antiques as a young man when he bought old furniture to refinish.

Watson said it has become difficult to predict whether or not an auction will produce strong prices.

“It’s hard because you don’t know what to pay for anything any more. I used to be able to buy a piece and tell you exactly who was going to buy it, but that’s impossible to do anymore. Dealers don’t have a particular market they can sell to. They don’t know where they can dispose of it right off hand because the younger generation likes different stuff,” said Watson.

Gas Lamp Antique & Decorating Mall opened two years ago in Nashville’s Berry Hill District. Geeta Bradley is the marketing director at the upscale mall and also works the sales floor. “I learned early that if I worked at an antique mall I could learn a lot,” said Bradley, who is one of the dealers at the store. “This is a great place to work. It is climate controlled, which you don’t find in older places, and we have music playing all the time. All the workers are knowledgeable about what we sell.”

Located at 100 Powell Place on the south side of Nashville, the mall has 25,000 square feet of showroom space and 150 exhibitor spaces. Owner Mike Chilando, a prominent local businessman who also owns muffler stores in Nashville, has installed a passenger and freight elevator. “Everything here is state of the art,” said Bradley.

Harpeth Antique Mall in Franklin, 18 miles south of Nashville off I-65, is named for the river than runs through Williamson County. Owner Carl Zehner said the county ranks among the highest income per capita in the nation. “It’s a good place to have an antique mall,” he said, noting there are seven antique malls in Franklin alone. “We’re fortunate to have such a good selection of merchandise. There are 117 dealers in the store, part cases and part booths.”

The store is in a strip mall behind McDonald’s at 529 Alexander Plaza. Business has been steady at Harpeth Antique Mall, which Zehner has owned for 13 years. “We’re ahead of last year. As of yesterday (Nov. 28) we were 16 percent ahead of November of last year,” said Zehner.
Rare Bird Antique Mall has been open 12 years at 212 S. Main St. in downtown Goodlettsville, 10 miles north of Nashville off I-65. “As the name Rare Bird implies, that’s what we are,” said Joan Wright, who owns the mall with her husband, Jon. “Our store is different than most of your stops. Everybody who comes here says this is the best place they’ve ever been in.”

Dealers at Rare Bird Antique Mall give particular attention to displaying their merchandise, said Wright. “Everything at the front of the building is new old stock, products that never sold, old store items that never sold,” she said. The structure, built in 1947, was originally a grocery store. Rare Bird Antique Mall also carries a good selection of what Wright calls “men’s toys,” like sporting collectibles and automobilia.

Gallatin, 35 miles northeast of Nashville, has a historic downtown that boasts a variety of shops. Antiques on Main, owned by Peggy Vantrease, is one of the largest with 10,000 square feet of display space in a former appliance store. Antiques on Main has about 40 dealers.

Vantrease enjoyed selling at flea markets so much she quit her regular job to open Antiques on Main in 1988. “I like the variety and the people. I like to see all the things they collect,” said Vantrease.

Dean Howard had already worked in antique mall management for a friend before buying Antique Village Mall in Crossville 11 years ago. Visible from I-40 between Nashville and Knoxville, the mall has 70 dealers and 10,000 square feet of space. A collector for many years, Howard keeps a display of pressed-glass cake stands at the mall.

During the fall and through the holiday season, Antique Village Mall opens on Sundays at 10 a.m. “We have a lot of travelers who go to the U.T. football games and to Gatlinburg for the fall foliage, and a lot of them like to shop early on Sunday,” said Howard.

East Town Antique Mall in Chattanooga is one of eight antique stores located in a retail complex known as either East Ridge Antique Center or Chattanooga Antique Center. Bob Pickrell has owned East Town Antique Mall for the last three years. He bought the mall from the original owners, who opened in the mid-1980s.

“With eight stores it’s a good place for travelers to stop,” said Pickrell. East Town Antique Mall is located at 6503 Slater Road, behind a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The store complex is west of the last exit off I-75 before entering Georgia. The mall has 90 dealers and several major consignors in a former supermarket.

“We’ve had a decent year. There’s another store opening  so obviously some people think it’s good,” Pickrell said.