Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On developing an "eye," or, how antiquing can make you a basket case

Any time we antiquers, yard-sale followers, and all-around shoppers for a good buy venture out in search of something, we are training our eye. Unconsciously over time, we learn to identify what is good or excellent and what to dismiss. I was subjected to this early in life as the child of an antique dealer (Mom) and her willing accomplice (Dad). My sister, brother, and I were hapless participants in such diverse experiences as driving through eastern countrysides to the other extreme of visiting Parke-Bernet and Fred Silberman's shop in Manhattan (I'm sure they thought were hayseeds right off the turnip truck). And some places were practically in our back yard, like Garth's Auctions ( This was the 1970s: Parke-Bernet is now Sotheby's, and Mr. Silberman and Garth's are still going strong from all accounts.

So my parents liked Art Deco and art in general and I liked primitives and folk art. Go figure. The early indoctrination worked. Which is why I find myself going to antique shows when I can. One near me twice a year is the Mid-Atlantic Antiques Market. Last year, I spotted this great basket in the booth of dealer Judy Welton:

I really liked the top; it was so unusual and I hadn't seen anything like it before.
Ms. Welton told me that the man she bought the basket from said it had been made by a man in Delaware named Miner, probably early 20th century. I decided to buy the basket, took it home, and it rests to this day on top of our old cupboard. A few months later, we were visiting relatives in Massachusetts when the kids wanted to go to the beach. I encouraged them to go to one near Essex so that I could make a side trip to Cogswell's Grant. Funny, but none of the adults wanted to go with me!

Cogswell's Grant was one of the homes of Bertram and Nina Fletcher Little, who were experts in American antiques and folk art (see sidebar for link to more information). The tour I had there was fantastic. I was the only person besides the guide, who humored me for 2 hours with an in-depth look at the Littles' house and their collection. Early in the tour I spotted a basket that looked something like mine, or so I thought: This picture, and the one that follows of the bottom of the basket, were later supplied to me by Cogswell's Grant--no pictures were allowed on the tour. Nina Little had a habit of putting jelly jar labels on many of her finds. This basket was apparently Shaker and from the community at Enfield, NH. I think that the CG people thought I was crazy, but they were incredibly helpful. When they saw me foaming at the mouth gaping at their basket, they knew they just had to help!When I asked the folks at CG about the basic technique of a Shaker basket being so similar to my Delaware basket, they pointed out that basket making has variations, but a lot remains similar. The techniques persist over time and space. Always ask questions if you have them. Visiting treasures like Cogswell's Grant are golden opportunities. It's fun to keep working on your "eye."


Lydia said...

Great info. You really have a talent for the historical, Jenny:)

Hey, we were in your neck of the woods. Serge had his pulmonologist appt. in Baltimore. NO MORE Reactivity!!! She turned and looked at him and said, "It looks like you are one of the lucky ones growing out of the asthma". YooHoo

Almost called you for Nordy's. Met up with Alex.

Could they tell you about your basket?

Jenny said...

That's great news about Serge! Did he want to get together with Owen this weekend?

When I was there, Cogswell's Grant asked me to send pictures of my basket to them for their files, which I did after my trip. Apparently, they hadn't seen a basket quite like mine before. But they wanted to exchange the information. Like me, they are trying to learn as much as they can about what they have. The accession file for the basket only indicated that Mrs. Little acquired it at an auction in the 1960s. Other than the jelly jar label, that's all CG knows about it!