Antique Garden Shows: the pursuit of collecting

Posted by admin in Gardening

It was a cold northeastern day in February when I first attended the New York Antique and Garden exhibition held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. Despite the report of an arriving snowstorm, the foliage-filled exhibition was packed with early birds, seeking spring treasures for their collections. An excited group of dealers hovered around a spectacular display in the first grouping of booths. A grand 19th-century American cast iron fountain, weathered with age, was prominently displayed in the center of an exhibitor’s richly decorated cubical. Squeezing in for a closer look, I noted the foundry markings of “J.W. Fisk” stamped on its base. A few moments later, the piece fetched a cool $20,000. The dealer who purchased the Fisk seemed pleased at his find. I realized that I had a lot to learn.

The art of collecting garden antiques is an acquired skill. It may take years to comb through collections of estate sales and antique shops to find the perfect pair of weathered 18th-century French urns. Even then, what looks like an authentic piece may in fact be a skillfully aged reproduction. There are many books on collecting; however, the best method for learning to distinguish a real antique from a reproduction is by attending some of the important garden antique exhibitions held around the country each year.

Astute dealers typically scoop up the rarest finds at the shows held during the late winter months. However, there are always impressive statues, fountains, gates, furniture, and urns displayed at the many garden antiques exhibitions held during the spring.

There are two major spring exhibitions targeting the serious collectors of antique garden ornaments held in April. The Chicago Botanic Garden Antiques and Garden Fair, the premier event of the Midwest, is held April 18-20. There are over 100 dealers presenting the best of their collections at this beautiful show. America’s most celebrated show, the New York Botanical Garden Antique Furniture Show and Sale is held in the Bronx April 27-29. Some of the most noted garden antique dealers in the country participate in this show including Barbara Israel Garden Antiques (Katonah, N.Y.); Finnegan Gallery (Chicago, Ill.); Trellage, Ltd. (New York, N.Y.); and Aileen Minor Antiques (Centreville, Md.).

A chic and fun summer antique show held outside of New York is the Antiques and Design in the Hamptons held August 15-17. Fifty dealers present their collections beneath crisp white tents in the seaside resort. In addition to the presentations of exquisitely aged garden ornaments found at these shows, one can find 19th-century art, antique jewelry, and vast selections of well-polished period furniture.

A festival-like atmosphere prevails at each exhibition. Glorious stage sets usually depicting simulated European gardens anchor the walkways between vendor’s cubicles. Espresso and wine bars offer places to ponder a purchase and there is almost always an offering of delicious cuisines served in a cafe-like setting. Notable authors, garden authorities, and designers conduct workshops and lectures on a variety of subjects ranging from antiques to landscape architecture. A grand gala celebrates the first evening of the show allowing exclusive patrons to get first picks from the best of the collections.

Recently invited to lecture at an event in conjunction with the February Antiques and Garden Show in Nashville, I seized the opportunity to search for a find. This annual show began in 1974 and is now considered one of the preeminent events in the Southeast. Presented in the Nashville Convention Center, over 150 unique dealers exhibit at the show. This year, elaborate waterfalls flowed through gardens designed in the Renaissance style, illustrating the theme: “Global Treasures of Italian Gardens.”

The first step in the pursuit of an undiscovered deal at one of these shows is to survey the inventory. After a careful study of the items displayed in hundreds of dealers’ booths, I scribbled notes on the pieces I was interested in buying. Linda and Howard Stein (Bridgehampton, N.Y., (631)-537-8848) had a striking set of early 19th-century terra cotta four seasons’ figures. Marsh Garden Decor (New Orleans, La., (504) 891-1000) showcased a perfect pair of 19th-century Fern chairs with makers’ marks. Kimball and Bean/Architectural and Garden Antiques (Woodstock, Ill., (815) 444-9000) had an impressive spread including a striking two-tier jardiniere, a turn-of-century American white Gothic bench, and a vintage putti on a dolphin fountain, all of which I admired. Foxglove Antiques and Galleries (Atlanta, Ga., (404) 233-0222) displayed a charming painted Italian writing desk alongside four 19th-century French fruitwood chairs with caned seats and backs. The hand painted Italian Cafissi sink base and oil rubbed bronze Graff Pesaro bar faucet at J. Tribble Antiques (Atlanta, Ga., (404) 846-1156) also caught my eye. There was a rare three-tier cast iron 1880s fountain and a very expensive J.W. Fisk urn at the booth of Archangels Designs (Birmingham, Mich., (248) 770-3611). I settled for some reasonably priced French wire baskets with green live moss and quail eggs, and a trio of framed pressed flowers from Sandstone Gardens (Joplin, Mo., (417) 206-6305). After a quick trip to the espresso bar, I concluded that although they were beautiful, many of the other items were priced a bit high.

It was not until the last day of the event that I rounded a corner and noted a large round urn that stood as the centerpiece of a mom and pop company from New York State. The marvelously proportioned urn was beautifully aged. Three unique reliefs, depicting regal female faces flanked its sides. Upon closer inspection, I saw through the cracked white paint along its base a raised area hiding some lettering. Using discretion, I rubbed a pencil lightly on a sheet of notepaper over the hidden words. Faintly, but distinctly, the letters of “J” and “Fi” and “k” were transcribed. I knew I had a find! Asking for the best price, the dealers admitted to me “they had just gotten the piece and had not had time to research it.” Not knowing what they had found, they sold it to me for a song claiming it was the last day of the show. Trying to hide my excitement, I purchased the piece and arranged for its transport back to New Orleans. I had found a rare J.W. Fisk urn, hidden among the treasures of the Nashville Antique Garden Show!

Although it is not always possible to find a steal at the national garden shows, it can happen on occasion. Most of the dealers are very knowledgeable and frequently select some of the best pieces from their collections for the shows. However, even a seasoned dealer can miss an important detail revealing the value of an antique. Most importantly, the exhibitions offer a great venue for learning and enjoying the beauty of antiques. Attending one of these shows should prove a memorable adventure for any collector, experienced or novice, who enjoys the thrill of the hunt.

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