Some thought about recent stories in the media
Dollhouse miniatures have received some attention from mainstream media recently with an article appearing the Wall Street Journal last week and the announcement that Winterthur is going to display a huge dollhouse during the holidays that was gifted to them by the estate of a woman in Connecticut. Social media has picked up on these stories and my facebook pages have seen them reposted on an almost daily basis. I believe any mainstream media publicity about dollhouses and miniatures is a good thing in general, but I do have a couple of issues with these stories that I've been considering and discussing with cohorts.
First, the Wall Street Journal article. I heard about this story last month from someone who was contacted by the author while it was being researched and prepared and I was sort of perturbed by what I heard about the author's queries and the sort of story she was clearly trying to promote. She wanted to draw some sort of parallel between the markets for dollhouses and full-sized houses and wanted to devote a lot of attention to the most expensive houses she had heard about. So she was contacting auctioneers and people she had heard about who paid big money for their dollhouses. One of the houses she was most fixated upon was Elaine Diehl's Astolat. Some of you may recall when it was displayed in New York last year prior to being offered at auction. The hype about the house at that time was that it was valued at seven million dollars yet it failed to sell and is still looking for a buyer or another venue where it can be offered for sale. Curiously, no one seems to know where that ridiculous number comes from. I assumed it was provided by the owner (no responsible appraiser would have assigned such an outlandinsh value to it) with the hopes that the ridiculously inflated figure would somehow draw wealthy would-be buyers to the auction, who might not recognize the inexpensive Petite Princess and Sonia Messer furniture that decorated some of the rooms, or the poorly applied moldings and wallpapers. At the time, I thought is was so insane that it was actually funny. But then when this writer started calling people and asking about this multi-million dollar house last month and buying into the hype, I started to feel a familiar concern about what happens when people who don't know much about miniatures start to carry on about crazy prices. They get other uninformed people to think that if that house is so valuable, then their dollhouse might be worth a lot as well.
Here's the thing: There is almost NO market for second-hand HUGE dollhouses. Outstanding antique houses like those sold at Noel Barrett's auctions in the past ten years have an historic value that doesn't really have anything to do with what someone paid for it years ago, or what the value of the silverware or dolls inside it might be. Truly wonderful antique dollhouses have an historic importance that outweighs the actual monetary value, and they are a completely different animal when compared to something like Astolat or the insanely over-priced Broel houses on ebay that have found no buyers for YEARS.
Huge dollhouses custom-made for specific collectors are problematic when they come to the secondary market. They almost always reflect a particular vision of the owner and often have no or very limited appeal to anyone else, and there are fewer and fewer collectors who have either the room or inclination to purchase something as big and ungainly as Astolat. An entire generation of older collectors have reached an age where they now want to pass on their houses and contents in the marketplace they are having very limited success in doing so.
Despite all the hype that attended the sale of Cookie Ziemba's collection at Hindman's two years ago, most of her houses sold for a small fraction of what she paid for them and I fear some of the English houses cos tore just to ship them to the State than were paid for them at the auction. Her big houses were prohibitively expensive for anyone to ship to a new home and that's just one reasons they did poorly. The pool of potential buyers for these houses is so much smaller than it was ten or 20 years ago when the houses were first commissioned. SO many museums that might have been interested 20 years ago are either closed or no longer willing to spend a lot of capital when their other expenses are growing by leaps and bounds. Many museums refuse donations unless they come with a trust fund for their upkeep, which I suspect may have been the case with the Winterthur house. So without the museums in the potential buyer pool, there are very few private collectors who want to buy someone else's monster house, especially when it is filled with so much commercial furniture like those Broel houses in New Orleans. It is hard to fathom how they come up with the values they place on them but for that one universal myth so many poeple cling to: that what they spend is what it's worth.
People really need to understand that new dollhouses, especially commercial ones, are like new cars in that they lose a lot of value as soon as you bring them home. When you go to resell them, you are NOT going to get an amount of money anywhere near what you spent. This also true when it comes to commercial dollhouse furniture and a lot of more common artisan things as well. Unless you buy only the very best and most rare artisan work, you should not be looking at your collection as some sort of investment. Seriously. You can spent a LOT of money of your stuff, but it doesn't mean it will hold or increase in value. NONE of the mass media articles ever mention this fact, and I feel they actually encourage people to think of all miniatures as investments. No, no, NO.
I still shudder when I recall a visit to another collector's house where she extended her arm outward to present the vista of her multi-room collection and said "This is my 401K". It doesn't work that way, and irresponsible newspaper articles only promote this fallacy.
I was actually relieved when Astolat was never mentioned in the article when it finally appeared in print, but I was appalled at the amount of space devoted to the House Broel collection. Mulvany and Rogers deserve all the good press they gather, but touting this mediocre collection in New Orleans really annoyed me. The same Lawbre house they want $85,000 for on ebay sold for only $2000 at auction in May - unfurnished, yes - but the same model house. Listen up, folks. Your Lawbre house is NOT going to increase in value even if it is a limited edition, just like your LE Olszewski figurines are worth only a small fraction of what you paid for them back in the 1990's. When commercial ventures create things for the sole purpose of being collected, you should be very very cautious. Look what happened to Longaberger.
As for the house at Winterthur, my impression is that this is another huge house designed for a specific taste and while the quality of the furnishings is better than anything you see in the Broel houses, I can't imagine this house selling for very much at auction, so it was probably a good move for the estate to donate it and take a tax credit. I'm surprised they found a place as prestigious as Winterthur willing to take it unless it came with a nice endowment. I can't help thinking that I know a lot of other houses better than this one that would be more appropriate to that venue, but it's fate is going to be better than the huge house house I bought last year from Mary Kaliski's collection. Mary's family said she paid $20,000 for it. I bought it for $200 when it failed to sell at auction. It cost the auction house more than that just to pick it up from her home in Long Island and bring it to the auction hall. No wonder so many auctioneers are hesitant to accept big dollhouses for consignment.
I have read the Winterthur interns' blog about cleaning and "restoring" the house for display and had a chuckle over their self-congratulatory posts when they figured out how to do things that miniatureists have known how to do for decades. And I think the clumsy way they wired up the pictures to hang on the walls totally distracts the viewer. Yes, they figured out that wax and Blu-tac are no-no's, but thjere are much better ways to do it had they just asked somebody. It's funny. (9.14.2016)
My very first experience with Guild School in Castine - June 2016
Well, I finally did it. For years I had wanted to attend Guild School but when it came time to sign up and send in the check, I always found some more pressing use for that money. Also, I'm not a fan of long distance driving. But this year I finally took the plunge and a few days before classes commenced, my husband and I began our trek from the woodlands of western New Jersey to mid-coastal Maine. We broke our journey with a stop in Essex, MA and took a day to visit Cogswell's Grant (wonderful) and the Wenham Children's Museum (not wonderful) and enjoyed some very nice restaurant meals before completing the drive to Castine. We were lucky to have nice weather during the journey and I really didn't mind that it was cool and a little rainy for the first four days of classes after we arrived. Better to have cool weather than be uncomfortable in heat. My husband accompanied me as a "guest" who did not take classes but stayed in the dorm with me and shared meals in the cafeteria. He was supposed to be relaxing but actually ended up spending a lot of time on the TWO computers he brought with him, working remotely away from his New York City office even though he was supposed to be on vacation. But I didn't have to hear him complain of being bored!
The Guild sent out helpful materials well before our departure but we were still pretty confused when we got there and didn't know where the entrance to our dorm was, where we should park or how to find the elevator to get our stuff up to our room. So it took us a good hour to find our way and get settled. I had read a warning about the spartan dorm accomodations and suggestions about bringing extra padding for the mattresses, so I was glad I brought a foam cot mattress with me, even though I looked ridiculous hauling it into the elevator and into our room. I felt a bit like the Princess (and the Pea) sleeping on two mattresses but it was worth the hassle. I also brought my own over-sized bath towels but wish I brought my own toilet paper - ouch!
I was somewhat overwhelmed by how many students and teachers populate that week of classes. Judging from the crowded cafeteria, I suppose there were somewhere between 200 to 300 people there when everyone gathered together for things like the Lobster Cookout and the final Friday night "banquet". I later learned I was one of about 30 first-timers there, and as I mentioned to a few people, there were some times when I really felt like an outsider as people often seemed to gather in little groups of familiars. My husband and I made an effort to be friendly among so many strangers and I found some folks were very welcoming while others were pretty wrapped up in their own groups of friends. Sometimes it felt a lot like high school...
I wasn't a fan of the cafeteria food. I liked breakfast the best because I could order an omelette with all the things I like in one and there was always fresh fruit. I have to say that the food service workers were exceptionally friendly and helpful at all times. Our first few dinners were overcooked but I felt the food got better as the week progressed. Some people said they liked the food. There certainly was plenty of it!
Students can attend up to 48 classroom hours of instruction but I chose to limit myself to 36 and was glad I did. I found myself very tired the entire week as I'm not normally an early riser and my first class started at 7:45 AM every day! I signed up for two classes. My 24-hour morning class was painting children's chairs with Mary Grady O'Brien. I've been a fan of Mary's since I bought my first tole deed box from her in the 1970's and I was so pleased that I was able to enroll in her class. We had three different miniature chairs by Mark Murphy and although I thought we were going to be able to choose the background colors for our chairs, they came pre-painted in brown, apple green and a medium grass green and they looked so cute when we opened our little round custom-made boxes and extracted our chairs. After a few days of class, it was apparent that 24 classroom hours was probably twice as much time as was needed. I finished my chairs on Tuesday and Mary was very kind to let me paint a fourth one. Other people painted frakturs after they finished their chairs on Wed. or Thursday. I skipped class on Thursday and did needlework in class on Friday. I realized that rather than choose a class because I wanted to take home that finished product, I should have chosen something that was new to me so I would learn new skills and maybe discover a new passion. I am still glad I was in Mary's class and we had a great time recalling the artists we had known in the 1970's. I did become more comfortable working with oil, and learned that one can hasten the drying process using a toaster oven set at 200 degrees!
These are the chairs I painted. The painted patterns on the green chairs copied the examples, but with Mary's encouragement, I painted my own designs on the brown and yellow chairs.
I based this basket design on a traditional theorem design from one of my favorite books.
My other class was with Pat Hartman and I finally learned how to make a French knot! I had tried to teach myself from books and videos but finally seeing Pat do it and explain what she was doing with her other hand, it clicked for me and I was off to the races. On the first day, Pat said nobody finishes their little knotted rugs during the school week. Not only did I finish my rug, but I completed a second one. I was lucky to have an upholstered sofa in the hallway outside my dorm room, opposite a sunny window, so when I wasn't attending an evening program, or relaxing before dinnertime, I worked on my rugs. I found it so relaxing at the end of the class day, and now that I'm home, I'm already working on my next rug. Using the French knot method to simulate a "hooked" rug renders a finished product that looks more realistic to me than a petitpoint carpet. While intricate patterns and tiny, tiny stitches are a marvel, petitpoint makes a rug without a nap so there is always that tiny barrier to suspending belief. Who knows? I might never make another petitpoint rug again...
The class project was the little tombstone rug designed to fit inside a wall cupboard door by Barbara Vajnar, but I elected to forego her cupboard and plan to make my own. The rug on the right was meant to be a "practice" piece before doing th class project, and I worked on it for a day before starting the other rug. I can see the improvement in my knots over the course of just a few days! After I got home, I made another, slightly larger rug based on a familiar design:
I already have ideas for larger rugs and look forward to purchasing some over-dyed skeins of floss. This last rug was made using 30-year-old Flower thread I had on hand that looks a little more like wool but also makes a slightly larger knot due to its thickness.
Not only did I find it a bit overwhelming to be in the midst of so many people at once, but to be among so much talent all in one place was truly humbling. I sat beside people who are Artisans and Fellows and felt totally out-classed when I saw their work displayed in the gallery during the earlier part of the week.
I did not enjoy the live auction event. There were some really nice things on offer and prices were high (as I had been told to expect), but that was not my issue. As someone who regularly works in the auction business, I quickly got annoyed with the utter chaos that reigned during the calling of the bids. Bill Robertson introduced his sister as the auctioneer for the evening, but continually jumped in and took bids at the same time she was trying to see bidders and call the auction. There are few things I can imagine as confusing as two auctioneers selling the same item at the same time. Several times it got so confused they had to start over so I felt like the evening dragged on unnecessarily. Others were quite good-natured about it, but it bothered me, the room was getting very warm, so we left after about 20 lots.
The other thing I didn't like about the auction was that the very best items offered in the sale were purchased for someone who was not at the Guild School that week. Someone in the audience was bidding for Kay Browning and apparently told so many people about it that the next day at lunch, everyone knew what she got. I appreciate that the primary purpose of the auction is to raise a lot of money to help the Guild School scholarship fund and to try to keep costs down for those attending, but I don't think it's fair for someone who doesn't take the time or invest in the expense involved in coming to school to be able to purchase things in the auction. It should only be for the people attending in person, so I think it's wrong that she had someone buying the best things as her proxy.
On Thursday evening, the teachers set up a small show/sale in the gymnasium and I was able to buy a pair of chairs from Mark Murphy (whose table was quickly sold out) and a folk painting and painted wooden table top box from Mary Grady O'Brien. I knew she would not be at the Guild Show in Teaneck in August, so I made a point of buying from her at Castine.
One of the two green Windsor chairs I purchased from Mark Murphy.
I met Anne Day Smith, who used to write for Nutshell News and Miniature Collector and she is going to be writing some artist profiles for MC in the future. Throughout the week in Castine, I heard numerous people comment about the decline of Miniature Collector and several people I spoke with told me they let their subscriptions run out because the quality has become so bad since Barb Aardema retired. I was glad to learn I wasn't the only subscriber to notice and be disappointed by the downward trajectory of the magazine. I have some comments about the editorial content in the section below.
It was an exhausting week and I am uncertain about returning again. I did meet some very nice people, and when I mentioned some of my disappointments to the Yahoo Petitpointers group on line, several of the folks I didn't really get a chance to get to know, wrote very encouraging posts urging me to return for another try. Maybe. We'll see. (6.27.2016)
I want to share a recent experience I had with the new editor of Miniature Collector magazine.
As I was coming to the end of my reconstruction project involving Mary Kaliski's huge Victorian mansion, I was contacted by the new editor of the magazine asking me when was I going to have another auction. For some reason he thought I was an auctioneer. I corrected him and then mentioned that my Swedish farmhouse project might interest his readers as Mary's articles and photographs had been a fixture of the magazine for so many years, and MC ran multiple auction recaps when her collection was sold after her death. He asked me to provide some photos of my project so he could discuss it with his editorial board. What board? He is the only editor. There's an art director who lays out the magazine and there is guy who sells ads. That's about it. If you check the most recent table of contents, they had ONE contributor and Stan wrote all the rest of the copy.
If you have been a subscriber for some time, you have seen the magazine become very thin these days. The thickest issues are those with multiple ads for the big miniatures shows. Over the past few years, I have watched the emphasis shift from profiles of fine artisans and great collections to amateurish "show 'n tell" photo spreads with poor quality pictures submitted by readers accompanied by captions full of errors and incorrect attributions of artists' work. People who send in their photos for the "theme" issues are paid nothing. I doubt they even get a free copy of the magazine to send to their mothers. But the magazine gets free content that they then sell to their readers.
Once in a while they cover a dollhouse exhibit somewhere and they repeat whatever it says in the press release from the organization without any fact-checking or spelling makers' names correctly. An example from a few issues back was the exhibit of some Swedish dollhouses at Bard College's exhibit space in Manhattan. An antique dollhouse was featured and the magazine'stext appeared to be copied verbatim from something provided by Bard. It said all the furnishings had been handmade by a teenage boy, yet the house was filled with commercial German furniture, including the wall telephone we see in every other antique dollhouse, but which the "curators" of the exhibit stated had been made by this boy. It's not the first time the magazine has repeated incorrect information and I'm sure it won't be the last.
That's not the thing that really irked me after my contact with the editor. No, my issue is that when he came back to me and said they would like to publish such an article, I spent weeks of my time taking photos and writing enough text for TWO articles - one about the reconstruction and the second about furnishing the house. After I submitted the articles and photos, he came back to me with a release document to sign. I wrote back and said the document said nothing about payment. That's when he told me they wanted to run the article as one long piece because their readers prefer to read the story in one issue instead of serialized over two or more issues. And he offered me only $100 for the entire thing.
Let me take you back to 2002 when my first article appeared in the magazine. It was about Tynietoy furniture and in those days, I used a 35mm camera and mailed actual photos or negatives to the magazine, at my cost. I was paid $250 for that and for subsequent articles for almost ten years. Then toward the end of Barbara Aardema's tenure, they started cutting the payments down to $225 and gradually lower and lower. I stopped writing full-length articles and focused on one-page articles about vintage artists and interesting auction purchases. One of the last submission I sent to Barbara Aardema was when she asked me for photos of Roger Gutheil furniture to illustrate her article about him as the Gutheils retired. Before I was paid for my pictures, Barb retired and her replacement, Cindy Erickson, told me Barb had left no instructions to pay me. It took several months to get paid after Cindy said they did not want to pay me anything at all. I had to point out to them that Barb had contacted me asking for photos they could use and that I had not just sent them in unsolicited. After that, the only things I sent to MC were some write-ups about the Rhoads auctions where instead of just quoting the catalogue descriptions and the hammer prices, I tried to make it interesting by explaining the action on the floor and whether items sold on the phones or Internet, etc. MC never paid me anything for that work because they felt they were giving free publicity to Rhoads. I had to haggle to even get my byline on them.
And one more thing. When I was writing regular articles of MC, they would mail me three complimentary copies when the articles were published, along with a form for ordering additional copies if I wanted them. Then one day it was just one complimentary copy, and with that copy came something very interesting: a list of all the contributors for that issue and what they were paid. Someone made a mistake and sent me that list instead of the order form. And I learned that other people had been paid significantly more for their articles about plastic dolls and furniture from the 1950's than I had been paid for my article about artisan furniture. It was the last time I wrote an article for them.
So with this background, you may understand why I was stunned and then really annoyed to be offered only $100 for the equivalent of two full-length articles that were much more than just an inventory of the artists represented in the furnishings of the house, or a tip of the hat to some dealer or shop where something was procured. I told Stan no thanks and several days passed before he responded to say that surely I must be aware of the changes in print journalism and that they could no longer afford to pay me at the rate they had paid me 14 years ago.
That was an interesting argument, considering that I still get paid quite generously by the other magazine I write for regularly. They don't seem to be in the same cost reduction mode as MC. Stan made it sound like he had worked some kind of miracle to get me $150 for the article. I turned that down as well and said I would take $250 for the double-length article and that I considered that roughly a 50% discount.
That was three weeks ago and I never heard anything back from Miniature Collector. I'd say that pretty much marks the end of my frustrating relationship with them. I want to thank all the people who have come up to me at shows and auctions to tell me they appreciate my articles and how helpful they found them. To me, that appreciation was as important, or even more important than any financial compensation I received from Scott Publications. I have published the entire article right here on my website, rather than accept an insulting token payment from Miniature Collector. (3.13.2016)
Philadelphia Miniaturia 2015
I attended the Friday evening preview once again and stood in line for over half an hour to be near the doors when they opened. I made a beeline for the Gallery of th Guild booth in the rear of the main ballroom, following a woman who actually RAN to get there first! Once I arrived, I was a bit disappointed with the offerings and the only item I purchased there was a painted Windsor chair by Mark Murphy. There were two expensive Mahatango painted chests by Murphy and Mary Grady O'Brien that I considered but passed by. I saw some small quilts, some paintings and some case furniture by other artists that did nothing for me. I usually make my first purchases from Annelle Ferguson and she was not there, nor were Patricia Richards nor Pat Hartman who often share a booth with her. In fact, there were a LOT of artists I looked for and found they had not come to the show. Where was the English Kitchen? Geoffrey Wonnacutt? Michael Walton? Jack Cashmere?Johannes Landmann? Bill Robertson? The Kitchen Captive? My Fair Ladies? Lucy Iducovich? Natasha? Ferenc Albert? Where were the artists that gave such a shine to the Philly show in years gone by? I understand folks like the Gutheils and Gail Steffey calling it quits to retire and play with grandchildren, but most of the people who were missing would never miss the Chicago show. And where were the dollhouses?
Instead of the authentic artisans who craft their wares from start to finish, I was somewhat startled to find at least a half dozen different dealers selling refurbished Bespaq furniture. I used to call this "the Whitledge treatment" but much of what I saw went beyond the tasteful modifications of Ray Whitledge and went a bit overboard on the frills and over-the-top painted details. There was skill evidenced in re-upholstery in more suitable fabrics than one gets from the Chinese factory, and the addition of accessories to complete the picture, but as attractive as some of those things were, I hesitated because I felt they would not hold any value in my own collection.
The re-sellers like Eileen Cohen and Marty Stark brought too many artisan pieces that I had already seen before at this or other venues. I wanted to see fresh merchandise that I did not recognize from other shows or auctions. I was so bored that I went back up to my room after only an hour. I returned Saturday morning when I bought some inexpensive chairs from Italy to repaint myself and a piece of porcelain from Henny Staring-Egberts. She is one of the overseas artists that I try to patronize every year in hopes they will keep coming back.
Jane Graber was as busy as ever with a line of people waiting to pay for their items and her booth was already well picked-over half an hour after the doors opened. I never got to speak with Barbara Rajnar because she was always engaged with someone. Nicole Walton-Marble brought some lovely things with big sticker prices that were still there when I left the show Saturday. I wonder if some artisans are not coming because the more serious and affluent collectors are no longer coming to buy at this show? Peter Acquisto and Jens Torp both looked lonely in their well-supplied booths.
Once again, some of the nicest things came over from England with Karon Cunningham who had several pricey pieces of Tarbena furniture. A new exhibitor here was Lockwood Tower from CT who is also a re-seller. I was a little taken aback when I came near her booth and was met with a comparatively aggressive selling style that reminded me of a flea market vendor.
I remember a time when some artists' booths were so crowded at the preview that I couldn't even get near their tables. Not this year. The Terrace room had empty tables, but at least it had decent lighting. The main ballroom at this venue is notorious for its poor lighting and I found that some of the new vendors didn't know they needed to bring their own lighting. I admit I passed right by some very dark booths, and some other folks brought stacking shelves with recessed up-lighting that made it difficult to see their work.
Since I missed the Guild Show this year due to a nasty case of shingles, I was determined to spend some money in Cherry Hill, so I did make a few carefully considered purchases and am pleased with them.
This Mark Murphy hoop-back Windsor chair is painted a warm tan over old red paint. Mark is my favorite chair-maker at this time. His sense of scale and proportion is so fine and exacting, I can never have too many of his chairs.
My buddies at the Dollhouse Factory had a stack of vintage rugs and carpets and I was shocked to find this room-size petitpoint carpet priced at a mere $34. The colors are so soft and appealing and the pattern is perfect for my Swedish dollhouse. It just needs to be re-blocked.
Jane Graber's redware pottery has become a popular staple on ebay and most pieces there sell for more than what she retails them at shows. I have a wonderful country cupboard by Mark Murphy that I am filling with Jane's redware and this casserole pot with bird-shaped handle is perfect. There wasn't much of a redware selection left by the time I got to her booth around 6:30, but I have SO many of her pieces I was quite content with this one example.
Sorry for the glare, but I just couldn't get a shot without the varnish reflecting my flash. This lovely painting is by Barbara Wilson and looks so much better in person!
These very fine handwoven linens are by Bonnie Backe and I purchased them on Saturday for the kitchen of my Swedish house. I have been buying woven things from Bonnie for decades and was pleased to see her at this show.
This is the smaller of two gourd-shaped vases that were displayed in Henny Staring-Egbert's case and it was the last thing I bought at the show Saturday morning. Now I wish I had puchased her heart-shaped tulip vase... Her case was still well-stocked when I left and I saw only one other little tell-tale blob of wax on the glass shelves. I hope the general public appreciated her wares more than the preview attendees appeared to have.
What is the future for the Philadelphia Show? It's hard to know. Once again, younger shoppers were scarce and I saw plenty of walkers and wheel-chairs. I did notice younger people working behind the dealer tables here and there. I came away from the show feeling like it's golden age is well in the past and not even sure I will go next year. Perhaps the middle-level business was more brisk than the higher end artisan work. I only hope that the artists who did not come have enough business at other shows or from the internet so that they keep making fine miniatures. But for me, I guess I will have to get over my reservations about dealing with the big crowds in Chicago, or head back to Kensington again. I kinda hate coming home with money still left in my purse! (11.9.2015)
Philadelphia Miniaturia 2014
I went on a bit of a tear selling things on ebay in the weeks leading up to the Philadelphia show to build up my cash reserves and when I came home last night I was a bit surprised that I'd spent only about half of it. It's now Sunday morning and I could go back and spend the rest of my money but I'm very satisfied with the things I purchased and feel no need to acquire more today. This is a new attitiude for me and I think it may stem from the fact that I have been working on an inventory of my collection. I have boxes and boxes of exquisite miniatures that have no homes and as I have been going through them to photograph them and attach inventory numbers, I've come to realize that I have ENOUGH. So when I arrived at the Philly show, I had no shopping list in hand and had already decided I would take my time and buy only things that are truly unique and delight my heart. Before I share those, just a few comments about the show:
I missed several familiar faces at the Friday night preview. Gloria Hinkel and Beverly Thomes have thrown in the towel so the multi-table booth for the Delaware Toy and Miniature Museum was conspicuously absent and I really missed them. I'm told that Tony Knott has retired, and Taller Targioni is no longer doing this show nor is Stokesayware. I can't remember the last time Patrick Puttock was here. Michael Walton has branched into other things and I respect that but I miss his table. And I'm still not over the Gutheils retiring! I know this sort of withdrawal is inevitable and has been going on for years but I think I'm just feeling it more lately.
I'm also noticing more and more people who are not artists themselves but are re-selling the work of others, both vintage and, oddly, new work that can often be purchased directly from the artist and sometimes for considerably less. I like Karon Cunningham's booth - she brings the work of British artisans that many Americans might never see in person otherwise, and it's perfectly reasonable to charge more for them to cover her expenses. It just seems a shame that economics prevent the actual artists from attending in person like they used to. Aside from the fact that I love her Delftware, I bought something from Henny Staring-Egberts because I appreciated that she went to the trouble and expense of coming overseas in person. I really miss the European artists who stay home.
The show promoter still employs young people to work the door who look like they would rather be somewhere else but this year, one of them actually smiled at me when I asked a question so I'd say that is progress!
As usual, my first destination once inside the door is Annelle Ferguson's table that she regularly shares with Pat Richards and Pat Hartman. I was tempted by several things of Annelle's but limited myself to a Queen Anne loveseat made by Betty Valentine and upholstered on both the back and the seat by Annelle. It is an unusual form with intricately constructed arms and delicately carved legs, and the petitpoint design is so enchanting. Annelle told me that it was a prototype for a Guild class in Castine that never happened, so it is probably a one-of-a-kind.
My next purchase was this exquisite knotted rug by Pat Hartman. Her French knots are so tiny I've been looking at this with a magnifying glass and am even more amazed. I love how folky this design is and my only regret is that I wasn't there when she brought out another rug with a floral design that someone else saw before I did. I just love this and it is only 2.5" X 3".
Pat Richards had three tiny pairs of 18th century shoes made entirely of petitpoint on 72ct mesh gauze and I can't fathom how she made them. I wanted to buy all three pairs but when an artist brings a limited number of items to a show, I don't like being selfish, so with great effort, I chose only one and Pat said it was her favorite. These are only 3/4" long!
Annelle also had a basket filled with small bags of accessories, many of which came from Pam Throop's daughter Evie and I bought an unsigned tole tray and four wine goblets that look like Jim Irish's work.The Gallery of the Guild offered several pairs of painted Windsor chairs by Mark Murphy and I was sorely tempted but I ended up with so many Windsor chairs at the last two Rhoads auctions, I let them go to others...
I still like this show but I've come to realize that I spend a great deal more money buying wonderful things at auctions than I do at shows these days. Part of that might be because I prefer classic antique-inspired things and this show has been featuring more and more sort of "alternative" artisan work such as fantasy figures, lots of Bespaq and commercial furniture (much of it restyled to emulate the Whiteledge look), very few dolls that are not Victorian and not as much really fine artisan furniture as was offered in the past. I suppose that reflects changing tastes but I feel there is still a very strong market for classic furniture - judging by the strong auction market for such things.
A special shout out to my friends from the Dollhouse Factory who went to great effort to bring artisan things to the sale and not one single piece of Bespaq! Kudos to them! (11/9/2014)
The IGMA Show 2014
I was pleased to participate in the Friday evening workshops at the Guild show this year by giving an informal presentation about Collection Management. I hope the information and advice I shared with the folks who came to my table will help them manage their personal collections with more purpose and confidence. I'm just sorry that since I was busy at my own table, I didn't get a chance to visit the other demos that I heard such good things about!
When the doors to the show opened at 9 on Saturday morning, I went right to Annelle Ferguson's booth and bought the only thing she had made herself: a footstool with colonial pictorial design. She had work by other artisans in her booth and that is where I bought two Mark Murphy chairs and a Jean Welch bowl - all in the first few moments of the show. And then I was done. Seriously.
I admired some things at Lilliput Land and in Caron Cunningham's booth but it was hard to pay their prices for items one can buy less expensively directly from the artist or buy for oneself at auction. Same for Eileen Cohen, who seems to really mark up her prices after paying retail prices for things at auction. It may make sense for some people to pay extra for the convenience of buying something in person in New Jersey, but it very seldom makes fiscal sense for me, personally.
It seemed like there were a lot of paintings at this show and I thought Phyllis Hawkes brought the nicest ones. Barbara Vajnar's cupboards seem to get better and more detailed all the time. Porcelains and pottery appeared to sell very well early in the show - but shortly after the opening, Jane Graber's redware display looked like a cyclone hit it and I have a feeling a lot of those things will be showing up on ebay very soon.
Why were some booths half empty by 9:30? There is one person who buys A LOT at the opening of this show solely for the purpose of reselling on ebay. My issue with this practice is that 1) the artists' work is being treated like wholesale merchandise, which seems to debase it a little; 2) most artisans at the show don't have a limitless amount of work to bring to a show, so when one single person scoops up 50% or more of their things in the first half hour of a two-day show, there isn't much of a selection left for anyone else, particularly for the general public entering the show at 10 AM. These non-members coming through the door at 10 AM are the exact people the IGMA needs to be courting for its membership and imagine how awful the show looks to them when some booths have so little left when the doors open for them. 3) The show was originally intended as a venue for artisans and for collectors to be able to purchase directly from the artists, and hopefully develop personal relationships that benefit both for years to come. How can that happen when one person buys a disproportionate amount of items from the very artisans who don't have that much at the show to begin with? Why even come to the show at all if you get to see only a fraction of the artists' work after 9:30 AM?
Of course, it's a free market where people may buy whatever and however much they like, but the scale of this purchasing activity is something I feel is actually detrimental to the show. If this is how the person makes his living, I would suggest he buy from the artists directly, AWAY from this show - most have websites now or can provide a product list - and buy at auction where everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to purchase the most desirable items. I feel badly for anyone who saves all year for this show, travels a distance and then finds almost no selection left at the Gallery of the Guild by 10 AM, or at Janet Reyburn's booth last year when two thirds of her items were sold BEFORE the doors even opened.
I still remember when the only people allowed to sell at this show were IGMA artisans and sometimes they had to rotate artists in and out of the show due to too many applicants. I cringe when I see cheap commercial furniture at this show and I'm not talking about the kids' area, either. I know the show managers want to offer merchandise for smaller budgets, but there have to be ways to do that without selling stuff from China... please!
So here's what came home with me:
Both chairs signed by Mark Murphy and dated 2013. Just the right amount of wear...
Annelle Ferguson did the petiptoint for this footstool, probably Betty Valentine's...I better ask her!
A pretty bowl by Jean Welch, so tiny and delicate! I won't have any problem finding a place for all these special items!
Robert Bernhard died last November. Bob had retired from making miniatures only a few years ago after a long and laudable career as both a decorator and as a miniaturist. He was an important figure in the 1970's when miniatures began to enjoy a sort of modern golden age and many of our best known artisans exhibited at specialist miniature shows for the first time. Today's younger collectors may not know that before there was such a thing as a "miniatures show", dollhouse artisans exhibited only at doll and toy shows and it was because of people like Bob Bernhard and others whose names seem to be fading into history that we now get to attend shows exclusively devoted to miniatures.
I wrote an article about Bob and his firm, Dolphin Originals, that was published in Miniautre Collector just a few years ago. The editor limited the amount of text and number of photos so I felt like it made Bob seem like a minor artist when he really was one of the more prominent figures of that golden age. I think collectors are fairly familiar with his pretty wing chairs upholstered in brocade ribbon that emulates a bargello stitch. But Bob made a great many things as custom orders for collectors like Carolyn Sunstein, Gloria Hinkel and others, particularly in the suburban Philadelphia areas near his own neighborhood. In addition to stylish furniture, he built tastefully decorated roomboxes and suburban Tudor houses - I saw one sell for a pitiful $50 once at an auction where no one recognized his name...I wish I had a bigger vehicle that day; I would have bought it...At a better auction, another house sold for $850. I hope there is another Bob Bernhard house out there somewhere, heading for an auction where someone recognizes it and advertises it appropriately. I have a bigger car now. (11.23.2013)
Philadelphia Miniaturia 2013
This show now bills itself as the biggest show on the east coast. Quite possibly so. But does biggest mean best?
It seems like shows are getting fewer and smaller in this country, yet increasing in England and Europe. Our magazines are drying up over here and even being gobbled up by English publishers. I’m wondering why.
For one thing, European artisans can’t afford to haul themselves and their wares over here for meager sales. The Philly show used to host notables like Trigger Pond, Patrick Puttock, The London Supply Company, Tony Knott, Taller Targioni, Brian Long, Stokesayware, Michael Mortimer, the Hodgsons, Carabosse, etc. Some of these folks still attend Chicago, but they don’t do Philly. Why? They couldn’t make enough money here to make it worthwhile.
I still think it has something to do with the increasing prevalence of cheap commercial imports at this show. Granted, quite a lot of the Bespaq I saw this time was refinished and had been given “the Whitledge Treatment” so it looks very decorative but it’s still clearly imported from China. I have an issue with anyone paying an admission fee to buy Bespaq.
But I have more of an issue with the loss of great artisans from both sides of the Atlantic at this show. The Gutheils were sorely missed now that they have retired and there was no sign of Williamson Walton Marble, Ferd Sobol – Christina Goodman was supposed to be there but I could not find her – and Geoffrey Wonnacott didn’t set up until Saturday. Michael Walton has curtailed his miniature furniture business to make rather uninspiring roomboxes and brought one special liquor cabinet – clearly, he just came to take orders for the boxes. Ray Whitledge was absent and did not even send a display. Gail Steffey has dropped out of this show, etc. And Natasha is selling these weird figurines instead of the furniture buyers look for. It has become a strange show to me.
That said, some of the best things there were items that changed ownership just last week at the Rhoads auction. Eileen Cohen brought the Patrick Puttock desk she purchased there (and more than doubled the price she paid) and a Natasha cabinet was also subjected to the same price inflation, but at least they were there to be admired even if the price tags had soared into the stratosphere. Some of the Marcia Backstrom dolls sold at Eileen’s were seen again here but still at attainable prices, and Annelle Ferguson had some quality English fireplace accessories that had been purchased in a very large lot at the auction.
I didn’t buy much in the way of needlework at the auction because I knew I’d find something lovely at Annelle’s booth in Philly. So true! This Betty Valentine Chippendale chair matches another I bought from her previously, but I love this seat even more! She had a pair of far more expensive chairs with gorgeous seats (Crawford or Murphy – I don’t recall) but I love Betty’s chairs so much!
I also purchased a firescreen from Lucy Iducovich made up from antique petitpoint and yes, I’m still working on a kit I got from her when the show was still in Philadelphia proper…
My last purchase at the show Saturday was this vintage petitpoint carpet from Michael Walton, maker unknown. I fell for the turquoise blue color and the overall muted shades, but it needs re-blocking.
Jane Graber’s redware has been reselling strongly on ebay these days, but I bought mine to keep (I think…). The cupboard is a vintage piece I had seen in Gloria Hinkel’s booth at the past two shows and I had passed it by before because it is a little over-scale and crude, but I bought it this time for the slightly overscale house I restored this past summer. It is signed “A. Carlisle ‘81” and the artisan is unknown to me. It appears to be made of old softwood cigar box wood left unfinished and I intend to keep it that way. The wood has mellowed to a nice color and I can look past the sloppy repairs and glue drippings to focus on its charm. I bought the iced Madeira cake and tiny macarons from The English Kitchen.
What is the future for this show? I will continue to go because it is a good source for vintage artisan furniture. And I will probably continue to complain about the show promoter’s staff whose attitudes continue to range from rude to indifferent – I do all I can to avoid any contact with them if possible. What a difference between them and the folks who run the Guild show - which may not be the biggest on the east coast, but is certainly the best in terms of quality, in my experience.
One other note: I love Sherry Colvin’s dolls. This year she brought characters from the Harry Potter series and made me wonder how many versions of Hogwarts are out there? There were a lot of doll artists this year and probably 80% of the adult dolls I saw were wearing Victorian ball gowns. Others were somewhat grotesque characters and I did not see any attractive quality dolls in contemporary clothing – they seem to be hard to find. I did like the doll families in traditional dress that Henny brought.
Anyway, I always find enough treasure to make the trip worthwhile and the crowds the show attracted on Friday evening and Saturday morning were quite impressive. I don’t know what they were buying. I saw some very nice but expensive paintings that did not seem to be selling - in past years, they would have sold stickers on them right away. The one vintage Therese Bahl painting I did want to buy was snatched out from under my nose by a more aggressive buyer and I learned yet another lesson about the impracticality of politeness at this show in particular. And the less-than-refined feeding at the trough continues with the preview crowd attacking the hors d’oeuvres tables and leaving a hideous mess in its wake. Shudder! You’d think these people hadn’t had anything to eat for a week the way they attack that table!
I thought it was a good idea when the IGMA moved their show to August to give folks a chance to catch their breath before the Philly show – good for both buyer and sellers, and I think that may explain the larger crowds I saw in Philly this year. Now I can take a break after an auction and show back to back! (11.4.2013)
What Makes It Artisan?
I don't buy a lot of things on ebay these days, but I browse it when I can to monitor the selling prices, particularly for artisan miniatures. One thing I notice lately is an awful lot of Bespaq type furniture that sellers describe as artisan, and then I see Bespaq furniture that has been somehow modified and thus acquires an artisan label. Neither of these examples fits my definition of artisan furniture.
I do acknowledge that the wood carving skills of some of the Chinese factory workers are pretty good and sometimes even better than the skills of some individuals who have been awarded artisan status by the IGMA over the years, but I think there is a fairly distinct line to be drawn between the artisan who carefully designs and then personally constructs and finishes a limited number of things and the nameless person laboring away in a factory setting executing someone else's designs over and over again and then sending the pieces to someone else to spray a cheap finish over it to disguise the inferior materials used in its construction. And I feel the same way about vintage Sonia Messer furniture and even Carl Forslund miniatures. You can appreciate the handwork done when these items are hand-carved, but they are the products of a factory setting where no one person was responsible for the entire process of creating those items.
I have a different regard for Chestnut Hill - some of it. Chestnut Hill sometimes sold commercial pieces made by Lynnfield/Block House but some of the nicest furniture was made by Roger Gutheil before he went out on his own and those particular pieces as well as the hand-painted ceramics, I class as artisan work. And for the most part, their resale value indicates that my opinion is shared by other collectors of vintage artisan miniatures.
Some commercial furniture is very nice. Before it was Bespaq, Pit Ginsberg's furniture was made from hardwoods with a nice finish and sold under the name Fantastic Merchandise - I like that stuff better than Bespaq. And I collected Lynnfield for a long time because when it was produced, it was the nicest commercial furniture available at that time, but over the past ten years I have gradually moved away from most commercial furnishings, sold off a lot of it, and narrowed the focus of my collecting to true artisan furniture. I am thrilled to own some one-of-a-kind Eric Pearson pieces that were custom designed and made for one client. And the experience of working for several auction houses that have handled artisan furniture has shown me over and over again that they are the one area of collecting miniatures that continues to hold its value.
I remember when Petite Princess furniture sold for a lot of money in the early days of ebay - the same for Lynnfield. Then everybody started cleaning out their attics and selling miniatures on ebay and the market became completely saturated and once again those commercial items held little or no value for serious collectors.
I'm also a little concerned about Bespaq furniture that gets repainted or re-upholstered and then is sold as artisan furniture. Like many others, I like the look of the commercial items that get the Whitledge treatment but I don't consider it artisan. And when people sell Bespaq that has been re-upholstered by Pat Tyler or Gail Steffey, I find it a little off-putting when the description makes no mention of the furniture's place of origin. There is nothing wrong with enhancing commercial furniture with artisan touches but I think people need to be forthright about it and not describe the items in any way that might lead someone to believe the artist made the furniture themselves.
I think an important thing people should keep in mind is that when you buy commercial furniture, you should not expect it to hold value the way artisan furniture has been. When it goes to auction, it doesn't matter that you spent a lot of money on Bespaq or Goebel figurines or Franklin Mint "collector" this or that. To an astute collector, those commercial things are just second-hand items while true artisan pieces are the only ones that can be considered investment quality.
The Market for Antique Miniatures
Something similar has happened to antique miniatures, although the decline in value has been affected by other factors. I think collectors came to realize that Schneegass furniture was once as plentiful as Bespaq is today. It was mass-produced for foreign markets by cheaply paid workers and when you think of it, pretty much every antique dollhouse you have seen in museums or well-publicized private collections has been full of the same ubiquitous furniture. Even Boulle furniture, unless it is a rare piece, has seen a decline along with ormolu.Ten years ago pricing was competitive but today the market has not only become softer, but there are noticeably fewer collectors for it. Some of the folks who used to be major buyers who affected pricing trends have either died or faded from the landscape, and at the same time, the people who collected antique dollhouses and miniatures have curtailed their buying habits as they have seen that market decline over the past ten years. There are few new collectors coming into the market for antiques and it strikes me that they often have never heard of the once-famous collectors and pioneering scholars like Vivien Greene and Flora Gill Jacobs. They hear the names from older collectors but never met the ladies nor saw their collections in situ and so the allure that used to be associated with those names seems to have faded a bit. Her name was never even mentioned at the auction when the remains of Flora's personal collection were sold by Noel Barrett in early 2014. Some of the collectors whose aggressive bidding affected prices at the first sale ten years ago are no longer with us and others are more concerned about selling their own collections than buying for them. It does surprise me a little that Noel got such a prominent collection after what happened with the Winston-Salem Museum sale. When money is on the table, people do funny things, don't they?
The Guild Show 2012
I made most of my major purchases in the first 10-20 minutes at my favorite artisans' booths. From Annelle Ferguson, I purchased a small Roger Gutheil candlescreen with Annelle's 18th century style embroidery, a framed embroidery with a shepherd and a Mark Murphy Chippendale chair with Annelle's seat. I think I may now have half a dozen different chairs with her seats and I never get tired of them!
Mary Grady O'Brien and Mark Murphy were right across the aisle from Annelle so I zipped over there next and when I saw this painted worktable on their table I knew I had to bring it home. She had already sold one before I got to them, so I felt lucky she had brought two and I especially love the painting of young girls having a frolic on the top. Once it was securely in my posession, I spent the rest of the preview slowly wandering the room and taking my time before I eventually purchased a pair of Staffordshire lambs from Jack Cashmere and an amazing tiny Nantucket basket from Keiko Takahashi.
It was kind of funny to see some things for sale in Eileen Cohen's booth that she purchased at Eileen Rhoads' auctions. She still had a number of pieces of Eric Pearson furniture that I had bid on unsuccessfully, but knowing how much she had paid for them, I didn't even ask the price! Other beautiful things were to be seen in another person's booth but quite honestly, the last few times I have stopped at his table, I've been turned off by his complaining and so I just moved on this time.
I was hoping to find dolls but the ones I liked were already being packed up for another buyer. I feel like there were more fantasy type figures than the sort of traditional, realistic dolls that fit into my collection. I don't have any wizard's caves, or street scenes for character dolls. They are wonderful for other people but I just don't have anywhere to use them. I felt the same way at last year's Philly show as well. It's fun to see fairies, wizards, unicorns, mermaids, etc., but I can't imagine that there is that much of a market for them, is there?
I still dread driving in that part of New Jersey, but I suppose it's easier than schlepping into NYC, right? I think it is a good move that they have scheduled next year's show for August. It's a bit awkward that this show (that used to be held in the springtime) has been coming so close to the Philly show, and I imagine that some dealers who travel quite a distance, feel they must make a choice between the two of them. Better for both shows to give them some breathing room!