Anyone lucky enough to have grown up recreating on a freshwater lake may recognize this form of vintage water sports equipment. It is a wooden aquaplane dating from circa 1930-40.
An aquaplane is “a board ridden by a standing person and pulled by a motorboat for entertainment” (www.lexic.us). This “Arro-Plane” was probably made by a water ski manufacturer, and has fantastic graphic appeal – painted with a long arrow shape that is crowned with an Indian head (think arrowhead) in strong red, white and blue colors. The condition of the paint decoration with minor scuffs and wear indicates that the board must not have been used much. In addition to being a cool piece of vintage sports equipment, this board has all of the attributes that are desirable in vintage trade signs.
It is 71” long x 24” wide x 2” thick, and is quite heavy – about 35 pounds.
A rope harness would have been attached to the two side rings, and then a tow rope would have extended from the front of the aquaplane to the back of a motor boat. The light blue patches near the back of the board are sand-painted to provide grip for wet feet.
This following rather comical vintage illustration shows aquaplaning technique during a thrilling ride behind what looks to be about a ten horse-power motor.
We also found a few 1924 vintage photos of aquaplane athletes that show the basic technique of board riding, as well as some fancier tricks.
Most antiques dealers do business in a variety of ways, including hitting the road to sell their wares in larger markets than they can find at home. We do several big antiques shows each year, but our annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden Antiques and Garden Fair is the longest journey we make. In April we captured some aspects of our trip in photos, and share them here to paint a portrait of a few weeks in the business lives of antiques dealers.
We once owned our own box truck, but since it moved on to greener pastures we have found it easier to rent. Once we have the truck, our next step in getting to an out-of-town show is to pack up all of the antiques chosen for the journey. Jeff is an experienced packer, knowing through trial and error how to 1) pack to prevent shifting and damage en route, and 2) see goods as geometric puzzle pieces that can be optimally arranged to conserve space and maximize the load. It is not unusual for loading to occur in adverse conditions – on this packing day, rain, sleet and freezing temperatures outside our gallery in Damariscotta made things a bit trying.
Once the truck is loaded, we leave a few days early in order to stop at several targeted antiques shops along the way.
Jeff loads one of our purchases onto the truck.
We also broke up the trip by diverting from major highways occasionally, finding scenes like this in rural Indiana more pleasant than endless asphalt with six lanes of traffic.
A homey welcome from friends in the Midwest warmed our hearts and provided a welcome break from the sterile environments of chain motels.
Upon arrival at the Garden on the morning of set-up, we lined up to wait for our turn to be directed to our load-in location.
The Botanic Garden is a beautiful location for a show, but getting large vehicles safely along the network of interior garden roads and pathways to the tents presents logistical challenges which Stella Show Management handles admirably. Some of their logistical people are full-time New York City fire fighters who take vacation time to moonlight with Stella. They know how to back up trucks in tight spots, and remain calmly assertive in “crisis” (i.e., when accosted by dealers who are unhappy with long waits in line and long walks to their booths with heavy goods).
Once parked, we quickly check out our booth location, and find it ready and waiting to be filled.
This cylindrical container decorated with canoeing, hunting and camping images was made in the early 1900s by Sabattis Tomah, a Maine Passamaquoddy Indian who was the only son of Passamaquoddy chief and renowned birch bark artist Tomah Joseph (1837-1914). Sabattis borrowed artistic birch bark techniques, themes and forms from his father, whose work is well-documented in the 1993 exhibition catalog History on Birchbark: The Art of Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy by Joan A. Lester.
The bark of the white birch tree has been an important element of the material culture of Northern Woodlands Indian tribes since long before their contact with Europeans. It was used for making such life essentials as wigwams, canoes, storage vessels, and even cooking pots. (As maple sugaring is in full swing here in New England, it is amazing to think that Woodlands tribes could make maple syrup by boiling sap with hot rocks added to sap-filled birch bark containers).
When birch bark was used as a raw material for making utilitarian goods, the flakey outer bark of the white birch tree was turned to the inside, while the interior bark formed the exterior of the object.
This material is not only strong, pliable and water resistant, but the inner bark also makes an ideal canvas for decoration when harvested in the winter because that is when it has a solid maroon-brown rind. When that darker rind is etched away, the inscribed design appears in the lighter bark layer just beneath it.
In a sense, all antiques dealers are sleuths. A detective’s sensibility is required to be successful in the concrete enterprise of finding valuable old goods, as well as for the less tangible task of seeking the story behind an object, whether researching its particular provenance or just the historical context of the time and place in which it was made and used.
But one local antiques dealer here in Maine has taken things a step further by inventing a fictional alter ego – an antiques dealer who solves mysteries of the true-crime variety. Like the author, Lea Wait, the protagonist of her “Shadows” mystery series is a dealer in antique prints. The latest installment in the series, Shadows of a Down East Summer, finds 38-year old Maggie Summer taking an August vacation with her boyfriend (also an antiques dealer) at the home of his 91-year old aunt in the charming coastal Maine town of Waymouth, which is purely imagined, but strikingly similar to our own home base of Damariscotta.
The story interweaves some true historical details of the late 19th century life of the artist Winslow Homer at his studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine with a fictional crime spree in a modern-day small town. It intersperses excerpts from an invented 1890 journal of a young woman who posed with a friend for Homer while he sketched at the rocky shore.
As the story progresses, we discover that this artist model’s descendants live in Waymouth, setting the stage for old family secrets and new family greed to result in theft and a murder. Maggie helps solve these crimes by using her antiques dealer-honed skills, such as recognizing stolen paintings at an auction preview, and finding and interpreting primary historical documents.
Some aspects of the story involving the antiques business are realistic, and some not so much. Maggie is a full-time professor and a part-time antiques dealer, which would be hard to pull off successfully in real life. But a chapter about Maggie helping her boyfriend set up at an outdoor antiques show in a rain storm, trying to save his merchandise from damage while bemoaning the lack of customers and sales on such a filthy day, rings quite true.
This is not a particularly gripping mystery, as it is quite easy to figure out “who done it.” There is also not a lot of compelling character development, as much of the dialogue sounds like all the same person talking – that person being the author, giving mini-lectures on art history and the antiques business in the guise of conversation between characters. But there were some interesting glimpses of Homer’s life and studio, which the Portland Museum of Art has now acquired and recently opened to the public.
Crooked knives are multi-purpose tools that were made and used by Woodlands Indians as early as the 1600s. They were documented by explorers, traders and missionaries as one of the most essential tools of “the Man of the North.” Woodlands tribes include those in the Northeast (Maine and the Maritime Provinces) such as Micmac, Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and those in the Eastern, Central and Western Great Lakes regions such as Iroquois, Huron, Cree, and Chippewa.
The circa 1880 Northeastern Woodlands Indian crooked knife pictured here has a handle carved in the shape of a curled human hand, exemplifying the blend of function and artistic expression that elevates embellished crooked knives beyond the status of an everyday tool.
An excellent book, “Mocotaugan: The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife” (2003) by Russell Jalbert & Ned Jalbert (available as a pdf at mocotauganthebook.com), describes the crooked knife being used for everything from making wood shavings for fire starter to shaping ax handles, wigwam poles, storage vessel, snow shoes, canoe paddles, and birch bark canoes. The unique angle at which the blade is set into the handle earned this knife the name “crooked.” The blade is positioned so that the grip can be grasped with the thumb placed under the handle, allowing for a powerful stroke as the knife is drawn across wood towards the body.
Indians were adept at recycling useful materials, and often repurposed steel from a straight razor or a file to serve as the knife blade. In our example, the knife is secured to the handle with a harness of inlaid lead or pewter, but often blades are held with leather or wire wrap.
Not all crooked knives were elaborately carved. Utilitarian knives with simple handles would have been among the several crooked knives a woodsman typically owned. This unpublished photo from circa 1880 of a group of Cree Indians in Quebec shows three men (sitting at far right, sitting center front, standing in back near the tent opening) using their everyday crooked knives to shape canoe paddles.
But even the most decorative knives were put to use, according to Jalbert & Jalbert. The decoration was positioned above the grip so it did not interfere with the function of the knife, and also so that it remained in view while the knife was being used, serving as a testament to the artistic talents and vision of its maker.
We have been surprised how often our online research leads to images of antiques posted on Pinterest, one of the fastest growing social networking sites on the internet. Pinterest is a photo-sharing website on which users post and manage photos within categories that they create on their own pages, which are called “pinboards.” The categories reflect the personal interests of the page creator, and often are organized along themes such as hobbies, travel, cooking, fashion and decorating. Users can browse the images on other pinboards for inspiration and ideas, and then re-pin images to their own page, thus creating a network of users with similar interests.
As is true with all social networking sites one thing leads to another, so when we’ve found one image of an antique on a pinboard it often leads to finding other similar images. A case in point is discovering images of vintage lodging signs that recently sold at Garth’s auction. This Round Top Inn sign sold for $3,819 at their auction in January 2013, and also appeared on a person’s Pinterest pinboard (pinterest.com/debrajaynep/).
Other images of vintage signs from the same auction appeared on another pinboard (pinterest.com/cheryl_mcmullen/), such as this tourist lodging that sign that sold for $2,115,
and this Riverside Hotel sign sold that for $4,700.
Both pinboards on which these signs appeared display collections of images representing the pinners’ interests and favorite aesthetics.
What is intriguing about Pinterest is that it seems to be a way for people to build a personal identity through images gleaned from non-personal sources, such as an auction website. Whereas Facebook pages are full of photos of people and places present in one’s everyday life, owners of Pinterest boards create a dream world of sorts, constructed of images comprising a world they would like to inhabit. Unlike creating an avatar on a fantasy gaming site, an identity created on a Pinterest board is grounded in the real world. It is conceivable that a person could own every one of the outfits pinned to their site from a fashion catalog, or recreate in their own homes the rooms pinned from decorator blogs. Whereas in the physical world we get to know someone’s tastes from the clothes they wear or the art they hang in their home, Pinterest ramps up the process of conveying personal style and identity as users show themselves to be connoisseurs of material objects that are perhaps beyond their practical or financial reach.
What motivates people to buy an antique photo? Serious photography collectors of course, seek high-value photos with historical or artistic significance due to the scene or person captured, the early photographic and printing methods used, or the photographer’s notoriety.
But people who are not specifically photography collectors are also drawn to vintage photographs for a variety of reasons. These include attraction to the aesthetic richness of the image or appreciation for its inherent visual commentary that is thought-provoking or smile-inducing. Or a photo might have a connection to a subject matter that relates to one’s broader areas of collecting or interest (e.g., railroads, dolls, barber shops).
Old photos can also remind people of a place or pastime they have enjoyed – an image of a person skating or an old farmhouse shaded by a maple tree need not be exactly identifiable to evoke nostalgia. Finally, there are photos of an actual place that one knows well, but captured in an earlier era, thereby putting one’s experience of it into historical perspective; that is what attracted me (Jeff) to this photo.
The 7” x 9” black-and-white image captures a circa 1910-1920 scene on Grand Lake in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, a 2,946 square mile preserve of lakes and rivers established in 1893 which quickly became a desirable destination for wilderness canoe tripping.
I spent many summers canoeing, camping and guiding in Algonquin Park, and have paddled by this exact spot. I found (and kept) a print of this image 15 years ago, so this one is now going to a customer for whom it also triggers positive associations with lakes and canoeing.
Algonquin Park was popularized in the early 1900s by the Canadian artist Tom Thomson and his colleagues in the “Group of Seven.” In fact, this photograph shares similar compositional structure with a 1917 painting by Tom Thomson called “The West Wind” (below) that some art historians surmise was created at Grand Lake.
As antiques dealers, we look seriously at thousands of objects a year and develop a strong sense of the market value of antiques within our purview. Yet innumerable categories of antiques fall outside of our expertise. A recent experience purchasing something not within our familiar realm gave me (KH) empathy for people who are attracted to antiques, but are intimidated because they have no touchstones for price structure.
This dilemma was brought home to me while shopping for glass shades that would be appropriate for the original, early 20th century brass sconces and a chandelier in the house we are restoring.
When Jeff first pointed out a pair of these shades I was immediately smitten, but thought that they seemed expensive. Through the decision-making process, I challenged myself to deconstruct what I meant by “expensive” – did it mean being overpriced for what they are (i.e., I could find the exact objects in the same excellent condition elsewhere for less money), or did it mean having a significant price because they are (now and presumably in the future should I want to sell them) rare, good, and desirable in the marketplace? The former would mean I would not feel good about buying them, and the latter would help to justify the expenditure.
Occasionally a new customer will wonder aloud how to know if something is a fair price. I remember one person in particular who kept coming by our booth at a show and glancing in, then on one walk-by showing disappointment to see a sold sign on a set of Old Hickory dining chairs. He then spoke up saying, “I really liked those, but they seemed expensive.” His comment aroused my curiosity, so I asked “Expensive as compared to what?” In fact, the person who had purchased the chairs was an experienced buyer of rustic furniture who had remarked that they were a good value.
The visitor responded that it was a good question, and upon reflecting said he was probably subconsciously comparing them to the price of contemporary chairs he had seen in furniture stores while shopping to furnish his ski condo. As someone drawn to attend an antiques show as an alternative to considering modern mass-produced furniture, he was gradually gathering the knowledge and confidence to make his first significant purchase.
Now back to my own experience contemplating the purchase of antique glass sconce shades. They were in a small cluttered shop of an eccentric purveyor where nothing was labeled with a price, never mind with an informative tag describing the items and their date of origin. His responses seemed haphazard when we asked the prices of various shades, which did not inspire a sense of security. So in the end we relied on confidence in our ability to judge the quality of the shades for ourselves and went home with them, and have since purchased a few more sets of shades from the same dealer.
Some antique rustic accessories – an elegant faux bois mirror, for instance – evoke refined indoor living, while others more strongly reflect the earthy lifestyles of outdoorsmen. Canoe cups are a good example of the latter.
Wooden canoe cups were a practical accessory that wilderness travelers used to dip drinking water from a lake or stream before water quality was a concern. They were typically made from a tree burl, often maple, that was hollowed out and shaped with a jackknife or crooked knife. The naturally round portion of the burl served as the cup, while wood extending from the burl served as an integral handle. The handle was usually punctured or carved with an open slot for fitting a leather thong, braided cord, or metal clip so that the cup could be attached to the traveler’s belt – thus the alternative name for canoe cups as “belt cups.”
The majority of canoe cups hail from Quebec, and less commonly from Maine and the Maritime Provinces. The strong Quebecois tradition of crafting canoe cups has roots in the early fur trade as French voyageurs came into contact with Native tribes and adopted their practice of making drinking cups from tree burls. While some cups found on the market today are unadorned (right), the more beguiling examples are decorated with carved and/or painted animals and landscapes of the northwoods and waterways.
The canoe cup in our current inventory is a good example of typical decorative themes and techniques. Two bears with raised paws, perhaps depicting a fighting stance, are slightly relief-carved and painted, and a wash of paint at their feet represents tufts of grass. The interior is carved to accentuate the natural heart-shape of the burl, which is also a fairly common treatment. The varnished surface and metal snap clip help to date this cup to circa 1930.
The two-bears cup has painted initials, presumably of the person who made and owned it. Some cups, however, were made by guides not for their own use, but to give as gifts to the “sports” who hired them – men of means from cities who traveled north to hunt and fish. Images of hunting and fishing implements and game were a popular decorative theme, as seen on the cups from our past inventory, below. The cup with the belt toggle carved in the shape of a canoe and a painted fish also displays the name of a well-known fishing river, the Mattawin.
In addition to making cups for themselves and their sports, there is evidence – namely canoe cups still marked with a price (see Peladaeu, M. B. 2006. Canoe Cups: A Neglected Collectible. Maine Antique Digest.) – that they were sold in northern tackle shops along with fishing, hunting and camping gear.
The example (left) bearing the name of a sporting lodge might have been sold as a souvenir at the lodge. The cup below, carved by a well-known Quebec folk artist, was definitely made for sale and probably not intended for use. This cup is somewhat unusual, as two accurately carved and painted trout form the handle, and the leather thong is attached to the back of the burl.
While all canoe cups share basic attributes, collectors appreciate their many decorative variations – from animals that are carved simply (the moose, left) or elaborately (the otter and wolf, right), to designs that incorporate the natural shape of the burl (the bear’s head below), to a vignette from a guide’s life (bottom of page).
Although carvers still make wooden canoe cups as novelties, their functional use waned with the increasing prevalence of aluminum and plastic cups for canoe tripping and backpacking. The early cups remain as testaments to the ingenuity and creativity of men who once lived and worked in the northern outdoors.
There has been much discussion within the antiques trade over the past several years surmising that the word “antiques” is off-putting to potential new and younger audiences. The argument is that the word conjures images of fusty artifacts, gaudy furniture or delicate bric-a-brac – not things that are practical or desirable for active, contemporary households.
Yet at the very same time purveyors of new merchandise, especially in ubiquitous home décor catalogs, liberally use the term “antique” to describe items of which they may have a stock of 100,000, bearing names such as “antique French café table.” These furnishings may be loosely styled after a period design, have an artificially aged surface or even be a fairly good look-alike reproduction, but they did not originate in the period they mimic. Roadside gift shops also often display the word antiques prominently, turning their store sign into a siren call compelling certain shoppers to stop in, only to find a store full of new merchandise with vaguely antique flair. The word antique seems to lend a cache to what these merchants are selling. So while some antiques dealers seek to retreat from the term, marketers of new goods are flocking to it. That is a conundrum to contemplate.
Despite how it is often misused, antique as a noun fundamentally implies that an object has significant age (used as an adjective in phrases such as “antique finish” or “antique style” the word is less restrictive). But how much age is significant? A definition derived from the criterion that the U.S. Customs Service uses to decide if something can cross its borders duty-free is that an antique is 100 or more years old. Yet the 100-year benchmark, while convenient, is somewhat arbitrary. What is more important in the antiques business is to understand an object’s origin, specifically whether it was original to the time period and stylistic expressions of the past era in which it was made. A piece of furniture born of the 1940s can thus be called antique, even though it is currently just 70 years old.
While age is a prerequisite for an object to legitimately enter the antiques marketplace, it is not all that is important. To qualify as an antique worthy of buying and selling, an object must meet a standard of quality, having an intrinsic value based on features such as craftsmanship, aesthetic appeal, rarity or historical importance. In other words, not everything old merits being traded as an antique.
Is it possible, then, to coin a new term that conveys the same standards of authenticity and value as “antique” while sidestepping negative associations of antiques with irrelevancy? Some subgenres within the broad antiques market have adopted descriptors such as “mid-century modern” or “folk art” that distinguish those objects in a helpful and appealing way, but there is no alternative nomenclature broad enough to encompass all categories of historical objects.
We propose that a term that has potential to appeal to hipsters and general consumers without repelling traditionalists is Heritage Goods. “Heritage” conveys the positive attributes associated with antiques – history, special meaning, inheritance and value. “Goods” is broad enough to cover all forms of furnishings and decorative arts, from tea cups to tall clocks. To add clarity (and protection from having the phrase co-opted by marketers of newly manufactured goods), antiques dealers would need to customize the term with a subtitle specifying the age range of the antiques they most typically carry. In our case that would be “Heritage Goods: 1840s to 1940s.”
New terminology can creep or sweep in to common parlance depending on how popular the object, behavior or phenomenon it describes becomes – whether “jogging” or “blogging.” Short of a multimillion dollar marketing campaign, however, it could be difficult for antiques dealers to use a new descriptor for what they sell without the risk of missing their target audience altogether. Those who already know the range of what authentic antiques can encompass do not need to be lured by alternative terminology. But for people who have yet to experience the pleasures of owning and living with goods from past eras, an intriguing descriptor might invite them to partake, and in the process make the antiques marketplace a more inclusive domain.
We are curious what reactions the term “Heritage Goods” will generate. As readers of this Journal article, you are the first trial audience. Let us know your thoughts, and stay tuned as we report back with the results of our foray into broadening the lexicon of our trade.