Decorated Birch Bark Container


Sabattis Tomah birch bark wastebasket

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.

Book about Tomah Joseph

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.

Birch bark wastebasket interior

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.

Design etched on birch bark

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Antiques Dealers as Sleuths in Fiction and Fact


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.

Shadows of a Down East Summer book cover

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.

The Bathers, wood engraving by Winslow Homer, Harper’s Weekly, 1873

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.

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Figural Crooked Knife


(click photo to enlarge)

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, 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.

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Pinning Antiques


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 (

Other images of vintage signs from the same auction appeared on another pinboard (, 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.

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Vintage Canoeing Photograph


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.

Grand Lake Algonquin Park

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.

Map of Grand Lake

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.

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Shades of Light on Buying Antiques


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 (Kass) 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.

glass sconce

When Jeff first saw 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.

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Two-Bears Canoe Cup: A Woodsman’s Water Dipper


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.”

burl canoe cupThe 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. 

two bears canoe cupThe 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.

canoe cup with fishcanoe cup with deer

    trout canoe cupcanoe toggle canoe cup 


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Heritage Goods


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. 


(© Copyright 2012 Text is not to be copied without permission. Flag image from Library of Congress public archives.)


Keech Souvenir Canoe Paddles


Keech canoe paddlesKeech paddles are well known to collectors of rustic accessories.  They are appreciated for their finely-detailed, painted scenes, as well as for the delicate quality of each carved paddle.  They date from 1890 to 1920 and can turn up anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, since they traveled home with far-flung vacationers who had visited upstate New York.

The maker of these paddles was Alpheus E. Keech (1855-1926) who lived most of his life near the St. Lawrence River in the 1000 Islands region of northern New York.  He descended from a long line of men whose lives centered around water navigation; he was even named after a ship captain uncle who died in a wreck on Lake Erie.

When he was 30 years old, while still making a living as a carpenter in the family’s boat-building business, Alpheus began focusing his talents as an artist.  In addition to producing large paintings of steamships, sailboats, and landscapes, he established a studio (pictured below) to make and sell small souvenirs, the most popular of which were his paint-decorated model canoe paddles. Keep Reading

Your Antiquing Profile


A while back we came across a web store for children’s toys and gear (“The Land of Nod”) which at one time assisted people shopping for just the right gift for a little one by organizing merchandise according to the child’s personality – the Crafty Kid, the Smarty Pants, the Entertainer, and so on. This provoked our own musings about how a website selling antiques might organize itself in a similar way.

After conversations with fellow antiques dealers who have also been in the business of selling quality Americana for upwards of twenty years, we’ve converged on a typology of people who buy the types of antiques we all sell.  Here are the results of our ruminations-over-drinks scholarship, winnowed down to just three catch-all categories: Keep Reading