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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Kindred Spirits

BY JOHANNA MCBRIEN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELLEN MCDERMOTT

Part of the excitement of collecting is the discovery. Such is the case with the blanket chest in the front entry. Sold at a farm auction in Pennsylvania, it was covered with dirt, obscuring the painted surface. The collectors had faith there was something there, so they purchased it and hired conservator Peter Dean to clean the surface, revealing the wonderful grained paint with tulips and hearts on the lid. One of two Delaware Valley ladder-back chairs, with five rather than the more typical four slats, is temporary home to “Woody,” one of five cats who live with the couple. “The cats are part of our lives and live with the antiques as much as we do,” says the husband. “They have never damaged anything, though we do put adhesive on the bottom of the stoneware to hold it in place just in case.” A watercolor by Joseph H. Davis (1811–1865), depicting a couple at a table, was acquired from Greg Kramer; it hangs beside a full-length portrait of a young girl, purchased from the Lester Breininger sale. The girl and two works that face one another, acquired from Greg Kramer, as well as the other child are by Jacob Maentel (1763–1863); the image of a woman in blue is by an unknown artist. Before he became an auctioneer, Ron Pook was the underbidder for the iron candleholder with heart-shaped pedestal. The sampler, with house and willow tree, behind the stair rails, is from McConnelsburg; there are few identified from this area of Western Pennsylvania.

Nestled in one of the couple’s favorite areas of the house is a cupboard that holds rare pieces of mid-nineteenth-century Man-on-the-Moon stoneware by Cowden & Wilcox of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; their wares are among the most desirable for collectors. Three rare batter pails surmount the cupboard with even rarer designs: double birds (unusual); double dogs on cushions (this is the only known example with dogs); and a triple Man-on-the-Moon (only two to three are known). Jugs and pitchers with rare Man-on-the-Moon variations (the pottery’s signature design) and one rare moon face fill the cupboard. A batter pail with an unprecedented four birds—one of the rarest Cowden & Wilcox pieces known—was acquired at Crocker Farm Auctions in Maryland. The Man-on-the-Moon batter pail on the dry sink descended in the family of collector and potter Lester Breininger. “I tried to buy the crock for years,” says the husband, “and was surprised the family parted with it when his collection sold at Pook & Pook.” The profile head, also by Cowden & Wilcox, is one of only a few known. Above the dry sink is a very rare Lancaster County Lehnware seed chest, purchased at Pook & Pook; most items by Joseph Lehn (1798–1892) are small turned works, so this piece is extremely unusual. The iron fork, with inlaid brass bird on the central disk, was from antiques dealer Chris Machmer’s collection.
Any unusual form in stoneware other than a crock is rare; there are many such forms presented in this cupboard, most of which are associated with potter Richard C. Remmey of Philadelphia. Among the most important examples are the large teapot (probably the only one known), the presentation molasses jug, dated 1855, to its right, and two penny banks, on the far right of the center shelf. All are made by Remmey, including the three large pitchers along the bottom, the farthest left of the group inscribed “P. M. Toomey/For Beer Only,” purchased through Greg Kramer at Crocker Farm. The rare elephant crock on the top of the cupboard has an unknown American origin.

This couple’s hospitality and good humor is legendary, dwarfed only by their boundless enthusiasm for collecting; an enthusiasm backed by years of looking and learning.

The husband is a testament to the importance of engaging young people in history and collecting. He fondly recounts how, as a child, his aunt would tell him stories about family heirlooms and who had owned specific objects. “We would spend hours in front of the fireplace,” he says. “She had so much interest and knowledge and taught me so much.” When he and his then fiancé, now his wife, attended their first auction together, at Pennypacker’s in Reading, Pennsylvania, they bought a slipware plate. Says the husband, “I couldn’t wait to run home and call my aunt.” The plate remains in their collection more than forty years later.

Antiques are so much a part of this couple’s life that the only new furnishings in their home are items not available in earlier periods, such as a bed for the husband’s six-foot, four-inch frame and several lounge chairs. “Even though our home is new, the collections make it feel warm,” says the wife. “The more we add, the warmer it gets.” The couple says they are slowing down in their collecting only because they’ve run out of room, admitting that, given their enthusiasm for antiques, it’s difficult for them to stop. Case in point: They had to recently remove some counters and cabinets in their kitchen in order to install a corner cupboard. Once installed, the cupboard was promptly filled. The couple admits there’s a lot of material in the house, but it all works together. As they say, “It’s organized clutter.” The couple has yet to take antiques dealer Greg Kramer up on his suggestion to add a wing to the house.

This stunningly vibrant arched-door corner cupboard is attributed to John Rupp (active 1830–1860) of Hanover, Pennsylvania. The husband saw this at Greg Kramer’s shop and immediately called his wife and asked her to stop everything and swing by to take a look. It took her no time to make the decision. She walked into the shop and told Greg, “We’ll take it!” The painted stand to its left supports a cobalt-incised jug, possibly by Richard Remmey Pottery but more likely Wingender & Brother from Haddonfield, New Jersey. The two watercolors of a man and woman on the wall above the stand are attributed to the “Reading Artist” The fraktur opposite is by the “Nine Heart Artist” and dated 1792.

The painted dome-top “Bucher” box, Berks or Lancaster County, circa 1800 ,in the foreground, was kept on the bedside stand of Ruth duPont, H. F. duPont’s wife. The 1887-dated pie safe by J. Frost with punched tin panels is a favorite of the wife’s. The couple diverted a fishing trip to Canada to drive to Upstate New York to bid on it, taking it back and forth across the border strapped to the roof of their car. The figural stoneware jugs and crock on top are from New York. The stipple-painted Lancaster County Kas is topped with rare Reading, Pennsylvania, stoneware by Wells & Richards, among the spectacular examples is a cider cooler on the left. The couple’s twelve-year-old cat “R. T.” surveys the room.

The couple has known Kramer for most of their collecting lives. They first encountered him as a competitor at an auction in the 1970s, but soon became fast friends, the relationship founded on their mutual love for Pennsylvania material. The husband and wife’s first purchase from Greg was a Pennsylvania stoneware pitcher he was offering at the Bucks County Antiques Show, which remains in their collection. “A lot of people are either exclusively auction buyers or work with dealers,” explains the husband. “We have no partiality.” He adds, “I put a lot of confidence in Greg, whether working with him directly, or if he is advising us on an object with another dealer or representing us at auctions. He has steered us right and knows just what we want and has a great eye for Pennsylvania folk art.” The relationship is more than a client/dealer one; the families frequently enjoy one another’s company. Friendships extend to others in the business, among them Ron Pook, who was also a competitor until he and his wife founded the auction house Pook & Pook, Inc., where the couple has bought key items for their collection. Among the many other auctions that have been resources through the years are Briggs Auction and Crocker Farms. The most influential dealer for the couple early in their buying career was Clyde Youltz, whom they met in the 1960s. “He had a great collection of Pennsylvania folk art,” says the husband, “And gave us a lot of sound advice.”

This selection speaks to the heart of the couple’s collection because it includes material from all of their areas of interest. The dual horses on the John Flory (1754–1824) blanket chest from Lancaster County, are quite rare. Dated 1788, the chest is from the collection of Richard and Rosemarie Machmer, auctioned by Pook & Pook. Another chest, dated 1775, decorated by the same artist, this time, with stars and pomegranates, is elsewhere in the collection. A Jacob Weber miniature painted cradle with tulips sits on a vibrant paint-decorated dough box. The small hanging box under the shelf was also painted by Weber, and is the only one of that size the couple has ever seen. The yellow box with painted house on the shelf above is also a Weber piece. To the lower right of these is a wall box from the Mahantongo Valley, and on the opposite wall is a rare Soap Hollow salt box; the couple has never seen another. The cupboard is filled with redware, a prize example is a flower pot by John Vickers of Chester County (active 1796–1860). The painted chairs retain their original rare salmon-red surface. On the mantel is a rare Western Pennsylvania cooler made by R. W. Russell. The hourglass pattern of the braided rug in the foreground is less common than the typical oval shape.

One of the couple’s prize possessions is the Pennsylvania face jug stoneware pitcher, second shelf from top, purchased from the Machmer sale. “I never thought I’d own one,” says the husband. “I was shaking like a leaf at the Pook & Pook auction.”

Both the husband and wife’s collecting interests are generally focused on Lancaster County and Western Pennsylvania, an area associated with a broad spectrum of decorative arts that has been the focus of the couple’s collecting, in particular, painted furniture, stoneware, and redware, often decorated with the recurring motifs of hearts, peacocks, and tulips. After they married, collecting became a family affair, with the couple loading their children in the van to go “treasure hunting,” sometimes attending four or five sales in one day. At auctions, the couple would give the children bids while they continued to preview material. Though as children they didn’t particularly share their parents’ enthusiasm, as adults they are all now collectors.
The husband considers the plate showing General Jackson riding a horse, deaccessioned from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1939, among the couple’s most important pieces because of its rarity. Lined up to the left along the mantel is a Conrad Mumbauer slipware plate, a Wilhelm Schimmel carved eagle from dealer Jim Burke’s collection, a dated redware plate from Singer Pottery, an extremely rare redware figural bottle in the form of a woman, with her head as a stopper, and a four-color slip plate. In addition to the redware on the mantel are two Remmey Pottery face harvest jugs, one miniature. The iron and brass on the mantel is all stamped “PD” for its maker Peter Derr (1793–1868), Berks County, and the cookware is all from Pennsylvania. Wording on the redware loaf pan in the cupboard adds to its rarity. The stoneware on top of the cupboard is a rare Solomon Bell crock, with running horse, from Strasburg, Virginia. The Soap Hollow stand is dated 1875 and has the initials “AF” on the drawer.

The miniature stoneware is among the rarest material in the house. Among the work represented is a Remmey Pottery face jug and a butter churn from upstate New York decorated with a paddle-tail bird on a branch. A crock stamped “Swank Pottery, Johnstown, Pa,” is particularly rare, since most miniature stoneware was never stamped. The flower chest, with its mauve case, red lid, and black feet, is an unusual color scheme for Pennsylvania. The two rare crocks decorated with women are from Crocker Farm sales. The painted mirror frame is from Northeast Auctions.

This Pennsylvania corner cupboard is attributed to the “McAlisterville” decorator. It houses the best redware in the collection, largely sgraffito and figurals, including a Conrad Mumbauer plate and sgraffito mug inscribed to W. Roth, dated 1821, and featuring birds, flowers, and German text. Hanging above the Delaware Valley ladder-back chair is a brilliant watercolor by the “Reading Artist” of the Reams family, founders of Reamstown, Pennsylvania, and dated 1845.

Now that their children have grown, the couple’s “antiques season” begins in Brimfield, Massachusetts, in September and continues with shows and auctions through December and the holidays. After spending leisure time in the spring and summer fishing and traveling, they return to their antiquing schedule in the fall. On their first trip to Brimfield, in 1970, they bought thirty-seven pieces of stoneware, competing with Leigh and Leslie Keno, who promoted their similar interest by wearing T-shirts that read: “We Buy Stoneware.” Although at this point, the couple does not have an agenda—they are drawn to whatever catches their attention—they say they still get butterflies when they make a purchase.
This demure circa-1860 stand is one of the rarest known examples of furniture associated with Soap Hollow, an area of Western Pennsylvania primarily in and around Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, near Johnstown. A small number of Mennonite craftsmen produced furniture, mainly case pieces, that share decorative paint schemes, often stenciled decoration, and the use of “decals.” In pristine condition, the initials on the drawer front of this stand are for Mary Thomas, wife of Soap Hollow furniture maker Peter K. Thomas, whose surviving examples are quite rare. The decoration is mostly freehand, unlike most Soap Hollow examples. A very rare sewing box, one of the wife’s favorite objects, from Greg Kramer, is from the same community and complements the stand with its color scheme; it also exhibits a pristine painted surface. A Soap Hollow blanket chest, also from Kramer, is visible to the left of these pieces. The crock was the husband’s great-grandmother’s and retains its original lid.

The master bedroom dazzles, with its vibrant tulip quilt that lines the hallway, balanced by an open tulip quilt over the bed, and the Christian Seltzer, Lebanon County, blanket chest, dated 1791, with triple-arched panels centering stylized tulips. Similar examples are at Winterthur, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian. Sewing boxes and a blanket chest sit atop the chest, beside a stoneware crock decorated with a bird in a wine glass. The sampler over the bed is a Westown Girl’s School example, dated 1817.
The master bedroom is a blaze of furniture from Soap Hollow. The Dutch cupboard between the windows is one of a group painted with the same decorative color scheme; Greg Kramer acquired it at from Garth’s Auctions for the couple. The miniature Soap Hollow chest on the floor, for which the husband traded an old Chevy van with a blown engine in the early 1980s, was in the exhibit Manufactured by Hand: The Soap Hollow School (1993), at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, as were two other pieces in this collection. The turned stand from Mifflin, Pennsylvania, was covered in dark varnish when found. When the couple brought the stand home they were able to detect bright color beneath a section, and after conservator Peter Dean cleaned it the couple was astonished with the newly exposed colors; the stand is identical to one owned by legendary Philadelphia collector Titus Geesey. The sewing box on the stand has a similar rare color scheme. The couple acquired the Burks County corner cupboard from the Lester Breininger sale. The slipware within complements the grained surface of the cupboard. The colors of the rocker tie into the reds, greens, and golds throughout the room.

The couple shares an interest in outdoor activities, from fishing to boating. The husband was long interested in model boats and saw them as a way to interest his son in collecting; the son, now an adult, has continued this venture and has developed an extensive collection of boating memorabilia. Along the way the father decided to collect models as well, primarily from the 1950s. Between the two of them they now have nearly three hundred, only a fraction of which are displayed in this case, one of many cases in a room devoted solely to boat and train models.

When the couple’s son moved out of his bedroom, they converted it to a toy room, where a model train set is permanently ensconced. Many of the toy buildings were built by the husband’s grandfather in the 1930s, and the trains all date from the 1920s through the 1940s.
“This is the best way to wake up in the morning,” says the husband in reference to the stoneware that lines the shelves opposite the bed. The couple has always favored pitchers—they have eighty-four—and the husband wishes they had bought even more early on, when, as he says, “they weren’t worth much.” The red-painted chest with pierced heart skirt is another example of Soap Hollow furniture from Kramer. The tall clock is from Freeburg, Pennsylvania. The wife has been collecting African-American material for many years. In addition to children’s dolls, she has assembled a group of works, shown here, by William Aiken Walker (1838–1921), an itinerant artist who chronicled life in the Southern slave states during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Included on this wall is a slave indenture, dated 1817. The sculpture below was once a root that has been transformed into a snake carved with a man’s head.

The couple has converted the lower floor of their home into a country store. While nothing is particularly rare, they’ve had fun collecting utilitarian items and setting them up in displays. Plenty to stimulate conversation, this is a great place to entertain, replete with period table, chairs, and bar (not shown).

The couple enjoys traveling to Florida, so when they are home in Pennsylvania, they capture the essence of the Palm Tree State with sculpted metal recreations of the palms handcrafted for them by a firm in Kansas. The couple hopes readers will see by their example that people don’t need to live in an old house to collect antiques.
In a business meeting last year, the husband recalls a colleague admitting he might have made a mistake putting his money in the stock market instead of in tangible items, as the husband had done. Agreeing, the husband added, that while he didn’t enjoy going to the bank, he always enjoyed going to a sale. In addition, as the husband says, there isn’t a day the couple don’t walk through the house and admire what’s around them. “We’re so thankful and thrilled for what we’ve been able to acquire,” they say, noting there are stories and wonderful memories about everything they’ve bought through the years. “When two people enjoy something as much as we do it’s a wonderful thing.” Reflecting on the years he and his wife have spent collecting, the husband says, “It’s made us so happy. It’s not only history, it’s our history.”

To view more interiors of this collection visit www.afanews.com.
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