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The American Antiques Show : 2008

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At this point in my travels between antiques shows, I had more culture than a Petri dish. Top-toeing through apothecary chests and soapstone sculptures for hours on end made me want to do one thing : run wildly through the dollar store, arms flailing, preferably through the glass aisle. All of the damage I could possibly cause wouldn’t be worth more than a single item at any of these shows. I’d fall asleep somewhere amid the cheap stationery and bags of plastic army men for about a week, and only then would I be fully recovered.

… though like a diver coming up from the murky depths, such a vast and sudden change in atmospheric pressure would probably cause all kinds of nitrogen and death problems. I’d have to do it while wearing a monocle, to be perfectly safe.

This third event, The American Antiques Show (to benefit the American Folk Art Museum), held at the Metropolitan Pavilion on 125th W. 18th Street in NYC’s Chelsea area, was a fair cultural and visual middle between the weekend’s two previous shows. Any given item started at roughly $1000, and again, the focus was on Americana (with a few English furniture items slipped in). After attending three of these events in rapid succession, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you which chairs are important or why, but I could probably advise you to look those things you have in your kitchen up on eBay before you let the dog have his way with them again. Some of the finest, polished mahogany chairs had nothing on the collectability of torn-up woven reed chairs – it all depended on the provenance and slight variations in age. Did they come from a noted individual or a factory? Are there more of these out there? Did they come from an interesting region? All of these are questions that bear largely on the value of almost any ‘folk’ item, as well as antiques in general – all of which require a very specialized knowledge.

The show had many items of interest, and the first one that attracted me was a giant, wooden cow. Unless someone had some kind of cow fetish, it had to serve some kind of a purpose to be constructed so ridiculously large. Indeed, beginning in 1880, it served as a milk dispenser at Coney Island , wherein milk would be stored on ice inside the cow and squeezed through the udders. As a carnival enthusiast myself, I get excited by the whole bizarre, slightly nefarious aesthetic – which isn’t to say that it looked like this wooden cow was plotting something, but it’s very interesting as an artifact – and Coney Island is a great spectacle unto itself.

Another kind of item that seemed to appear at every few booths were bird decoys, and carved birds in general, which I did not previously know were collectible – and could fetch prices over $50,000. My perception of collectible birds was once permanently damaged by a particular episode of ‘Tom Goes to the Mayor’. The variety of origins, makers and birds were all staggering, and even included miniature birds carved for purely aesthetic purposes.

Among these birds was a collection that wasn’t ‘antique’ at all, but carved in the last 30 years or so by a Robert Gardner (not the film director) from North Carolina. These could most easily be defined as ‘outsider art’, as none were carved out of exceptional woods or with rare skill, but clearly demonstrate the pure impulse to carve as many local birds as he could see around him. Many of these are decorated with marker, some have his phone number written on them, and many include almost non-sequitur religious phrases inscribed in blue ball-point pen – a pretty amazing collection in itself.

tin_shields.jpgOf course, I also was pretty attracted to a pair of tin shields made in 1875 that more a strong resemblance to Captain America’s original vibranium shields.

Another strangely recurring theme between all of the shows (aside from carousel goats) were antique Parcheesi boards, which first made their way into manufacture in the US around 1870, but had existed as a game since 500 BC.

Also studded throughout the event were pedestals and icons from Oddfellows lodges found in the United States, with imagery of the triple-link, all-seeing eyeballs, and hands with hearts – all of which seem highly cultish and arcane and would look great outside of any front door that you no longer want visited. The reality of the Oddfellows isn’t quite so scary, but no one else has to know that.

oddfellows_hand.jpgWhat I emerged from the weekend with was a lot of ideas and a desire to make things – to incorporate some of the visual spectacle and subtlety into my own art. I also realized that I could very happily live with dinnerware from Marshall’s and fold-out chairs, as beautiful as all of these things were. I didn’t manage to convince anyone to pay off my student loans with their pocket change, and I also learned to keep an eye out for the strange woman who was hurling quiet profanities at all of the antiques. The shuttle bus back home never seemed to materialize where I could find it, but the epic trek back to the east side of Manhattan was good to clear my head and realize the breadth and wealth of what I’d just intook – as well as what other people were taking home. Me, I had some soggy Wendy’s in hand. It wasn’t a Queen Ann bureau of outstanding importance, but it was more my speed.

(As always, check out a gallery of images from this show in our Community Section!)


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