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American Material Culture


Why does the Dealers' show keep getting better?

ShowsJohn ChaskiComment
My booth at the 2018 NHADA Show.

My booth at the 2018 NHADA Show.

What better timing for this topic than in a quarter that has seen the shuttering of the former Burk York show, a re-branding of the Big One that drops the word “Antiques” entirely, and the revival of a little show in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware that proved just how much things can change in three years. In trying to understand how the NHADA show can keep getting better, it’s helpful to look through the lens of the three aforementioned stories.

Nobody needed those three happenings to convince them that antiques shows aren’t really working anymore. At least nobody looking at the data rationally. They can work for some dealers, and for other dealers some of the time, but that doesn’t mean they “work”. Antiques shows are sick, maybe terminally.

Four antiques shows in York, PA has been too many for a while now. I am sad that it transpired the way it did, but this is a positive change for the dealers. There will be some loss to the overall amount of money spent in that building on antiques, but halving the expenses for dealers who did all four will result in a net gain overall. This is the first and maybe most significant catalyst for growth at the Dealers’ show. As shows die off, the ones that are good will get better for a while. The enthusiasm (okay, I could just say sweet sweet greenbacks) for antiques can be expressed (spent) at fewer and fewer venues, and the very best will see an uptick.

Next, The Winter Show. Which is what most people I talk to have called it for a long time anyway. I think stripping “Antiques” from the brand is a great move. But a lot of people think that the show has strayed from its identity. That’s not where I come down on the issue, but I agree that there is value in embracing strengths and running with them. The NHADA show scores big points there. It is an Americana show, consistently, period.

Speaking of consistency…so the Rehoboth show. It sucked. It was good for me, but the consensus was “wow this sucked”. It was off for two years while the convention center was under construction, so it had been three years since the last show. Where it goes from here, who knows. Continuity matters. It’s not anybody’s fault, things have changed in three years and people have moved on. The NHADA show is big on continuity. Same building, same look, very low dealer turnover. And it’s been happening for like 60 years.

On the face of it, an antiques show getting better at this stage of the game is pretty shocking. It should be. But when you delve in deeper, it’s not an accident. The show is built for success. It is well-managed by people who still have a long waiting list of dealers to choose from. They don’t choose the biggest name every time, they try to serve the best interest of the show as a whole. It’s a happening that has developed a cult following, one that I think ensures success into the foreseeable future. A foreseeable future…now that is an enviable position among antiques shows.

Kentucky Desk and Bookcase Sells for $498,750

John Chaski
The John Cowan desk and bookcase, photograph courtesy of Cowan's Auction.

The John Cowan desk and bookcase, photograph courtesy of Cowan's Auction.

The sale of the desk and bookcase pictured above at Cowan's Auctions in Cincinnati this past weekend has caused a considerable amount of confusion for some dealers in traditional Americana.  I counted myself among their ranks in the immediate aftermath of the hammer dropping, but after talking to myself for nine hours on the drive east, I think it makes sense. 

"Who spends $498,750 on a $25,000 desk?  We could get them a first-rate Philadelphia carved high chest for that kind of money!  We don't understand these 'others'...our understanding is superior to theirs because we can recognize that that's a $25,000 desk if it was made in Pennsylvania.  They are crazy."

It doesn't make sense if you think there is only one kind of collecting.  So from the beginning let's acknowledge that this sale highlights the fact that regional collectors and generalist collectors of Americana are two different species.  Someone collecting Kentucky decorative arts exclusively could not care less about what a first-rate Philadelphia carved high chest costs right now.  Its bearing on the conversation is zilch.  They may both be pieces of American furniture, but in terms of the marketplace, you may as well be comparing the desk to a Chinese Ru-ware bowl.

It stands to reason that provenance is more important to regional collectors than it is to generalists.  Collectors of stuff made near them tend to come from a background of appreciating history that was made near them.  Collectors who want to build a group that represents the best of American furniture - or even the best of a larger region, like the Delaware Valley - are probably coming from a background of connoisseurship, evaluating an object on the basis of its aesthetic merit.  Neither of those are absolute rules, maybe they are even bad ones.  But I do know that if I wanted to own one of the best Rhode Island block and shell kneehole desks, I wouldn't really care who it was made for, I would care that it's the best.  If it was a second-rate desk (still a six figure piece of furniture) but it belonged to some early governor of RI, who cares.  Call me when you get a nicer one.

A six-figure desk not good enough?  If that isn't crazy - and it's not - why are the factors that motivate regional collectors?  My dad collects Delaware stuff.  He has thousands of pieces of paper that he bought just because of who wrote on them and what they wrote.  Pieces of paper!  Is that crazy, or the basis of the whole historical manuscripts industry?

When superior form and provenance intersect in a regional marketplace, look out.  Regional collectors have already set themselves up for not finding as much to buy, accepting that the law of supply and demand will not be in their favor as they build their collection.  It will be hard to find, and cost a lot.  If they liked poker, they'd likely adopt a TAG style of play.  They're interested in a Tight range of objects but when they look down at one in that range they pursue it AGgressively. 

Would the Cowan desk be worth a lot less if it was made in Philadelphia, sure, so what.  As Kentucky furniture goes, it is a masterpiece.  As Kentucky history goes, it's about as early and important as it gets.  And the documentation is meticulous.  To use an overused phrase, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It's Caesar Rodney's carved up Rococo desk and bookcase in great condition, signed by the Delaware cabinetmaker.  That doesn't exist that I know of, but if you find it, you me and stuff.

The price of the Cowan desk doesn't change anything but that doesn't mean it's a fluke either; it highlights the passion of a community of collectors who were there all along.  It demonstrates that when an opportunity like this comes along, they are willing to pony up the cash.  Come to think of it, those collectors aren't "other" at all, they're just like us.