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The Modern Estate
The Thrill of the Hunt

by Stephanie Pelletier

A primer for those who are new to the pleasures of ambling through the many outdoor antiques markets that bloom in the New England spring

ArtAntique_Spring_07.jpgIf spending an afternoon wandering through a shop crammed with old things—sugar cutters, Tiffany lamps, bottle jacks, 18th-century jewelry—delights you, mark your calendar for Saturday, June 2, when, rain or shine, 100-plus antiques dealers will gather on the grounds of Lounsbury House, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for the 45th Annual Ridgefield Outdoor Antiques Market.

Yetlings! Sad irons! Shaker rockers! English chimney pots! At New England’s longest-running outdoor antiques show, you’ll find antiques (both simple and finely wrought) set out in stalls or on tables surrounding the venerable (1896) clapboard Lounsbury House, which is now Ridgefield’s Community Center. (Don’t worry about rain: The exhibitors bring tents and trucks to protect their precious merchandise, and you, in nasty weather.)

Shopping a show offers browsers an abundance of items—and the chance to become more knowledgeable about antiques and collectibles: At antiques shows, neophytes get to talk with, and ask questions of, dealers—who really know their business. These gatherings are not giant flea markets or tag sales: Think of them as a collection of antiques stores without walls. (Many dealers aim to re-create their visually appealing retail environment in an outdoor setting.) Therefore, haggling is neither appropriate nor appreciated. The prices marked on the items are, typically, not negotiable.

At the Ridgefield Market, only dealers and shop owners may exhibit, and Ridgefield’s rules prohibit items that are reproductions or “arts and crafts”—someone’s latest jewelry or knitting project. Wandering through an antiques show, you may find yourself drawn to certain items quite inexplicably (17th-century hog scrapers?). Or you may know why you find certain items appealing—you had a dollhouse when you were 8, or rolling pins bring back baking memories.

What makes an item deserve the term “antique”? The U.S. Customs Service defines something as “antique” (and therefore importable duty-free) if it is least 100 years old. “Collectible” is a term dealers give an item that is less than 100 years old—or, if it’s older, an item that is a reproduction or has been mass produced. Many antiques and collectibles were made to be sold as sets (Wedgwood dishes, Pokémon cards, and the like). One item of a set might be sold separately (a cup and saucer, for instance), but prime value is placed on complete sets.

Rarity, craftsmanship, and historical significance factor into an item’s price, and anything that identifies the object, like a name or a date, adds value. But the item’s condition is a crucial element. Chips, cracks, rips, and excessive wear all degrade the value of an item; “mint condition” is what dealers and buyers are looking for. Experienced antiquers wouldn’t leave home without their magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe and their black light (flaw-detecting equipment purchasable online). They use the magnifier or loupe to inspect for cracks, chips, marks, and signatures, the black light to detect repairs and fakes (modern repair materials and paints typically glow under black light).

Don’t refinish or try to fix any piece you buy—it’s the original surface and condition of the item that go into the price, and any changes you make to it will only degrade the value. Always, always ask the dealer how to care for your find.

Politeness goes a long way at a show. Ask a dealer how something was used and what makes it valuable. If you see two similar items and one is more expensive, ask what makes it so. If you think a price is high, maybe you’ve overlooked something, so it is certainly acceptable to ask why. The dealer will be pleased by your curiosity —especially if you ask politely.

The greater your knowledge-base, the more pleasure antiquing will bring you. Good sources to check out: Antiques Roadshow Online (www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/roadshow), which offers excellent descriptions of terms ranging from albumen paper to trompe l’oeil; the Web site of Antiques and the Arts Weekly (www.antiquesandtheartsweekly.com), which includes a calendar of major U.S. auctions and antiques shows; and The New England Antiques Journal, whose site, www.antiquesjournal.com, also offers a national show-and-auction calendar.

Though longtime dealer Corinne Burke, the Ridgefield Market’s manager, has noticed that these days, many antiquers seem to be on the lookout for wire and egg baskets, plant stands, fruit holders, painted bowls, painted furniture, and quilts, it doesn’t really matter what others are buying. No matter what attracts other browsers, a big antiques show is where everyone can feel the thrill of the hunt. TME

45th Annual Ridgefield Outdoor Antiques Market
Saturday, June 2, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Ridgefield Community Center
316 Main Street, Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877
203.438.6962; www.lounsburyhouse.com

Stephanie Pelletier is executive director of the Ridgefield Community Center. The estate—former Connecticut Governor Phineas C. Lounsbury’s mansion—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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