A Maine Antiques Shopping How-To
By Catherine Burke
Maine is one of the few states where pickers still scour the countryside looking for antiques to bring fresh to the market. “Many early antiques can still be found in their original paint and condition, often exquisite examples of furniture or tools that were handcrafted by individuals to fulfill a particular need,” says Elizabeth DeSimone, president of the Maine Antiques Dealers Association and owner with her husband, John, of Goosefare Antiques & Promotions in Wells.
Photographed by Mark Fleming
Here in the “nation’s attic,” adds Clayton Pennington of Maine Antique Digest, the Waldoboro-based tabloid with a national focus on auction and shows, “antiques run the gamut from primitives to fine furniture, and stretch back to before the country was founded.”
With an estimated 300 dealers in the state, the antiquing experience is as diverse as the shoppers. Like the ease of shopping at well-curated antique shops? Maine has them in spades. Thrive in the pursuit of treasure at the auction houses? Sold! Leave no stone unturned rummaging at treasure barns and flea markets? Well, dig in: we’re going for a ride on the Maine antiques trail.
5 Distinctly Maine Antiques
Known for their flawless, precise folk-art craftsmanship, Waldoboro rugs are characterized by a raised three-dimensional floral pattern and border, the product of a tight hooking technique with hand-dyed fabric and yarn that was developed by crafters in the small midcoast town of Waldoboro during the 19th century. In these rugs, function married beauty because even though they were utilitarian, their sculpted floral flourish gave the sense of having a garden in the home year-round, an especially welcome touch during Maine’s long winters. Waldoboro rugs can be found in a range of conditions, as some were well used as floor coverings, while others were tucked away in blanket chests and are nearly as pristine as the day the last loop was pulled. As tangible connections to their makers, Waldoboro rugs beautifully epitomize the way antiques link past and present.
➼ Where to start: Jewett & Berdan Antiques, 15 Hopkins Hill Rd., Newcastle. 207-563-3682.
With its centuries-old relationship to the sea, Maine is a treasure trove of nautical antiques, from ship models and dioramas made by retired sea captains to paintings of square-rigged ships to still usable navigational instruments, such as sextants, octants, telescopes, and rarely, a chronometer. Pond models made by sailors for their children are also a favorite of collectors and decorators alike. North Yarmouth dealer David White has restored this late-19th-century model of the square-rigger Staghound, which he found at show in Wells.
➼ Where to start: White’s Nautical Antiques, 108 Walnut Hill Rd., North Yarmouth. 207-232-6282.
Ranging from deep russet to terra cotta in color, 19th-century Maine redware is a hand-thrown utilitarian pottery made using clay with a high iron content. Most redware was coated with a clear lead glaze (unknown to be toxic at the time) and not much else. However, there are also much-sought-after pieces that were decorated with manganese and copper oxide to produce amazingly colorful and artistic abstract pieces. Really good pieces have never been plentiful and are mostly coveted by a select group of knowledgeable dealers. Likewise, collectors are a small, devoted bunch due to redware’s scarcity and price tags — a single jug can fetch a couple thousand dollars.
➼ Where to start: John Sideli Fine Art, 43 Middle St., Wiscasset. 207-882-6281.
Grain-painted furniture is characterized by a finishing technique where either ochre or black paint was painted over a red base. While the topcoat was still wet, brushes, combs, or feathers were used to replicate the grain patterns of more expensive hardwoods. The painters were mostly itinerant and created designs that reflected their personal aesthetic, sometimes wildly exuberant and sometimes minutely detailed. They left a unique imprint on ordinary furniture that has become seriously collected art. Sold by Wiscasset dealer John Sideli to a private collector, this 1840s Empire chest (opposite) from western Maine is both grain painted and smoke decorated.
➼ Where to start: Pumpkin Patch Antiques, 15 W. Main St., Searsport. 207-548-6047.
Decoys, hand carved and painted in the 19th and early 20th centuries by or for hunters, are treasured Maine folk art today. Those done by Maine’s Gus Wilson are among the most highly prized decoys nationwide — a few years ago, one of his black ducks fetched $105,000 at auction. He spent many years as a Maine lighthouse keeper, where he did many of his carvings, and he was a prolific carver until his death in 1950. Amos Wallace, a carver from coastal Harpswell, carved working decoys, including the trio below, that can still be found in Maine shops and auctions. More moderately priced (think $1,000-$8,000), his decoys are sought by entry-level to advanced collectors.
➼ Where to start: Goosefare Antiques, 2232 Post Rd., Wells. 207-646-0505.
I love to shop for antiques when I visit Maine because a historic treasure is the best kind of souvenir you can ask for.
— Nancy Blackmer, Burbank, California
Top Antiquing Hubs
Antiques shops tend to attract other antiques shops, and these clusters make great places to browse away an afternoon — or an entire weekend if you’re so inclined. Here are five collectibles-rich shopping corridors that offer something for every collector. For a town-by-town directory, visit the Maine Antique Dealers Association website.
More than 30 shops representing hundreds of dealers create a bountiful antiquing zone on the 20-mile stretch of Route 1 from York and Wells to Kennebunk and Arundel. Guides to the area can be picked up in the shops along the way. Make time to detour to the Saco Museum in nearby Saco, which has many antiques of local interest and one of the country’s best collections of 18th-century portraits by John Brewster Jr., a traveling deaf artist who communicated with his clients through hand gestures.
The first trading post in Cornish was established in 1665, and that spirit lives on today. In Cornish’s sylvan village and neighboring Bridgton are a dozen or so shops, including the multi-dealer Cornish Trading Company. And because Cornish is huddled on Route 25, it’s a relatively easy zip to the Greater Portland area, where you’ll find several more places to tempt your wallet in Scarborough, Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Freeport.
Wiscasset is a unique antiques hot spot with more than 20 shops, a great deal of which are located within walking distance of each other (a directory to all of them can be picked up at stores in town). Another dozen or so shops can be found on and off Route 1 from Bath to Nobleboro, making for a nice afternoon of antiquing and sightseeing. If you’re interested in seeing antiques in their original habitat, pay a visit to Castle Tucker and the Nickels-Sortwell House, two 1807 Historic New England properties in Wiscasset.
A long tradition of buying and selling antiques has characterized the bustling historic town of Hallowell, located a few miles down the Kennebec from the state capital. Although many of the shops have consolidated into the year-round Hallowell Antique Mall, the thrill of the hunt is still very much alive in this region, with shops scattered around Manchester, Fairfield, Coopers Mills, and South China. Better still, prices tend to be a bit lower at these inland shops and barns. Take a break from shopping and get a glimpse of an 18th-century homestead at Vaughan Woods and Historic Homestead in Hallowell.
Steeped in history and renewal, this antiques-rich zone stretches for 68 miles along the shores of Penobscot Bay, from Warren to Ellsworth and north to Winterport. The route boasts at least 20 shops and flea markets, with several locations congregating the offerings of multiple dealers. Get in touch with the region’s past (and see examples of antiques) at the Knox Museum in Thomaston and the Penobscot Marine Museum and the Searsport Historical Society in Searsport.
Antiques Shows and Flea Markets
August – Union Fairgrounds, Union. 207-221-3108.
Kennebunk Antiques Show & Sale
August – Middle School of the Kennebunks, Kennebunk. 207-646-0505.
Ellsworth Antiques Show
Aug. 17-20 – Woodlawn Museum, 19 Black House Dr., Ellsworth. 207-667-8671.
Jonathan Fisher House Antiques Show
Aug. 20 – Blue Hill Fairgrounds, 233 Ellsworth Rd., Blue Hill. 207-374-2459.
Coastal Maine Antiques Show
Aug. 24 – Round Top Farm, Bus. Rte. 1, Damariscotta. 800-641-6908
Maine Antiques Exposition
POSTPONED until Oct 14 & 15, 2017 – Thompson's Point, Brick South, Portland. 800-641-6908.
Maine’s antique dealers are a character-rich lot, from the crustiest flea-market curmudgeon to the stylish, well-traveled hipster. The wide range in styles and tastes of our dealers means an out-of-place gem can show up anywhere, often accompanied with a captivating story, some of which are actually true!
— Chris Kenoyer, Alna
Living Up to an Ethic
Two Wells antiques dealers reflect on the joy of collecting fine old things — and the duty to honestly represent the history behind what they sell.
Antiquing in Maine is special because Maine is a special place that seems to be synonymous with authenticity. The landscape here has served as a wellspring of inspiration for generations.
At first, we fell in love with Maine country furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, antiques of this era were plentiful, and it was fun to go to shops and auctions around the state. We were both working at Thornton Academy at that time, not making much money, and we quickly found that in order to continue buying, we had to start selling.
We obviously love antiques, so we greatly enjoy being surrounded by them, and in having a shop and doing shows over the years, we have had the opportunity to develop great relationships with other dealers and customers.
One of the best parts of being an antiques dealer is that you often get to connect with history, some important to everyone and some important just to you. For example, we once were able to buy the secretary of George Frost, one of the New Hampshire delegates to the Continental Congress in the 1770s. We bought it because it was beautiful and because it was a piece of America’s history. It was especially satisfying to sell it to folks from New Hampshire so that the secretary was going back to where we felt it should be.
When we look at dealers who we consider professional, it is not really what they deal in, but how they deal. Professional dealers know their specialties. They have read books, gone to museums, visited other shops and shows to see examples, and work hard to be sure that whatever they are buying and selling is authentic. In our view, professional dealers also live up to an ethic to represent whatever they are selling as it actually is.
Being an antique dealer is not always an easy way to make a living, or even a part-time living. But if you know what you are selling, are honest, and you treat your customers fairly, it’s easier.
— Elizabeth and John DeSimone, Goosefare Antiques, Wells