Nancy Douglass has a particular fondness for ceramics and carries substantial amounts of majolica, Roseville, Wedgwood, mochaware, and Staffordshire. The two majolica plates on the top shelf are George Jones and sell in the $800 to $1500 range.
Here is an overall view of Douglass’s booth at the Stone Soup Antiques Gallery in Ballston Spa, New York.
This mahogany and bird’s-eye maple Federal secretary is $6000. Atop it, the pair of dark blue Staffordshire urns is $1000. The sugar bowls are $500 to $700 each. “I love sugar bowls. They’re just funny little things,” Douglass said.
The pair of Staffordshire spill vases on either side is $1500. Each depicts a cow suckling a calf and has a nice bright surface. The horse weathervane is $3200.
This pair of Staffordshire dogs with good feather painting is $595.
In this case full of Wedgwood, the deep blue covered cheese server (center of the bottom shelf) is $600. The lavender biscuit jar a little to the left on the shelf above is $599.
The theorem painting is tagged $450. The beaver hat is labeled “A.P. Barringer, Troy, NY.” It’s $250.
Lots of Roseville, most of it priced in the $100 to $400 range.
In the Trade
The Albany-Saratoga region of upstate New York has a well-deserved reputation for being a place where it’s hard to sell serious antiques. For decades, show promoters have tried—and often failed dismally—to mount high-end shows. If you are a dealer in this area who happens to sell museum-quality Americana, you are probably more likely to sell stuff to local museums than to local homeowners.
It’s not that people up here don’t like antiques. It’s just that they prefer the sort of homey antiques that were popular a generation or two ago—a pleasant Sheraton chest, say, or a refinished candlestand and a piece of Staffordshire china or maybe a kerosene lamp or a cute Victorian chair or a crock made into a lamp with a gingham-check shade. Antiques shows that feature this sort of merchandise—they’re often relatively modest affairs sponsored by local churches and historical societies—are perennial favorites. Year in and year out they draw big crowds of people who spend real money.
Nancy Douglass sees herself as something of an evangelist in this market. Douglass, who grew up in Antrim, New Hampshire, said, “Everybody I knew lived in a two-hundred-year-old house.” When her husband’s job brought the family to the Albany region, she was faced with the unpleasant truth: “This is not an area that appreciates a two-hundred-year-old house.”
As a dealer who exhibits at local shows and has a large booth at a nearby antiques center, she is not above selling the occasional crock-as-lamp or redecorated toleware, but she said she’s making more and more effort to incorporate better things into her inventory. Although she has been a dealer for only the past dozen years or so, she has collected and gone to shows and auctions her entire life. She bought her first Staffordshire platter as a young girl decades ago. Now, as she said, “I want to show people we have so much of our history still with us.”
She figures the collapse of prices for middle-range furniture actually helps her. Pieces that were out of reach 15 years ago may now fit her and her customers’ budgets. She said, “During the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, I was going to auctions and seeing highboys going for forty-five thousand dollars, and I said, ‘I guess I’ll never own anything like that.’ Now that same highboy that was forty-five thousand might be going for eight thousand, and I say, ‘Maybe now I can own it.’”
Selling a period highboy at any price can be tough in this region. Clifton Park is the local poster child for suburban sprawl. The town’s “center” is just a crossroads where a bunch of malls converge near the interstate highway. This was once an agricultural community composed of small hamlets. Those hamlets were inundated by development in recent decades. The landscape is now filled with hundreds upon hundreds of builders’ vinyl-sided “colonials” of a type that are not often furnished with period antiques. And the process is likely to continue, since the area is becoming something of a high-tech hub and builders are flocking to provide new housing developments. This is a town where high school sports rank far higher than historic preservation.
Yet when you’re at the home of Nancy Douglass and family, you could be fooled. She has found one of the few quiet corners in Clifton Park, near the charming hamlet of Vischer Ferry, which has a nice little collection of upstate-style Greek Revival and Victorian homes. Her 1832 brick Federal home and its 1795 barn overlook the remains of the Erie Canal. (You know what was important in 1832. The house, which is believed to have served as an inn, faces the canal ditch rather than the road.) In addition to the homestead’s own 13 acres, it is protected by hundreds of acres of wildlife preserve and the Mohawk River beyond. With all this, you could be fooled into thinking you’re not in suburbia anymore. The road to the house is lined with horse paddocks and farm fields. Even these remnants of the pastoral past are being taken over one by one by ever larger McMansions.
Douglass may occasionally meet a customer at her house, but essentially she confines her selling to shows and to the Stone Soup Antiques Gallery, a group shop in Ballston Spa about 15 miles away. “About twelve years ago I started doing shows,” she said. “I started out carrying a lot of Staffordshire, a lot of smalls. Then I added majolica and Roseville.” Now, with furniture prices having come down, she has added the type of pre-1840 pieces she has long admired. “I’ve always attended all the major shows and auctions in the Northeast,” she said.
She shows mostly in local venues, such as the DAR Antiques Show and Sale at Holy Names Academy in Albany, Frank Gaglio’s Saratoga venue, and two shows in Schoharie. She has also done the Pickers Market in Manchester, New Hampshire. Shows that allow for true room settings are what she aspires to. “With room settings, people can see how a piece will look in their home.”
While shows gave her entrée to the antiques business, it was renting space at the Stone Soup Antiques Gallery seven years ago that really made her feel like a dealer. “I became very serious when Stone Soup started. The minute I did it, I knew this was the thing I wanted to do. It’s a passion I just love.”
Although lots of antiques centers throughout the country are wilting and disappearing, Stone Soup seems to be prospering. It’s housed in a 15,000-square-foot factory building in a vibrant village that found new life as neighboring Saratoga Springs became too pricey for many merchants and homeowners. The center offers its 50-plus dealers large booths. The gallery features high ceilings and lots of security. Exhibiting dealers help staff the place. What will you find here? Exactly what people in the region want—comfortable items with which to furnish their homes.
“So many people come in for something they can use,” Douglass said. Don’t expect anything trendy here. No high-end flash, and no mid-century modern. In the whole place we found just a single piece of modern furniture—a knock-off Scandinavian-style chair, circa 1960.
We visited the center on a gloomy Sunday afternoon in mid-January, and the place was humming. There was a constant stream of sales, and there never appeared to be fewer than 15 or 20 potential customers browsing the aisles. “We have wonderful foot traffic,” said Douglass, who works at the center one day a week, “I’ve never worked there when we’ve had a zero day.” A dealer manning the front desk said, “It was the best December we ever had.”
Yet it’s not a place that attracts collectors. “There’s only a very small group of collectors,” Nancy said. “I’m always trying to talk people into starting a collection. I’ll say, ‘Yellowware will look great in your kitchen. Or how about Roseville? It’s a nice entry-level collectible.’”
She doesn’t get many takers. In fact, a story she related about a young buyer probably gives a more accurate picture of the clientele in this area. “I had a nice eight-eenth-century cherry lowboy. Another dealer had one from the 1940’s or 50’s or 60’s. A young woman bought the newer piece because she thought it was better that it not be so old!” But of course. Why would you want some beat-up old thing when you could buy a newer one for less money? Isn’t that obvious? “Young people are not interested in something just because it’s a hundred and fifty years old,” she said.
Nancy certainly admires old things. Given her background, it’s understandable. Not only did everyone live in old houses when she was growing up in New Hampshire, she also grew up with antiques all around her. She noted that her grandmother had a huge collection of kerosene lamps and that when Dick Withington auctioned her grandma’s estate, it was a two-day sale.
Douglass also pointed out that her husband, James, who’s in the organic food business and whose primary extracurricular interest is boating, not antiques, came from a family with antiques. “Jim’s family had lots of great antiques,” she said. In fact, as she said this, we were sitting at a three-part Federal style banquet table that opens to 25' and came from her husband’s family. She said, “Whoever had the largest dining room inherited the banquet table. I made sure I had the largest dining room.”
Nancy did not come to the Albany area willingly. She explained that she and her husband had been living in Concord, Massachusetts, in a meticulous reproduction of an early house. She clearly loved the location and the house, which she said was accurate to the smallest details. Even the clapboards were tapered down the side of the building in true 18th-century fashion. Her husband, who then worked for Dannon, was transferred to the Albany area. “I did not want to come to upstate New York,” she said, but finding her current home and its beautiful surroundings almost three decades ago made the adjustment a lot easier. “This house has great bones,” Douglass said.
She used the surrounding acreage to start a business, Willow Spring Perennial Farm, which prospered for years. She designed gardens, lectured throughout the area, and stocked between 500 and 800 varieties of perennials. As anyone who has ever done it seriously knows, gardening is hard, hard work. She said, “As I got older, I realized I really can’t keep doing this.” She also explained that the lower end of her business was appropriated by the big box stores with their bright and cheap selections of annuals. At the other end of the scale, folks with money seem to have less time to devote to gardening and less interest in doing it. They would pay to have her design and put in a garden, but, she said, “Nobody wanted to do the work.”
The prospect of becoming a full-time landscaper at that point in her life did not appeal to Nancy; that’s when she decided it was time to become an antiques dealer. She seems delighted with her choice. “I’m so glad I’m doing antiques. I felt they were missing in my life.”
She wants to expand her reach a bit and to graduate to better shows. She’s also thinking that she might like to find a second space in a New England group shop—perhaps in Massachusetts. “I feel I need to expand beyond this market,” she said. “I’d like to do maybe six big shows a year. At the end of my career, I hope I can specialize in finer shows.”
For more information, contact Nancy Douglass at (518) 383-4214. She can be found at shows and at the Stone Soup Antiques Gallery, 19 Low Street, Ballston Spa, NY 12020, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest