Steve and Lorraine German.
Two baskets. The smaller one has very straight sides and a high kick-up in the bottom. Underneath there is a faint pencil inscription: “Percy Butterfield/ Dec. 25, 1886.” Lorraine said that there’s a record of a Percy Butterfield born near Lewiston, Maine, on Christmas day 1885. She speculates that the basket might have been filled with Christmas/birthday gifts for the boy’s first birthday. It’s $350. The larger piece is a Native American basket with wooden feet. “It was raised for drying,” Lorraine said. It’s decorated with colored dots and $895.
Three New England blown chestnut bottles between 5 1/8" and 5½" tall. They cost between $395 and $495.
J. & E. Norton, Bennington, two-gallon jug with a very dark tree and house decoration. “They went overboard on the cobalt,” Steve said, adding, “When you get into trees and houses, the price goes up a lot.” This example is $13,500.
Tin sign with a blue-gray-green background and gold lettering, $250.
This is not your standard hooked rug with lion. This folky beast stands in a desert with cactus, and there’s a plane flying overhead. It’s $395.
This circa 1830 country desk was found in Vermont. The Germans noted that the top appears to have been altered in some way because there’s evidence of a lock on its front edge. The useful piece, with replaced pulls, is $950.
A charming romantic pastel landscape. On the reverse of the frame is a label, “J. Hyle Raser,” but Steve noted that the frame has been cut to fit the picture, so the label may have referred to another picture. In any case, the piece is nice, colorful, and $725.
In the Trade
When people decide to become antiques dealers later in life, more often than not they’ve been collecting for decades and have a house full of material to draw on for their initial inventory.
That was decidedly not the case with Steve and Lorraine German, owners of Mad River Antiques, LLC, in North Granby, Connecticut. Steve admitted that he didn’t know much about antiques at all. Lorraine liked them but said she usually bought pieces that needed fixing because she couldn’t afford the good stuff. “I learned caning and hooked rug repair. They were born of necessity,” Lorraine said. (There may be a genetic component to her handiness. She said her father was a mechanic. “He could fix anything.”)
The year was 2001. Steve was taking early retirement after 29 years with The Hartford insurance company. Lorraine had been laid off from her job with a decent severance package. They were both unemployed; they had some money, which gave them breathing room, but not so much money that they could spend the rest of their days lolling on a Caribbean beach. They still had to make a living.
Steve recalled, “We stayed up one night talking. What are we going to do with the second half of our lives?” The answer was “antiques.”
There was, as we have noted, one drawback. “It was August 2001, and we had no inventory,” Lorraine said.
They also didn’t know much about the antiques business in general, and, of course, they didn’t know that the business was sliding into what would become the most dismal time for selling antiques in a generation. Nevertheless, they have persevered. They are primarily show dealers, and they said that their recent shows have been the best since they started exhibiting almost a dozen years ago.
Perhaps their lack of lifelong contact with the antiques trade has contributed to their survival. Both had spent careers in business, and they approached their new venture as a business. They accepted the current market as a given and set about making a life in it.
“We set this up as a second career, not as a hobby,” Steve said.
The first steps were to see a lawyer (hence the “LLC” after their business name) and to set a goal.
It was, as Lorraine mentioned above, August 2001. “Our target was the Winsted, Connecticut, tabletop show the following March, sponsored by the Lions Club,” she explained. They spent the interim buying inventory and hit the target.
In the year following that first show, they did more than 30 shows. “Some were bombs,” Steve said, but they quickly learned what sold at shows and what did not. They settled on a country-style mix, heavy on stoneware, along with baskets, quilts, hooked rugs, signs, toys, and Christmas material, a specialty of Lorraine’s. She said, “I inherited some Christmas ornaments from my grandparents and became addicted to them.”
“We look for small things,” Steve said. They avoid large furniture. Spending their latter years lugging heavy stuff doesn’t appeal. “I don’t want to be on the receiving end of a desk,” Lorraine said.
As recently as a few years ago they were still doing more than 20 shows a year, although they have whittled that number down to about 14, which they think is just about right for them. “We do several levels of shows, from vetted to funky,” Steve said. They do some high-profile, expensive shows and some relatively modest local shows. Lorraine pointed out that small shows don’t necessarily mean small business. “We have repeat customers at small local shows,” she said.
When we visited them, they were getting ready to do the Connecticut Spring Antiques Show. They also do the spring and fall Rhinebeck shows, as well as shows in Harwinton, Wethersfield, and Guilford, Connecticut.
They do the Weston Antiques Show in Vermont during Antiques Week in the fall, and this July they are adding the outdoor show run by Carlson & Stevenson at the Riley Rink in Manchester, Vermont.
The couple said their best shows each year are generally Stella’s Antiques at the Armory in New York City in January and the Midweek Antiques Show in New Hampshire during Antiques Week in August. “Our best shows have been Manchester and second best have been the New York City armory,” Steve said. “Midweek in Manchester has been our best show for the last four or five years.”
He lauded the promoters of both events: “We think Frank Gaglio is great, [and] the Stellas know how to bring the crowds in and how to do a show.” Before getting into the armory show, the Germans had done pier shows, but Steve said the two shows draw very different crowds. “There are people who come to the armory that won’t even go to the pier.” He added that, because of costs, the armory show is always a gamble—one that so far has paid off. “We just hold our breath for the four days we’re in the city.”
Steve said that getting into the business during this distressing period actually made things easier for the couple. Show managers were happy to hear from them. He said, “We came in at a time where it was starting to get tough. Dealers were dropping shows, and we got into shows that we might not have before.”
They got help along the way. For instance, said Steve, “Harold Hanson [then publisher and editor of Northeast Journal of Antiques and Art] took a liking to us. He put in a good word with some show promoters,” Steve said.
The couple does one show outside the northeast: in Williamsburg, Virginia. Steve said, “One of our favorite shows is Williamsburg right after Thanksgiving. We go a week early and relax. It’s a mini-vacation.” And they sell, especially Christmas material. “There are little old ladies who run down the aisles to see Lorraine’s Christmas stuff,” he said.
It’s a small show with about three dozen dealers. Lorraine said, “It’s like old home week. There are dealers you see that you don’t see anywhere else.” Steve and Lorraine both find differences between this southern show and northern venues. Steve said, “There’s a difference in the southern mentality. They’ll come back every day to look at things.” Lorraine added, “You don’t have the rush you get up here when people run through in fifteen minutes and it’s over. They do you the courtesy of looking at everything in your booth.”
Steve and Lorraine both have nothing but nice things to say about Bettianne Sweeney, the show’s promoter. Steve said, “She’s a sweetheart. She takes care of her dealers. She has everybody to her house for dinner.”
Lorraine observes that southern buyers are more likely “to buy shinier stuff. Not super formal but something like a refinished candlestand.” And she said that they buy northern stoneware as well.
Exhibiting at different levels of shows allows the couple to sell a wide variety of merchandise with a wide range of prices. “I don’t like to be boxed in,” Steve said, noting that, at recent shows, they exhibited a 1930 Mickey Mouse hooked rug and some 1960’s road signs from their hometown, along with expensive stoneware. “We put the signs up on the wall at the armory, and they sold right away.”
Stoneware remains the heart of the couple’s business. Lorraine said it accounts for 50% to 60% of their gross. They also act as agents for collectors who want to sell pieces quietly. “Our best sales last year were as middlemen,” Steve said.
Why did they settle on stoneware as the major component of their business? “Stoneware found us,” Steve said. “We met a lot of great people in the stoneware world.” Lorraine added, “I love researching, and there’s lots to research with stoneware.”
Steve said the couple’s first love is ovoid-shaped stoneware from the Boston/Charlestown area, but they sell pottery from all areas. They said it is becoming more and more difficult to spot stoneware repairs as restorers have become more adept at masking them, even when they’re viewed under black light. “Your eye and sunlight are your best defense,” Lorraine said.
They also said collectors should be forgiving about condition. “Stoneware was the Tupperware of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Steve said. It was meant to receive hard daily use.
Lorraine said, “We do lots of talks on stoneware. I’m a big believer in educating customers.” She also is currently deep into a research project on Boston and Charlestown pottery that she hopes to publish. She said, “I’ve always bought lots of reference works. Even when I was young, I read reference books for fun and visited museums for fun. I had a jack-of-all-trades sort of reference library.”
It was Lorraine’s penchant for research that led to the firm’s name. It has nothing to do with the Mad River valley or ski resort in Vermont. Instead, it has to do with the property Steve’s mother owns in nearby Sandisfield, Massachusetts. It’s an 18th-century house that received a more grandiose Federal/Classical addition in the early 19th century. Steve’s grandfather—a furrier—bought it in the 1920’s when the town was the site of a small Jewish settlement. Steve was recently named to the board of the Sandisfield Arts Center, which is housed in what he said used to be the local synagogue.
Lorraine said, “I was doing some deed research and found out that the brook running through the property was called the Mad River in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds.” They liked the name and used it for the business.
The Germans are active in coordinating the Stoneware Collectors’ Sale and Lecture held each May and September in Bennington, Vermont. The event features a lecture by an expert in the field and a show and sale under a tent at the Antique Center at Camelot Village. Steve said that the event draws a small avid group of collectors, but what makes it special, he said, is that “you get maybe three hundred pieces of stoneware under the tent.”
The couple has a Web site, but, Steve said, “It doesn’t bring in a ton of sales.” Lorraine admitted, “I don’t update it as often as I should”. Still, she noted, “We get a lot of hits. I’ve found a lot of our stuff on Pinterest boards.”
That fact suggests that younger folks may be taking an interest. Lorraine said, “We’re learning to adapt to what young people want.” She said the 1960’s street signs they sold in New York went to a young couple. And at the Guilford show this past summer they sold a railroad lantern to a female college student. “She just loved it and said she was going to decorate around it,” Lorraine said. She added that at shows, “We’ll have little kids buy Christmas ornaments for their mother with their own money. They always get the best deal.”
Lorraine has a long list of other things she likes doing. She single-handedly painted and stenciled much of their home’s interior; she makes Adirondack-style picture frames; she spins wool; and, most of all, she likes to garden.
What does Steve do? “I mow the lawn,” he said.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest