In the Trade
If you furnished your home with fine American country furniture 20 years ago, you’re probably not happy that those $50,000 highboys you bought are now selling for $20,000 or less, but Derik Pulito is.
When we visited him at his restored center-chimney Colonial in Kensington, Connecticut, for this article, Pulito pointed to a highboy attributed to Woodbury cabinetmaker Elijah Booth that he had sold recently. With its carved fans and crusty finish, it’s an object that would make collectors’ heart rates jump. He said, “This is the type of piece I could never afford to deal in; now I can.”
Derik Pulito is shown next to an 1878 painting of Lake George in upstate New York by Hudson River school painter N.A. Moore, about whose work Pulito is something of a specialist. Raised paneled walls—complete with bolection moldings and large hearths—are found in every major room of the Pulitos’ 18th-century home. He and his wife, Marisa, have worked on the place for three decades. He noted that he and she disagreed about how to treat the wall behind him in this photo. She won the argument. “She said, ‘I scraped it; I’m painting it.’” Amazingly, one of the upstairs walls has never been painted and retains its original shellac finish.
The Pulitos’ mid-18th-century saltbox has overhanging stories, typical of early Connecticut homes. The house even retains most of its original doors with their distinctive latches, which have been traced to a local Berlin maker.
This piece isn’t an exception. It’s the second serious highboy Pulito has bought—and sold—in the recent past. The first one retained its original red stain and chased brasses, and it too had carved upper and lower fans. “Now’s the time to buy,” he said.
The problem for most dealers, of course, is selling your stuff, no matter how little you paid for it. Pulito has certainly not been exempted from the drastic changes in this market. He’s the type of dealer who sells regularly to top-of-the-market dealers and collectors, the type of source that they don’t want you to know about. He relies on them, but it’s not the same as it used to be. He has been doing shows for more than three decades and said, “I have a group of dealers who will come here and pick me, especially before major shows.” In the past, he continued, “Before major shows, normally I’d have covered my expenses. But even that’s dwindling.”
During setup periods at shows, there have always been dealers whose arrival is eagerly anticipated. They are dealers with great taste who scour far and wide for fresh merchandise and are known to save things for their best shows. In the old days, their vans were descended upon by flocks of dealers grabbing stuff from the van and lifting blankets to see what was underneath. That would happen to Pulito. He would make major sales before he ever set up his booth.
The situation has changed. “Now,” he said, “no one comes around when you unload the van.” So, although the current market is something of a silver lining for him, it is not an unalloyed benefit.
This highboy in original crusty finish is attributed to Elijah Booth of Woodbury, Connecticut. It’s an example of the type of pieces that Pulito could not afford in the past that are now within his price range. The piece had sold before we arrived.
A stack of seven Connecticut heart-and-crown chairs from the collection of dealer Lewis Scranton was priced by Pulito at $12,000 for the assembled set. He said that figure shows how prices have dropped in this field. “There used to be a day when these were a lot more. I was at a Carl Stinson auction, and a dealer paid three thousand for one.”
Pulito attributes this writing-arm Windsor to the Ebenezer Tracy shop in Lisbon, Connecticut. “I bought it at auction,” Pulito said. “They thought it was Pennsylvania, [but] it’s butternut, chestnut, and poplar. That’s typical of Tracy. And those ring turnings are found only in the Tracy shop.” It’s $6800.
For much of his career, Pulito exhibited at a dozen or so shows a year, but he also held down a grinding job as a state of Connecticut parole officer. He said, “I was a juvenile probation officer for eight or ten years and twenty years as an adult probation officer. All my state jobs were hazardous duty. The caseload was so high, I was always twenty warrants behind.” In 2003, “They offered me a golden handshake, and I took it. I got to collect my pension immediately.” That made being an antiques dealer a lot more fun.
As a young man, Pulito had no desire to be a dealer. He wanted to be a collector. “I started collecting at college. I was about twenty years old,” he said. He and his wife both grew up in Berlin. (Kensington is the western section of Berlin.) He received his degree in social work from Southern Connecticut State College—now Southern Connecticut State University—and went to work for the state.
Initially he was buying turn-of-the-century and Victorian material. “That only lasted about two years,” he recalled. Then he switched to the early American material in good surfaces for which he has become known.
He bought from a few good dealers and was especially fond of Ron and Penny Dionne. “She had a good eye for paint surface in New England country. I still have a lot of their stuff,” he said.
Of course, it didn’t take long for him to discover that the good “stuff” isn’t cheap. Of necessity, he became a dealer. He figures he was about 29 years old. “I started doing shows to sell. You can’t just collect on a state salary,” he said. “Most of the time I couldn’t afford to keep stuff.” (A quick look around his home, however, suggested that he has managed to retain some mighty nice “stuff,” much of it with local connections.)
This oversize Massachusetts tavern table retains its original feet and some of the first red surface on the one-board top, which measures more than 2' wide. It’s $6500. The large bowl on the table retains its original red finish. It’s priced at $450.
The six-drawer cherry bureau on a tall Queen Anne cutout base from Suffield, Connecticut, is in an old refinish and priced at $9500. “That’s a classic Suffield cutout in the base,” Pulito said. Upside down on top of the chest is a tavern table found on Martha’s Vineyard in Spanish brown over the original blue, with its original drawer knob, priced at $4200. The flush drawer bottom and heavy turnings suggest an early 18th-century date.
Being a dealer turned out to be a good thing after all for him. “The hunt was the fun of it,” he said. Even if you couldn’t keep a piece, you could enjoy living with it for a while.
He recalled not only his first show—it was in Greenfield, Massachusetts—but the best thing he sold there. “It was the early eighties, and I made some money. I had a twelve-foot booth and brought everything up there in a pickup truck. I sold a nice pantry box in robin’s-egg blue. It came out of the eighteenth-century Avery Homestead in Southington [Connecticut].”
That memory prompted another. “I should have bought that house,” he said. It was not only in a remarkable state of preservation, but “it came with ten acres for fifty thousand dollars.” Over the last 30 years it has clearly been easier to make big money in Connecticut in real estate than in antiques.
Of his early days as a dealer, he said, “I worked at a fevered pitch. I couldn’t get enough of it.” There was a period when it seemed you couldn’t go to a New England auction without seeing Derik Pulito. “I was putting on more miles in the [nineteen] seventies and eighties than I do now,” he added, even though he was working full time at his state job.
He particularly liked Richard Withington’s auctions in New Hampshire, “He was entertaining. He’d say, ‘I love selling to old people,’ because he knew he was going to get the stuff back before long.” Unfortunately, these days auctioneers aren’t selling to anyone who isn’t old. “The whole audience is blue haired, white haired, or bald,” Pulito said with a laugh.
He still maintains a healthy auction schedule. “I still get excited over early American. I still attend several auctions a week.” Pulito doesn’t confine himself to New England auctions. He also hits auctions in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. During our visit, he said, “I’m going to Freeman’s [in Philadelphia] in a couple of weeks. I go to Pook and Pook [in Pennsylvania]; I go to Syracuse; to Cottone’s [in Geneseo, New York]; I left the house at three in the morning to go to a Canandaigua [New York] auction. My wife said, ‘You’re nuts.’”
While at auctions, he buys regularly for dealers who prefer to stay home. “I buy for a couple of dealers. I’ll take a picture on the phone, and if I say, ‘It’s good enough for me to keep if I could afford to,’ they’ll usually say, ‘Go ahead and buy it.’”
Pulito plans to use these two cannonballs as garden ornaments. He is currently in the midst of constructing a large terrace incorporating pieces of early brownstone. This area of Connecticut was a major center of brownstone quarrying in the 19th century. He plans to build a water feature made from a series of period brownstone sinks. The cannonballs were bought from Jaffrey, New Hampshire, dealer Tom Seaver, whom we recently profiled. “I was parked fifty yards from his shop, and we rolled them all the way to my van,” Pulito said.
Two Connecticut blanket chests: the bottom one with two real lower drawers closely resembles a chest at the New Haven Museum (formerly the New Haven Colony Historical Society), said Pulito, who noted that the surface is a second coat of red, probably applied in the late 18th century. It retains its original brasses and is priced at $9000. The upper two-drawer chest, $5000, is from the Connecticut River valley, circa 1720. Pulito said, “A nineteenth-century black shellac was professionally taken off down to the original red.” Brasses are replaced, as is one side molding.
Pulito has exhibited at, still exhibits at, or plans to exhibit at shows from Maine to Tennessee. They include the Spring Hartford show; Haddam Historical Society (“I’ve done that for probably thirty years,” he said); Antiques in Manchester: The Collector’s Fair, promoted by Karen DiSaia during August Antiques Week in New Hampshire; the Heart of Tennessee show in Nashville, promoted by Katherine Bovard; the ADA/Historic Deerfield show; Vermont Antiques Dealers’ Association show; three Brimfields at two different fields each time, Dealer’s Choice and May’s; Okemo in Vermont; Wells, Maine; and “any of the Gurley shows. I’ve done the Marlborough, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving weekend one for years,” he said. “I used to do York [Pennsylvania] but not anymore.”
In addition, Pulito exhibits at the Tolland, Connecticut, show and said that he had a hand in revitalizing it years ago. He had spent five years restoring a 1730 cape in Tolland. “It was caving in; I didn’t realize it.” After living in it for a year, he said, he sold it to Eleanor Lucas. “She took over the Tolland show when it was bottles, buttons, and old ladies. She said, ‘Please do the show. I’ll give you a free booth.’ So I lined up pickers from around New England. I sold several thousand dollars. We got that show off the ground.” These days, of course, he has to pay for his booth, since Tolland has become one of the most respected small country shows in the region.
He also has started exhibiting at a show in Hudson, Ohio, promoted by Steven Sherhag. “He’s a young guy who also took over Okemo,” Pulito said. “It’s a nice small country show. He asked me to do it, and I said, ‘I’ll do it if you put me right next to Tom Brown [a veteran dealer from western Pennsylvania]. He’s the funniest, wittiest dealer I know.”
Pulito spoke about spending a show setup next to Brown as an education in how to sell antiques. “Talk about energy. He talks to everyone who comes into his booth. He didn’t stop talking during the entire show.” Derik, on the other hand, laments his lack of selling skill at shows. “I can’t remember a face; I can’t remember a name; I can’t remember what I paid for anything.”
He credits his wife, Marisa, for much of his success at shows. She recognizes when people are interested in something. “She’ll say, ‘Here they come again; it’s their third time around.’ She also says, ‘I can’t tell you how many times you’ve lost money.’” To which Derik responded that it’s better to sell a piece than to not sell it. “If it’s in the barn, it’s not money.” Anyway, he concluded philosophically, “You’ll make it up on something else.”
Although he may be primarily known as a seller of early American material, Pulito also sells a substantial amount of art and said that it amounts to about 20% of his business. He has a particular interest in Nelson Augustus Moore (1824-1902), a respected Hudson River school painter, who had a studio on Broadway in Manhattan but came from this part of Connecticut. Pulito noted that Moore “was born in a saltbox just down the hill from here,” and added that auction houses frequently call on him to appraise paintings by Moore. He figured that he owns about 50 paintings and sketches by Moore and his son Edwin. Pulito loves the Luminist effects Moore achieved, saying, “I can’t afford a Kensett.” Works by Moore at auction begin at about $500 for minor sketches and can run up to $50,000 “or more, especially if a private dealer’s selling it,” according to Pulito.
Pulito also exhibits a formidable amount of artistic talent himself. He paints in oils and favors traditional subjects such as still lifes, landscapes, seascapes.
Two paintings by Pulito. The still life on the left with grapes and a pear is very much in the northern European tradition that he likes. Pulito said, “In the winter months, I’ll start doing grapes and apples. I never realized how difficult a grape can be, to make it translucent.” The winter scene on the right depicts farm buildings in Old Wethersfield. Pulito prices smaller paintings such as these for “about five hundred dollars, depending upon the cost of the frame.”
A view of Pulito’s studio.
His father, Francis Pulito, was a respectable amateur painter. “I’d sit and watch him paint for hours and got a pretty intense appreciation of art.” But it wasn’t until Derik was diagnosed with prostate cancer (which has not recurred) that he became serious about painting himself. As we talked in his living room, he said, “I was sitting in the recliner in the next room saying, ‘I’m just sitting here dying.’” Instead of just sitting, he took up painting and now has an impressive body of work to show for it. “I’ve taken clinics with artists all over,” he said, and pointed to three good-looking seascapes that grew out of a recent clinic in Newport, Rhode Island.
Pulito said that he’s “too old” to have a website. Nevertheless, he does some business online. He sells some items on the AAFA sector of eBay along with a few things on Facebook antiques sites. (AAFA is eBay’s designation for “select” sellers of “Antique Americana & Folk Art.”) Posting items on these electronic outlets “works about ten percent of the time, but better than nothing. It’s basically smalls, mostly dealing with Midwest people,” he said and estimated that all of his online sales taken together amount to about or a bit less than 10% of his total business.
Pulito said that he’s not surprised that younger folks are not interested in this market, especially if they’ve been faced with liquidating their deceased parents’ collections. “They say, ‘My parents’ estate is now worth thirty percent of what they paid for this stuff.’ And at auction, you’re only getting twenty cents on the dollar.”
One of the problems peculiar to the material in which he deals is painted surfaces, or more precisely, painted surfaces that are not what they purport to be. Fakers have become more and more expert at making new or reworked surfaces that are extremely difficult to distinguish from the real thing, according to Pulito. His only caution is, “If it’s grain painted and two hundred years old, you’d better find some nicks on it.” Of course, complicating the problem even more, especially for newcomers, is the fact that fakers have been working hard since at least the late 1960s or early ’70s. That means that a faked surface can show 30, 40, or 50 years worth of legitimate wear.
Despite any and all problems that may affect today’s market for early American material, Pulito has no desire to stop what he’s doing. As he said, “Just as long as I can keep buying…. I buy what I like and I sell what I like.”
For more information, contact Derik Pulito of Kensington, Connecticut, by phone (860) 828-0588. He is available by appointment and at shows.
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest